As I start writing, it’s about 5:20 a.m. local time Tuesday morning. A few minutes ago the muezzin recited the first azan of day at HMT Nagar mosque. You see that little map above? I’m sitting near the top corner of that blue rectangle, in my grandfather’s old house, and the mosque is the green triangle. The muezzin’s loudspeaker calls the whole area to prayer five times per day, probably for a kilometer in every direction, for about 10 seconds each time. I happen to be just 100 meters away, and not Muslim. This isn’t a complaint, though. I woke up before the call this morning. The brain adapts. I generally sleep through it just fine.
My grandfather, chuckling, would always call whomever was serving as muezzin ‘his Muslim friend.’ Not a friend he ever met or talked to, of course, but one he heard from daily. He lived in this house for four decades, first with his large family, my aunts and uncles and servants and a rotating cast of relatives, then in the end with just my grandmother, until he passed in 2003. So the muezzin’s sonorous call was just one beat of the daily rhythm for all in this little patch of Hyderabad.
Click on the map (or this sentence), you’ll land on the Google Map of this block, zoomed in almost as far as possible. (Make sure you’re in map mode, not the satellite view.) Don’t wait for names and details to fill in until you can see the full shape of the outer ring road, an incomplete and dented crescent trying and failing to contain arteries emanating from the map label of ‘Hyderabad.’ Let the names fill in. Colonies, Nagars, Enclaves, and Hills; -‘pally’s, -‘pet’s, ‘puram’s, and –‘pur’s.
Zoom in. Soon after you start, a few kilometers north of this house, you will see Dr. A.S. Rao Nagar, named after my grandfather. It was an honor he tried to refuse, as he always resisted pomp or ceremony, but the merits of his work brought both, inevitably.
Zoom further. Move around the city. Pause each time to let it all fill in. Lanes and alleyways and compounds and neighborhoods will proliferate, filling what seemed featureless space with miniature metropolises. Zoom some more, and new and smaller pathways keep coming.
Densely populated spaces anywhere will yield a similar effect. But where I feel most cities would have stopped filling in names and streets, Hyderabad under the zoom keeps generating more vessels and capillaries, more names, marking more figures and layers of history, Mughals and Rajas, religious and secular, colonizers and freedom fighters, and as you zoom in they step forward to say, “I was here.” Toponyms all over the world, at least as of 2014, have regrettably mixed origins, from selfless merit well-remembered to the fiat of brutality triumphant.
The important message, then, comes from the filigree forged between the map’s named places by the daily rhythms of unnamed millions, each proclaiming from their own patch of Hyderabad, “I am here.”