The Case Against Romanticisation of ‘Old City Charm’

Quite a few travel reviews (refer here, here, here and here) paint Hyderabad as a romantic amalgam of bazaars, heritage architecture and Hyderabadi biryani. The same combination is commonly labelled as “old city charm”. While little can be said against the biryani, I have a few thoughts on the portrayal of bazaars in popular media.

The bazaars, one of the cornerstones of the so-called “old city charm”, are largely characterised as bustling and thriving markets full of diverse traders selling exotic wares. After four years of calling Hyderabad home, I set aside a weekend to visit its famous bazaars (‘Moazzam Jahi Market’ and ‘Sultan Bazaar’ to name a few). Needless to say, I was quite excited to finally experience the charm first-hand.

Unfortunately though, upon actually visiting the bazaars, the excitement gave way to a bitter aftertaste. I felt the literary revelling in the bazaar’s “old city charm” was a rather perverse celebration of manifest inequalities.

Firstly, most of the traders are small-scale businessmen, often selling cheap trinkets, clothing, or footwear on street-side stalls. While data relating to their financial condition is unavailable, I would have to take considerable creative license to term the traders as “prosperous and thriving”. In other words, we tend to overlook the plight of these traders in the noise of narratives romanticising the “hustle and bustle” of the marketplace.

Secondly, the bazaar also serves as an indicator of inequality on the demand side. Let us consider the example of the tattoo artists plying their trade on the footpaths of ‘Sultan Bazaar’. Their rusty instruments were possibly cutting edge during the Stone Age. Yet, despite the health hazards, despite the availability of safer (albeit costlier) alternatives, there exists a market for such services. Hence, we can conclude that either the market is unaware of the affiliated risks or is too poor to afford healthier options. Irrespective of the causes, waxing eloquent about the “old city charm” cloaks these realities. It diverts our attention from issues that unquestionably deserve our attention.

Due to the culture of extolling Hyderabad’s traditional charm, we tend to form an exalted, yet inaccurate, perception of the city. It clouds our ability to discern the undercurrents of inequity and neglect that, I feel, lie at the heart of the panegyric.

Similar narratives seem to paint worldviews of other cities as well. For instance, The Hindu’s article on ‘Puraani Dilli’ (Old Delhi) opens with, “But once you learn to look past the crowds, the haphazard streets, the grime and delve into the history of the city, the charm of the area shines through.”

Though I haven’t visited Delhi myself, the parallels with Hyderabad are uncanny.  The negative elements that the said article’s author asks readers to overlook are the very elements that I wish to bring to your attention through this piece.

It is not my case that bazaars and street hawkers have to be done away with. They are struggling to make ends meet and I would hardly wish that more hindrances be levied upon them. Rather, it is my case that we need to stop viewing cities and bazaars through rose-tinted glasses. We need to stop calling inequality and hardship a “lively bazaar” or “old city charm”. As long as we get lulled into these adulatory narratives, we might fail to give the requisite concern to the problems behind the artificial glossy veneer.

Prateek Surisetti was twice in the final short-list for the Cutty Sark “Young Travel Photographer of the Year” award. Some of his work can be found here

All images provided by the author