Backtrack

I realize I have written very little about Hyderabad, which is a shame because I liked it immensely as a city, even if it was a bit over-sized and polluted.  The final project for one of my classes involved exploring places of leisure and writing a reflection over them. I visited Shilparamam, a recreation of a village oddly situated in the middle of Hi-Tech City, Lumbini Park, which borders the mediocre lake in the middle of the city, and a mall. In leui of  adventure stories, you’ll have to be satisfied with this academic fluff. Please excuse spelling and grammer – I wrote this in fits of fatigue, homesickness, and stress about parting with my new friends:

I am a traveler who places a high value in local geography. Before I unpack, I like to find my bearings and explore my surroundings. In six weeks, I have mapped the city of Hyderabad by train, bus, rickshaw, and car. My favorite activity is to drive around town while listening to the radio or a cd played by the driver of each. Against the backdrop of Indian pop music, I imagine that the whole world moves to the beats. The man selling peanuts wheels his carts to the backbeats; the motorist glides smoothly like the stringy melody; the cows in the street lumber to the percussion. I have the brief notion that the convergence of the songs and the activity forms a complete picture of this new place. Yet, I am very aware that this mentality homogenizes the diverse activity surrounding me. Like the glass of a car window, the soundtrack separates me from the places I am passing through. The music turns the city into an exotic landscape rather than a complex experience. My own entertainment takes precedence as the music turns the whole scene into a prescribed exoticism.

As a foreigner from a first-world nation, I am susceptible to a fantastical, glamorized view of India. The Indian Tourist Bureau tends to exaggerate this image for the sake of visitors like me. It markets an exotic, ancient land through their Incredible India! campaign in a way that prevents immersion into the actual pace of life. While heritage does shape society’s customs in part, it by no means includes every person or place. Emphasizing just past traditions occludes new ones and limits the diversity it is actually trying to celebrate.

This became apparent when I visited Shilparamam. A sign on the Living Rock Exhibit read This heritage is to be preserved. Further into the park, the Tribal Lifestyle exhibit romanticized traditional rural life. Frighteningly real-looking mannequins were positioned in craft-making activities in fake huts. The mannequins wore clean, white clothing. They seemed content in their pursuits, well-fed, and clothed. However, people in rural areas, like many parts of the world, often suffer from poorer qualities of education, nutrition, health care, and government funding to equalize these needs to urban standards. The representation excluded this aspect of the rural life. It demonstrated an efficient, trouble-free environment. By idealizing existence into a palatable lifestyle, the exhibit seemed dishonest and exploitative the more I looked at it. If they acquired the means to visit Shilparamam, some rural dwellers may not have the spare money or leisure to even come view this recreation of themselves.

Simply using the phrase Tribal Lifestyle diminishes these disparities between rural people and the urban visitors viewing the exhibit. The word tribal reinforces the Incredible India image. It suggests that these craft-makers live a primitive existence untouched by the modern world. While, the mannequins look tranquil, the word tribal always carries the connotation that these people lack intelligence, practice heathenism, and  require saving. It is important to note that these were all arguments the British used to justify colonizing and ruling India until less than a century ago. Ironically, Shilparamam’s reiteration of such views, whether intentional or not, through the village recreation prevents urban dwellers from empathizing or identifying their rural counterparts.
Issues of modernity continue the further one treks into Shilparamam’s park. From the top of the Mountain Heights section, one can see the sign marking Hi-Tech City. A green structure with four minarets and Hi-Tex written on in big letters looms over the highway. The fact that a recreation village sits in the middle of gleaming, sleek high-rise offices of the modern India suggests that pluralism exists peacefully only in imitation form. Like the surrounding buildings, Shilaparamam was carefully built and well-manicured. It offers relief from the busy, loud world just outside of its gates. Young couples lounged on the giant swings and the admission fee blocks the area from beggars or street vendors. The whole place, despite its efforts, indicates a needed separation rather than a celebration of India’s social layers.

I began to wonder if this negative view of pluralism resulted from my own hypersensitive cultural lens when I then visited Lumbini Park. Like Shilparamam, the green lawn seemed immaculate and the bushes planted thoughtfully for decoration. It offers respite from the busy six-lane road just beyond its private walls. Families and couples lounged on the grass. A guard whistled at children climbing on shiny new playground equipment. It seemed like a popular destination for upper and middle-class families, not a truly public space. In America, parks typically represent family leisure spaces in a similar fashion: children play on the equipment, couples picnic under trees, and relative rent out tables to hold reunions. These activities also offer an escape from the busy hassles of urban life; however, their occurrence tends to place a higher emphasis on escape through natural beauty. Parks usually comprise a preserved area of a once-uninhabited area. At Lumbini, the foliage seemed individually planned and the lake was made my man. While parks in America can have these qualities as well, mostly the transition between urban and   Security is minimal in parks. They are very much public places and therefore carry the hazards of dubious activities along with familial ones, such as drug deals and kidnapping. Teenagers visit to parks to escape their families often to smoke marijuana and engage in clandestine sexual relations. Lumbini Park offered none of these concerns. Despite it being in a bustling part of town, I felt as if I could lounge on the grass as a foreign by myself without such danger. Its careful recreation of nature, while more synthetic than American parks, seemed to weed out the unsavory leisure activities that those of America do encompass.

