The people of Hyderabad have their own notion of personal space. In spite of having lived here for the better part of 15 years, this is one thing I still haven’t fully gotten used to. Especially now, when we are supposed to maintain physical distance from each other.
My first encounter with Hyderabadi personal space was in my first month in the city. It was in November – that part of the year when the weather is so beautiful, you can enjoy it standing anywhere at any time of the day. It was especially delightful to me since I had just moved here from the steambath that calls itself the weather of Chennai. I was waiting for someone, and I was doing it by just standing outside and enjoying the weather. This was in front of the Hyderabad Central in Panjagutta. I was leaning on a railing, and there was literally no one else in the open space. As I was gazing up at the building, lost in my thoughts (I think I was internally guffawing loudly at all my Chennai friends who at that very moment were probably drenched in sweat because they stepped out of the air-conditioning for about 0.02 seconds), when I felt something brush up against my arm. In the millisecond it took for me to react — I was fresh from Chennai and still had all the aggressive reaction times you develop by living there — I had played out several different attack scenarios against my assailant. It’s quite possible Guy Ritchie was having a super-telepathic moment and he took my mental calculations and made them in the Sherlock Holmes film.
However, all my planning was for nought. My would-be assailant was a typical Hyderabadi youth — tight trousers, long-shiny-almost-curly-tipped shoes, brightly colored shirt with a silver stripe on one side, hair dark, luxuriant and so long he could have been called Zulfi (Thanks, Dhruv for that joke!). He was busy fixing his hair and lost in some thought of his own. He was least interested in me, but naturally assumed that the best place for him would be so close to me as to brush my arm. Still new to Hyderabad, I muttered something under my breath and moved a couple of steps away, leaving Zulfi stunned by my unfriendliness (probably going “Kaiku yaaron?” in his mind). This was my first brush — quite literally — with Hyderabadi notions of personal space.
Over the course of the next few months, I learned the hard way — every queue I stood in, I felt the breath of the person behind me on the back of my neck, and their stomach or a bag they were holding digging into the small of my back — that the average Hyderabadi personal space was 0.02 millimeters in summer. In the winters, it was even less.
There was this one time I was photographing something – I think it was a multicolored caterpillar on a milkweed plant by the side of a dusty path. There was a slight breeze, so I had to hold my position for a while to wait for the plant to stop swaying before I could take a shot. The breeze let up, the plant stopped moving, and I got off a couple of shots when I felt something against my cheek. I stepped back, momentarily stunned by the sensation. There, with his face right next to me, was Zulfi’s brother from another mother, Nagendra. He had brown shoes instead of Zulfi’s black, maybe a different colored shirt and an orange stripe in his hair, but he was most definitely a Hyderabadi lad, and a typical one at that.
He smiled broadly at me and went, “Mila kya?” Loosely translated, it was Hyderabadi for, “Oh my friend and brother, did you manage to accomplish the task you were trying for so long to? And may I behold the results of your exertion?” This economy of expression was helpful, as the words were delivered without moving from the initial position he had assumed – the one that brought his cheek into contact with mine.
I immediately rose to the challenge and responded by turning the viewscreen of my camera towards him so that he could see what I had shot. Loosely translated, this gesture meant, “Oh thank you kind sir for stopping your day to take interest in my exertions. Here – behold the result of my exertions, that you might amuse yourself by familiarizing yourself with the details of the physical characteristics of the larvae of the Danaus chrysippus.” My economy of expression astounded even me.
But, being Hyderabadi, Nagendra had to have the last word, and he went, “Mast hai baap,” before he went on his way, but not before withdrawing a bright red baseball cap with a shiny steel plate affixed to the curved bill from somewhere on his person, and placing it on his head at a jaunty angle. This really has no translation, but I shall, for your edification, attempt a loose translation. It meant, “I am filled with pleasure that you have managed to produce such a beautiful image of this magnificent specimen. My heart overflows with joy that I was able to make your acquaintance, and witness the creation of this undoubted piece of art.” His economy of expression knocked my economy of expression out of the biryani restaurant.
This happy quirk of Hyderabadi life — and by that I mean the 0.02 millimeter personal space, not the economy of expression — I have grown to cherish and enjoy, but never practice. One of the first things I tell anyone I am taking on a walk to the Old City is not to be alarmed if their personal space is aggressively invaded.
Unfortunately, this also means that in current times, going out has become almost an impossible task. Tell a Hyderabadi they have to remain physically distant from you – even if they take you seriously and remain 100 times further from you than normal, that still means they are only 2 millimeters away from you.
This has kept me indoors ever since the coronavirus turned up!