Surrounded by rows of books on land reforms and peasants' rights that belonged to a dead Indian communist, Jaideep Undurti, 29, hangs up his phone and mutters what sounds like a mild expletive in an Indian language. It is, for he apologises. Undurti, a co-founder of the Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project, is exasperated by the news he has just heard. Last month, the state government of Andhra Pradesh, of which Hyderabad is the capital, removed yet another heritage building from a list of protected structures, allowing for its demolition. "It [the Victoria Maternity Hospital] will be replaced by a car park," he says with a shrug.
To Undurti and his partner, Jasraman Grewal, the announcement is one more reason for their project - a painstaking recreation of the southern Indian city's tales, legends, landmarks and lore dating as far back as the 16th century. Often described as the dark horse of Indian heritage, Hyderabad shot into global prominence as one of India's information technology hubs, and acquired a host of new fans courtesy of its rich cuisine and now world-famous biriani.
But for Hyderabad's loyalists, there is much, much more to the city that remains unsaid, undiscovered and in grave danger of remaining unknown. The Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project was launched last November with the aim of immortalising the stories and characters that collectively contribute to its legendary charm. Having completed a seven-page teaser, the founders are raising money to colour it and expand it into an 18-page first episode. Currently relying on a Facebook page for publicity, the project has slowly caught the eye of editors in the Indian offices of publishing companies such as Hachette and Penguin.
"The upgrade from Facebook fan page to a dedicated website should take place over the next two months, where we'll upload the teaser," says Undurti, who conceived the project. Neither Undurti nor Grewal is a native of Hyderabad, but both admit to an instant affinity with it. "It's many cities in one, like heaped carpets over one another. Every now and then, the badly worn fabric of one carpet shows its predecessor beneath. From the markets, which have a very central-Asian flavour, it's only a short drive to the glass and concrete towers of the new city. The people have a ready, fantastic wit - we hope to reproduce it as faithfully as possible," says Undurti, who is from Vizag, a coastal town in Andhra Pradesh.
"Truth be told, it is possibly India's first truly diverse and cosmopolitan city," says Grewal, also 29, originally from Punjab and a Hyderabad resident since 2004. The external influences began with ancient Hindu dynasties, continued through its Islamic connection by way of contacts with Persian rulers, the Mughal empire and western colonists. "It's a special city as it has a distinct culture and tradition of its own that is markedly different from its southern neighbours and northern cousins," says Grewal, for whom the Graphic Novel Project was unexpected.
The founders' original intention had been to create a substantial archive of Hyderabad by capturing street livelihoods on still camera. They scoured the old city's streets in 2005 and 2006 for images of toy-sellers, watch vendors and black-magic spell removers, and in the process encountered instances of the city's physical fabric being ripped apart. "We began thinking of the effect all this would have on the mental/spiritual fabric," says Undurti. "What happens, for example, when you can no longer tell a joke, when a joke ceases to be, when the cross-cultural references needed to understand the joke no longer exist? One idea I was obsessed with was the necropolis, an invisible city, the city beneath the city, that sort of a thing. We joked about starting a magazine called the Necropolitan, a rag for the ghoul-about-town."
In 2007, he and Grewal worked with Yugantar, a non-governmental organisation, on an oral history project titled Archiving Hyderabad, and trawled the city for elderly citizens to record a series of video interviews. The video project was a joint-venture with an IT company headquartered in Hyderabad. When the business stopped its funding last year, the archiving ended and they were left with more than 80 hours of recorded footage. They had lots of stories, but no listeners or viewers.
"While conducting the video interviews on some specific incidents in the city's history, we were shocked by the cool manner in which stories of people who had no connection with each other fitted," says Grewal. "To give a visual description, our interviews were like Escherian landscapes, wherein the parts become the whole, and the whole becomes something completely different. The idea of a documentary was quickly dismissed as the costs of reconstructing old Hyderabad were proving to be prohibitive. There was also the added issue of old sites and heritage buildings fast disappearing to give way to malls, high-rises and of course, parking lots.
"We thought perhaps the best medium, in fact, the only medium which could convey this lost city, was comics. We were fortunate in finding a talented and experienced artist from Kolkata - Harsho Mohan Chattoraj," says Undurti. The interest the project is slowly attracting on India's publishing circuit is due not only to its work-in-progress novelty factor but also to a renewed interest in the graphic novel among Indian readers, whose exposure to comics has largely been limited to foreign influences such as DC, Marvel, Archie's digests, and home-grown comics for children and mythological tales.
Undurti and Grewal are scripting the pilot, which has been illustrated by Chattoraj, who uses numerous photographs of the city and character studies taken by the founders as a reference. "Neither one of us is a real Hyderabadi," says Undurti, "but I think this provides us with an adequate degree of curiosity and objectivity." At the time of India's independence in 1947, the nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad expressed his desire to be a part of Pakistan. However, the region integrated with India - and left the city with numerous historical accounts.
In researching Hyderabad's history, Undurti and Grewal came across two narrative strands - one by traditionalists, who added charm and romance to every word, and the other by the nationalists, whose own accounts diverge between the pro- and anti-Indian sentiments. "After reading them all, to an extent we can say luckily all of them left the real stories unspoken. Our biggest challenge has not been to recreate the past stories, but it has been and shall remain trying to show the past. 'You have read history, but have you seen it?' that is our mantra and biggest challenge," says Grewal.
Given the improvised nature of the project, the team welcomes any data, voices and narratives that add colour to the city's "soul". There is, however, one guiding principle: no clichés. Hyderabad's most famous architectural landmark, the Charminar - a 16th-century mosque - and Hyderabadi pearls will not feature in the book. "Also, our heroes and heroines will be dark-skinned," says Undurti. "Indian comics have subconsciously contributed to the fair-skin obsession in society's psyche by ensuring all their good men and women were lighter than the villains," he adds.
Currently armed with a budget of 50,000 rupees (Dh4,170) for the pilot, Undurti is fairly confident of securing further backing or, perhaps, even a publishing contract. According to him, the sources of funding could be as diverse as cultural organisations from the European Union or Indian-American venture capitalists originally from Hyderabad. As an example of Hyderabad's historical diversity, Grewal narrates the story of the nizam's French general, Monsieur Raymond. "He was the first general in imperial India to allow people to call him by his name. The Hindus called him 'Moosa Ram' and the Muslims called him 'Moosa Rahim'. It's a nice little secular nugget. He died a few years before the French Revolution [in 1789], and had already brought in the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity."
The general was buried in Hyderabad and, until a few years ago, Sufi saints would assemble by his tomb on the anniversary of his death to sing in his memory. Information in the form of anecdotes like that of Monsieur Raymond continue to pour in, leaving the final format of the novel undetermined. It could be either a single publication or a series of shorter novels. Grewal, whose fondness for Hyderabad began 13 years ago at the time of his first visit, says it is best to refrain from analysing the various threads of the project, just as he prefers to avoid defining the city's charm. "Some say it's the air, others say it's the water, and another group says it's the sky. I think it's a combination of the three."
The novel itself has no definite plot. "It does, however," says Undurti "have a purpose. And its purpose is to define the relationship that people feel with a city. For instance, when we read a book, we are programmed to create images for the words we read. It's not intentional, but automatic. The brain or mind doesn't have a choice. So our purpose in writing and creating this book is to invoke instant recognition of Hyderabad and Hyderabadi ways in the reader's mind."