Monday, 7 May 2012

Shopping and segregation

I'm not usually a mall kind of person. This is maybe because instead of growing up in, say, Houston, Texas (where the malls are sparkly, the clothes are cheap and they sell interesting things like Dead Sea salt rubs which then leak all over your suitcase), I grew up in suburban Manchester in the 1980s. In Stretford, we didn't use the word "mall" to describe our local shopping centre; we called it "the precinct", or - more often - "the preccy". It was built of yellow public-toilet bricks and concrete, and had an increasingly pound shop-occupied interior that was scarcely less depressing. After I left Manchester, the place was indeed rebranded as "the Stretford Mall", but they weren't fooling anyone.

This wasn't a great introduction to the mall experience, though I've undoubtedly had a somewhat better experience since then. I retain, though, a healthy dislike for these places and their soulless capitalism, divorced from the civic and artistic life of the city centre. So I've pretty much avoided the various huge establishments that have sprung up in south Delhi in recent years, and done my shopping in the various family-run, stick-out-your-elbow-and-knock-over-an-entire-exhibit little stores in the various local markets.

Every now and again, though, needs must. This last weekend I needed to go shopping to buy a new outfit for the concerts my choir is giving this week. Last time the dress code was black; this time it is off-white, so I had to buy another kurta (yes, I now have two garments that I'm going to wear maybe four times in my life). I decided this time I'd go the whole hog and get the matching pyjama and juttis too (that's a whole other post) so I met up with a couple of friends at the Vasant Kunj mall to do the needful, as they say here.

Vasant Kunj mall is actually a set of three interconnected malls, that sit by the site of an enormous dusty highway somewhere amid the south Delhi sprawl. The location seems bizarre to me. As a non-driver I find the idea of putting commercial outlets miles from anywhere where people would naturally walk to be inherently weird; for those used to getting everywhere by car, I guess the perspective is different. But anyway, the view from the malls is of said dusty highway, a few sad patches of grass, and a lot of Indian style pavements (cracked stones, random gaps, even more random lumps of concrete stuck in the middle of the path). And that's it. You can't see any human habitation or other commercial activity, even though logically they can't be that far away. It's just the malls and the wasteland. It's very post-apocalyptic.

(I feel I must add at this point that I didn't take my camera with me, so the above photo is not my work. I hope I would have managed to get a reasonably horizontal shot...)

Talking of the apocalypse, like any self-respecting horror film fan (and I am one, though that seems to surprise people quite often) I can't go to a mall without my thoughts turning to zombies. And Vasant Kunj could indeed be modelled on the Dawn of the Dead mall. Once you've left behind the broken concrete, cooking under the 42 degree sun, it's definitely more Houston than Stretford: sparkling clean, completely sanitised, and shamelessly dedicated to shallow consumerism (in which, of course, I would NEVER indulge. Oh no). And like such places everywhere, it's populated by people who, in the main, are mindlessly in pursuit of exactly that.

We want Gucci saris, new iPhones, and fresh masala brains please.

Actually, though, I was more reminded me of a more recent Romero outing, Land of the Dead. You know, the one where the survivors of Z-Day are walled up in an idyllic prison while outside chaos rules? Vasant Kunj mall feels a bit like that - a slightly surreal, too-perfect world that bears no resemblance at all to the noisy, hot, churning city outside. And while this may sound like I am drawing a comparison in the mall's favour, I'm not. For a couple of hours it was nice to escape the dirt and the heat, breathe in the air-conditioned goodness, and eat caprese salad in a sports bar complete with pool tables. But it gets old pretty quickly, and anyway, it feels as phoney as those impossibly handsome shop mannequins you see these days.

I'm not sniping at India for having malls, or romanticising the "real India" as something under threat from these developments. As I said, I don't much like any malls, and I think they do have a destructive effect on the vitality of the cities where they spring up. But I understand their attraction, particularly for Delhiites between May and September, when the weather is at its most intolerable. I can't blame people for wanting some cool air, some space, and some respite from the traffic cacophony.

If, of course, you have the money to afford it. Indian malls have tight security, and routinely turn people away if they look like they can't afford to shop there (which, of course, the vast majority of Indians can't). At least in UK shopping centres anyone can come and window shop; in India, part of the appeal of these places is that they are exclusive to a small number of well-off people who are desperate to escape the seething masses for a while.

And this is what I find a bit unnerving about them. Generally, markets in Delhi are quite equalising places. Yes, you have more exclusive ones where stores cater to people with large budgets, but to get to them you can't avoid rubbing shoulders with shoe shine boys, cycle rickshaw wallas, and all the others, hustling for a few rupees. The streets of Delhi simply don't allow for much segregation between different kinds of people.

So the mall seems symptomatic of a wider change in India, seen also in the proliferation of gated communities in cities like Delhi and Bangalore. A degree of exclusivity - in leisure activities or education, for instance - has always been a feature of being rich; but India's increasing wealth (and its concentration in the hands of a few) seems to be leading to a place where rich people's entire lives are becoming removed from those of their poorer countrymen.

Maybe I'm exaggerating. The markets at Lajpat Nagar or Sarojini Nagar remain, after all, melting pots of Delhi society (and despite the lack of air conditioning or piped music, a more rewarding experience for the visitor). But I think the trend is there - the same trend that, for instance, South Africa has seen (though for different reasons, I think). Is the future of urban India one of stark polarisation? Will tomorrow's rich Indian kids have any idea at all of the poverty existing on their doorstep?

More to the point, is the only option for an increasingly rich India a future of increasingly bland consumer environments and the decline of the vitality of the street? And is that just a patronising Western perspective on the inevitable changes taking place in a country that rightly wants a chance to experience the kind of living standards I've been able to take for granted?


Anna Jo Kap said...

the walking dead hindu edition ? lol
cant wait to live my own experiences of life in New Delhi
Few days left!

Ashima Jain said...


I disagree with your point that malls lead to an inevitable segregation based on economic status. In fact, if you look at the concept of commercialization in general from a very primary perspective, you'll realize that instead of promoting exclusivity (as you mentioned), it is helping tremendously in bridging gaps between different strata's of society. Jobs (which given the economy aren't in plenty) and thus any development which helps in the creating more jobs will always be welcome, especially in a developing country of India.

Have a good day!

Cloud-Seven said...

"If, of course, you have the money to afford it. Indian malls have tight security, and routinely turn people away if they look like they can't afford to shop there (which, of course, the vast majority of Indians can't)."

This is very unusual that I have not seen yet anywhere in India.

I have really not experienced something like this. In fact most of the malls in NCR or India are frequented by people who really don't buy anything at mall and they are just normal average Indians. So I think there is no mall where anyone could turn anyone just because guard think that they can't buy ant thing there.

However in Middle east, this is norm for guards to prevent south asian singles to enter in mall at weekends.

here is the link.