In fact, touching down at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport on the outskirts of Hyderabad, I’m feeling temporarily disoriented.
This place is spotless. There’s no queue at immigration. The officials seem happy to see me.
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The sense that this is more Singapore than the subcontinent lasts just as long as the newly built and super-smooth airport road, which peters out after a couple of miles heading towards the city. As we turn a corner, I feel the reassuring rumble of potholes and the presence of more familiar signs of typical Indian life: cows strolling down the middle of the road, battered yellow rickshaws spluttering two-stroke into the air as they jostle for position, and families of four taking a helmet-free spin together on their Hero Honda motorbikes.
The juxtaposition of old and new is a constant theme in Hyderabad. The state capital of Andhra Pradesh, located in the south-east of the country, is second only to Bangalore in embracing the hi-tech boom, and is home to international software companies and call centres. HITEC (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy) City in the suburbs is a township in its own right, made up of gleaming office buildings, campuses, a hotel, shopping mall and residential property. Live and work here and the realities of Indian life will have little bearing on you.
The city’s smart Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills are home to western-style malls and UK-themed pubs such as Firangi Paani (foreigner’s water) and 10 Downing Street, where IT types and expats can pretend they’re not in India at all.
But what a sanitised existence … I’m more interested in finding the “real” India.
For that, you have to leave the modern glass monuments behind and head across town, and back in time, to Hyderabad’s old city. This is the land of the Nizams, at one time among the wealthiest people in the world. It was also home to the “white Mughul”, James Kirkpatrick, the high-ranking representative of the East India Company who “went native”, converting to Islam to marry a Hyderabadi princess at the beginning of the 19th century.
Or travel back further still, to the medieval fort structure of Golkonda, a massive complex which makes Edinburgh Castle appear dainty by comparison. A sound-and-light show featuring the booming voice of Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s answer to Sean Connery, brings the fort’s complex history to life. From the 12th to the 17th century, Golkonda was the area’s seat of power, and also produced some of the world’s most impressive diamonds from its mines, including the Kohinoor, presented as a spoil of war to Queen Victoria in 1851. It is desolate now apart from tour groups shuttling back and forth from the city.
But Hyderabad’s old city is as frenetic and heaving as ever. And that’s where we’re heading, in search of the best biryani in a city famous for its devotion to that dish.
As you approach the area, the streets narrow dramatically, yet the volume of traffic doesn’t take that into consideration. Even pedestrians have a hard time – if Hyderabad ever had pavements, they’ve been swallowed up by the rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists, making the act of walking a precarious form of exercise. Gradually, the traffic heading towards Charminar, a four-towered mosque built in the late 16th century to mark the shift from Golkonda to the new city of Hyderabad, seizes up completely. Gangs of burqa-clad women in this heavily Muslim area stride forward in formation, discreetly covered but with enough confidence to barge past anyone in their path.
The closer to Charminar we get, the denser the crowd. There’s also a tension in the air – it’s only three years since 14 people died after a bomb blast at the nearby Mecca Masjid, and memories of the attack on Mumbai are even fresher in the memory.
This evening, the police are out in force, glaring suspiciously as the crowd stumbles past, truncheons at the ready in case they’re called into action. Loudspeakers urge everyone to look out for abandoned bags or suspicious activity. But more people are killed in India by stampedes than bombs – and in a crowd as dense as this it’s not hard to imagine the deadly repercussions of even a moment’s panic.
By now I can’t see the feet beneath me. As I pass through a covered area of the market place, the smell is even more contained and pungent: spice and urine and rotten garbage, along with the scent of sweat.
Just ahead, the crowd suddenly parts, and I find a leper directly below me, crawling along the road, his body a mass of sores and boils. I’m just recovering from that when another leper, this one walking, brushes me on the arm, asking for some rupees. I’m afraid to say I didn’t hang around to delve into my pocket, instead nipping through the narrowest gap in a line of stalls to escape along the other side of the street.
I finally make it to the Nayaab restaurant for some respite from the crowds and my reward of the best biryani in town. Here, the dish is served with succulent chunks of mutton which falls off the bone in juicy browny-red morsels.
There’s a spicy gravy to pour over the top and a curd dish, raita, to temper the masala and add its own flavour into the mix. And, when in Hyderabad, eat like the Hyderabadis: ditch the fork or spoon and get stuck in with your hand (make sure it’s your right), and I swear the dish will taste better.
By the time I’ve finished the plate, I’m happy to catch a taxi and make my return to the modern world, waiting for me on the other side of the city.
How to get there:
British Airways flies from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Hyderabad via Heathrow from £612. Visit www.ba.com
Where to stay:
The five-star Taj Banjara in an upmarket part of town has double rooms from £102 per night. Visit www.tajhotels.com
Where to eat:
The Hotel Nayaab is on Nayapul Road in the old city. Everyone knows it.