by Lizzie Tribone '15
I’ve been studying abroad in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh (although, soon this city will be considered a part of Telangana, as of the recent culmination of political agitation for a separate state). Hyderabad is rife with cultural and religious conflations and interactions: it is a nexus between south and north India, and it used to be ruled by the Muslim elite, and hence has a Muslim population that mingles with the Hindu majority. When I think of my experience thus far, small idiosyncrasies that are peculiar to India come to mind, such as the way the general populace bob their head, instead of shifting it up-and-down, to indicate an affirmative response; or how crossing an intersection feels a lot like playing a real-life game of Frogger, but with yellow, boisterous auto-rickshaws instead of amphibians.
Speaking more broadly, I think an integral facet of my experience thus far has been travelling on weekends. My first excursion was to Rajasthan, a much more traditional and conservative state– there are hardly any visages of Western influence, and many of the men wear colorful pagari, (or turbans that equate to about the size of their own head), while the women wear equally as vivid saris and veils. The last trip I went on was to Mumbai. It was an incredibly accessible place, with many touchstones of modernity; yet, tradition was far from absent. As I was walking down Marine Drive (adjacent to the Arabian Sea), a man just purchased a brand new automobile, and the owner of the dealership thrust a coconut on the ground and poured it over the glistening car. This spectacled encapsulated the dialectic Mumbai seems to negotiate so well: a meditation between the forces of modernization, globalization and the deep-seated desire for religious ritual and belief. I think Mumbai is a microcosm of sorts for India at large. Even though India’s economy is still primarily agricultural, it is on the rise within the international community (a glance to any newspaper reveals the similar posturing of China and India); it is quickly being recognized as a global contender. Irrespective of the contention over whether it is actually a good thing that India ceases to be immune from Subways and McDonalds, the fact remains that both of these are down the street from where I live. I think that the most interesting aspect of living in Hyderabad, so far, has been seeing these seemingly incongruous elements being played out: “performing” puja online, spilling coconut juices on newly-minted cars.
Despite the interaction between Western influence and indigenous, traditional Indian culture, I have learned how important it is to internalize my experiences outside of the paradigm of a Western conception of this “foreign,” “exotic,” “Other” land. When I first arrived here, I could not help but see the dulled ink from J-stor articles plastered along the streets of India; instead of really seeing a temple for what it was, I would see it as how I had thought it would or should be. In other words, given the fodder of all I’ve read about the Indian cultural climate and religious traditions, what was right before me was often transposed with the remnants of my piecemeal memory of lectures, classes and Google Image pictures. Everything was a spectacle: I was waiting for a local Indian woman, carrying bricks in a basket on her head, to freeze, for someone to eternalize the moment, laminate it, and recollect it once toilets that always flush became boring. However, soon I realized that this was a pretty mundane task; her hard work was mirrored in her harsh, calloused skin, and there was nothing to gawk at– in fact, such a reaction is usually tinged with paternalistic sentiments. After divesting myself of the project of interpreting India through the guise of a Westerner, whose knowledge of India is siphoned through second-hand accounts at best, I could see India for what it is: a place where people, like everywhere, live, work, and involve their version of religion, and go about their days. Ridding myself of this instinctual comparative mindset has allowed me see the Amber Fort in Jaipur, Rajasthan as an incredible site, to be amazed upon seeing the Qutb Shahi tombs; and neither reaction would have been elicited had I been constantly relegating them to mere comparisons of familiarities. Surely comparisons are helpful, they allow the words “different” and “same” the potential to elect “better” or “worse” as sovereign– but comparisons can be made later. For now, I am focused on experiencing India as I have been: as a place of immense linguistic, cultural and religious diversity that welcomes progress while still preserving a culture, inherited of its past of oral tradition, of intimations and heads bobs.