Narendra Luther truly wears many hats. An IAS officer of the
1955 batch who retired as chief secretary of a united Andhra Pradesh, he is
considered an authority on Hyderabad — its history and culture — and has 14
books to his credit. His books on the founder of Hyderabad, the Nizami city,
the cantonment of Secunderabad, its rockscape, the jewels of the Nizam or the
coffee table book on its foremost photographer, Raja Deendayal, all reveal the
depths of his attachment to this four-century old city. As Hyderabad celebrates
the 425th anniversary of its existence, he reveals how the city endeared itself
to him and how he came to write books on its history and, finally, on the
attempts of the current regime to make it a smart metropolis. Excerpts:

What really drew you
to Hyderabad, its history?

Actually it was Urdu. I came from Lahore and had studied
Urdu in school. So when I was posted in Hyderabad just two years after joining
the Andhra cadre, I found the same imprint of Islamic culture. Lahore was a
Mughal city, a garden city (like Hyderabad) and I was instantly drawn by Urdu
that was the dominant language here. I was always interested in Urdu, its
poetry and literature. Here, I found senior officials and those who had served
under the Nizam speaking Urdu, even Hindus. Anybody settled in Hyderabad —
Marathas, Kannadigas, Telugus, everybody spoke Urdu. Ever since, I have been
either in Hyderabad or Delhi.

But it must have been
different from the Urdu you studied because this was Deccani Urdu?

When I first heard Urdu here it sounded like deja vu. Do you
know that Deccani  contains Punjabi
words? Actually, the invaders had come from the North West and they spoke
Persian. When a Persian-speaking army settled among the Punjab populace and
stayed there for 175 years they picked up a lot of Punjabi words and we got
some Persian words. Then their descendants came to the Deccan and, hence,
Deccani Urdu has so many Punjabi words. I even made a statistical distribution
of words in the Deccani dictionary and found 40 per cent of the words are from
Punjabi. Some of the words are not even spoken in Punjabi today. I had heard my
grandmother speak those words.

How did you come to
write your first book on Hyderabad?

It was partly ambition, partly destiny. Actually, every year
we, from Golconda society, used to celebrate the birth anniversary of Muhammad
Quli Qutb Shah. Once, it was suggested that a book should be written on the
founder of Hyderabad. The director approached me saying, “Everyone is saying
you are the right person to write it.” However, I turned him down. In the
meantime, the then chief minister, NT Rama Rao, was, for some reason, unhappy
with me. So he posted me to the refugee rehabilitation department, which hardly
had any work. There were a few Bangladeshi refugees, some from Myanmar and only
five families from Sri Lanka. Obviously, I had a lot of time on hand and then
decided to write the book, Prince, Poet, Lover, Builder – Muhammad Quli Qutb
Shah -the founder of Hyderabad, which was published by the government of India.
Shankar Dayal Sharma released the book. He jovially asked why I hadn’t
dedicated the book to NTR. I had thought about it but then NTR may not have
taken that subtle point. He would have thought I was actually thankful and I
didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. I had to do a lot of research. Like
there was a difference in the tenure of his reign, in Persian and Urdu books it
said 48 years and in English 46 years. I later figured it was because of the
lunar calendar in which a year is about 10 and half months, that resulted in a
difference of two years.

How did the second
book came about?

Actually, once you write a book the research material which
is still there unused develops into the next book. But how the second book on
Hyderabad came about is also interesting. We were celebrating the 400 years of
Hyderabad and the Prime Minister was supposed to visit and announce projects
worth Rs 400 crore, one crore for each year. I was heading the committee for
preparations and had planned 40 tableaux, each highlighting some facts about Hyderabad.
However, the Prime Minister cancelled the programme at the last minute.
However, I had already researched enough to pen my book on Hyderabad. That’s
how it happened.

Did you aspire to be
a writer, because it seems to be more of a stroke of destiny?

I wanted to be a writer from early childhood. Later, I read
the book The Men Who Ruled India by Philip Mason. Most of the grammar of Indian
languages was written by ICS officers. RC Dutt from Bengal wrote the Economic
History of India. All over India The Gazetteers were the first Wikipedia on
each district. After Independence, Indians took it as a sideline job. If you
did not like an officer, he was too interfering or incompetent, he was posted
there. The story of the final defeat of French against the British is contained
in The Gazetteers, written by the collector of Macchilipatnam. They were indeed
the best source.

Your approach is not
at all like a conventional historian. Your books are full of anecdotes and are
interesting to read, without dry facts. How did you decide on this approach?

The more distant in the past, the more you can play.
Historian Bharati Ray, who did the review, considered it to be history as a
novel. She must have felt uncomfortable. But you are writing for the general
public. Once a chap rang up and asked, “Was the seventh Nizam your bosom friend
that you address him as Osman?”

I took detailed notes during interviews, asked the person
concerned to read it, correct it if necessary and then sign it, and I preserved
them in box files. William Dalrymple came to me and asked what I knew about
Major Kirkpatrick and Khairnussina. I said whatever was there was in the three
pages in my book. But he went on to write an entire book on them since he could
access the British Library. He paid a good sum of money for a trunk full of
books and papers. I never had that kind of money. The government did not
support me.

There is also an element of humour in your books…

Humour runs in our family. My maternal grandfather was a
Punjabi poet and humourist. His son inherited his humour and my father also had
some poetic talent. My entire family has a natural tendency towards verbal
humour, even the younger generation, but I was the only one to put it in
writing. I wrote four books in Urdu and was among the top three Urdu writers,
but it also has a shrinking readership. I should have left Urdu long back but I
was sucked into it. I felt more at ease in English than Urdu.

Hyderabad has
undergone a lot of change. On what should we pin the blame?

The city lost its character once there was an influx of
population in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Before that, Andhra people used to rush
to Madras, but after Hyderabad happened they came here and bought property
cheaply. The people of Andhra had lots of money, enterprise and here people had
a laid back style. My experience was at two levels — as a bystander and a
participant.

How was it after the
merger of the state of Hyderabad and Andhra state?

It was a bad marriage from the outset. There used to be two
lunch rooms at the secretariat for bureaucrats. One was for Hyderabadis and
Urdu was spoken there. I remember going to the room for AP officials and they
would say those fellows were lazy, only knew how to dress well, couldn’t do any
work, and then the Telangana ones would say these Huns had come, those fellows
had no social graces, no courtesy and only talked about work and work. It was a
really bad marriage and their hearts never met. I told that to the members of
the Srikrishna Commission. The epitaph of Andhra Pradesh should be exactly read
so. The Andhra people had no sympathy and wanted to show them their place.

What are your
thoughts on the 425 years of Hyderabad?

What is there to say when the city has lost its character? I
feel bad to see its deterioration and change in urban landscaping. They say
they want to make Hyderabad a smart city. What is a smart city? A city must
have its own character. Where is that character. It has been lost.

By Anindita Chowdhury