Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A week in the mall

In the days of yore, Indians had a different meaning of the word mall. ’Mall’ used to be anything but a 1 million square foot exclusive retail and ramble zone. If someone was really loaded -- in the pre-globalization days -- his money was commonly called Mall. And then globalization happened. The Gandhi-esque money of old coffers and deep pockets -- hoarded over many socialist years -- came in direct contact with the Franklin-smelling dollars of the capitalistic west. And lo presto! There was the New Age Mall.

Post-globalization we have become so used to the mall culture that one is likely to find his/her future wife/hubby in some cozy bistro or across a mall aisle. We are abandoning the hot, dirty, pan strewn, beggar-infested marketplace for the climate-controlled confines of the ubiquitous, fast mushrooming malls. Fitted with neon lights and glass and steel escalators and imported trees the malls come abuzz with the generation next Youngistan -- sales boys and sales girls and a whole new range of products – from Namibian butterfly berry crème for cracked heels to Swiss military knives for everyone. Everything and anything you need or do not really need is on offer -- at the swipe of a credit card.

It feels jolly good. The most satisfying argument is: The crowd is decent. Everything stacked [which they unstack for you, in real quick time] is beyond the purchasing power of the lower middle class and the toiling masses, so effectively the poor – and ugly India -- is shut out from the air-conditioned limits of the great Indian malling experience. The middle-middle classes come in their droves. Sari-clad housewives carefully stepping onto the escalators. Families of six. Mostly touch and feel. Check the tag and let go. They are happy hopping shops. Consequently higher the income ladder you go, more you shell out. Cutesy show-windows ambush your attention span. Big brands vie for your eye-balls.

Raj is 6ft2, a childhood pal and on the verge of crossing the dash between bachelorhood and wedlock. He asked me to help him shop for his wedding. Like a nice buddy I obliged. We raided all the major malls. Since Raj is a meticulous fellow, he went about checking the detailing -- from shirt stitching to color combinations to ankle measurements and I joined him in the fun. Enthusiastic salespeople went out of their way to help him get into a jacket or try another mega size shoe. While we were treated like royals on weekdays [when there is barely a soul in the malls], we had to jostle for attention over the weekend [when everyone and his doggy descends on the malls]. End of the eventful week, I too was poorer by a few grands. But that’s exactly what consumerism is all about.

In between an impromptu dance party, quickly set up a mobile ramp and broke into a jig. Nobody knew why but they danced their heart out! Then there is this rather mundane exercise of handing over your shopping bags to the guard – usually a dark skinny guy in blue uniform – and collect a coupon. Usually people bark to the dark guy [who must never have seen a school] in their acquired call-centre accents: Guard, keep the bags together. Gimme a single coupon for all my merchandise. Pronto! Often enough the poor guy looks bewildered. Not to worry though. The confusions are small casualties in a big-big mall.

Overall I’ve mixed feelings about malls. It is vanity but variety. Consumerist zones but comfort. The familiar sight of rich fat kids biting into chocolate-filled ice-cream bars. Heavily powdered females conceit writ large on their glossed faces. Over-excited teens. Retired army officers with curved moustaches in golf Tees. Swagger intact but slightly drooping. High testosterone north Indian males out there to splurge. Credit cards in hand, ready to flitter for an over-prized Kelvin Klein underwear. To be worn beneath low rise jeans, for the lapel to show. An occasional cleaning man, mopping the floor, breaks the decent crowd portrait. But the fiesta continues.

Happy malling