Yet, I began to notice layers emerging the longer I observed the area. I was first struck by the A Muslim girl’s black hijab swaying in the wind as she swung against the backdrop of the Hindu Birla Temple. She faced a giant statue of Buddha. Within less than a mile, three different religious coexisted. The Muslim girl may not visit the Birla Temple and the visitors to the Buddha Statue may not practice Buddhism. Yet, a level of mutual tolerance and knowledge of each religion must exist for these places to have been built and continually used. Entrances to these places are not exclusive to their worshippers, either. I believe religious pluralism in India exists for this type of incorporation. Although tensions rise between Hindus and Muslims in some areas, the basic inclusive and communal nature of all religions inspires their wonder and longevity as well. The families visiting the site may not be of mixed religions yet, but the families as a whole comprised an assorted public community within just the small confines of a park.

Social layers became clearer the more I watched as well. Although the park seemed on the surface to cater to families who could afford to spend a working day lounging around, it really did offer activities for a range of budgets. Admission fee of 5 rupees was much less than that of Shilparamam. Anyone with pocket change could access at least the park. Boat rides to the Buddha Statue or around the lake varied from fast and cheap speedboat rides to expensive parasailing excursions. A medium-sized boat for Buddha Statue tours docked right next to a large dinner cruise ship blasting loud music. The same view was available to nearly everyone. It just depended on how much you were willing to pay. In the lake white sails of ships in business moved across the horizon. These juxtaposing images show that the Lumbini Park is central in both geographic and social location. Its escapist environment attracts people from all religions and social standing. This shows that the dream of escaping Indian life, at least in part, exists not just for the upper class that can obtain it more easily, but for all levels of society.

After visiting Lumbini Park, I traded its natural setting for the synthetic one of Hyderabad Central Mall. As soon as I went through security, I felt as though I had stepped back into America. The colorful clothing was displayed not in the overwhelming mixture of a bazaar. Rather, a white floor and bright lights showed them on neat racks. In obvious ways the mall contrasted with the quaint, personable feel of Shilparamam. At Shilparamam, I met the artists who painted a small sprint I bought. He had hundreds of them, but no two were exactly the same. At the mall, I saw one of each item in every color and a uniformed clerk tried to sell me an identical of each in my size. After a while at both places, however, it all just represented mass consumption to me. The repeating rows of hand-carved boxes at Shilparamam looked a lot like the repeating rows of silk pashminas in the Mall – the latter was just more expensive. Between the two places was a difference of kind, not degree.

The mall displayed the most progressive notions. Jeans, v-neck t-shirts, and short dresses existed along side traditional kurtas and dupatas. Clunky play jewelry hung next to Hyderabad pearls. I bought some t-shirts on sale: I am cheap in every country. In the food court upstairs, one could buy pizza and racy American movies. American rap music blasted over the speakers. The women shopping around me were often alone unlike in Shilparamam and Lumbini Park.

At Shilparamam, Aryuveda treatment could only be offered to ladies, although I did see men and women learning paper art techniques together in a tent. At Lumbini Park, couples openly held hands despite the being in the most socially diverse surroundings of the three places I visited. Surprisingly, the mall gave the most obvious display of gender segregation. It began the moment I walk in the door. The men simply walk through a metal detector but the ladies enter a curtained area. The physical touch of being padded down is completely shielded from the men’s eyes. Men’s and women’s clothing are separated by floors. Men and women do not mingle when they shop; however, men and women salesclerks work the same floor. In America, the modernization that India hopes for usually equates to a liberalization of society. In part this is happening in India, yet the mall reminded me that high social status and modernity do not necessarily equate to liberal social views. Many people in Western nations would consider some of these displays about gender segregation just as primitive as the creators of Shilparamam consider the tribal people.

Overall, leisure seemed inherently wrapped up in escape through consumption. At Shilparamam, people with leisure can buy or learn to make handicrafts suggesting an authentic ethnicity without the trouble of social inequality. At Lumbini Park, they can pretend they are a professional cricket player by practicing their swing at the batting cages or an acrobat by jumping on a giant trampoline for a few rupees. At Hyderabad Central, they can buy revealing Western clothing and play arcade games. The money, free time, and willingness to engage in these pop culture pastimes is more important than the actual performance of them. Yet, this shared ability or social class hardly indicates a homogenized sector. Being able to patronize these three places in one’s spare time is the goal of most Indians. However, the personal convictions about religion, gender, and social development vary wildly even between those who possess the money and time to do so.

At the Hyderabad Central Mall I bought an A.R. Rahman compilation cd. As we drove back through the city to come home, I put it in the cd player. As usual, the popular music seemed to make the street life more exciting. This time, I was aware that I was escaping it in my relaxation. I began to look at everything more closely. If I had learned anything from the day, it was that even in areas of repose, you can see the intricacies beneath a well-created surface. I took my leisure in those observations.

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