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Malls “R” Us - Eye on India...

April 2004
Malls “R” Us - Eye on India...

The swanky new internationalized malls that dot the metro landscape in India have brought about more than just scenic change. A paradigm shift in behavioral patterns is also being observed.

By Siddharth Srivastava

Lifts in order, escalators moving, friendly security guards, organized parking, clean urinals, sparkling shop floors, plenty of space to fool around, cool air-conditioning, no litter, no betel-juice-splattered walls, no graffiti such as ?Indians love Pakistanis'?this cannot be India.

It is! The last decade or so has seen the unshackling of the Indian economy, courtesy liberalization and globalization. One positive fallout of this has been a realty boom across the country whether in residential or commercial space. Another change has been the sprawling and glitzy shopping malls erected at a frenetic pace in major cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Delhi.

This has not only changed the way Indians go about their shopping, which was usually in crowded, sweaty markets, but even changed the way Indians behave. As is said, economics is about behavioral studies.

In Delhi, in urban Gurgaon, the satellite town of Delhi, there are three such malls?Sahara, City Center and Metropolitan. Here, the buildings are state-of-the-art, but the rest of infrastructure, including roads, public transport and traffic leading to the malls are in an appalling condition. There are gaping manholes formed every monsoon, that not only suck in people but sometimes cars and also trucks. Thankfully, the story is different inside as these complexes are of international standard.

Multi-storied air-conditioned buildings housing restaurants, multiplexes, clothing and electronic shops, coffee kiosks, fast food, girls in short skirts and tank-tops mesh together to create a very un-Indian scenario, seen hitherto only on television and in events like fashion shows. An unimaginable scenario in the Delhi of yesteryears.

A Bit of History

Not too long ago, in Delhi, the only urinals one could visit were located at five-star hotels. The rest left an odor on the body that lasted till a change of clothes and complete rinsing. Hence, innumerable Delhiites relieve on the roadside while women have a bad time.

Similarly, the only places with free air-conditioning were the American and British Council libraries, where retired civil servants and sundry others without work, snoozed and snored in cool comfort during the afternoons. The rest of the unemployed, especially the youth, overawed by libraries, spent time at cheap movie halls showing equally cheap movies. The one last bastion of coolness was the underground Palika Bazaar at Connaught Place where there is no space to walk and a fire or bomb scare happens the day before or after a visit.

Then the malls happened. No family outing or dating itinerary is now complete without a visit to one of these. The same people who lined up outside temples or India Gate in the evenings, the most popular family entertainment for a long time, now visit the malls. There is equal space for elders to take a cool siesta while the youngsters can just hang around.

The Glitz Is For Real

So is the glitz in the malls for real? I decided to check them out personally, to know for sure that the outward glitz did not conceal a whole lot of muck inside.

Having used the toilets, the cleanliness can be vouched for, the flush was working and even the toilet paper was in order. As a matter of fact an attendant waited outside and entered immediately after to crosscheck and clean. Slightly disconcerting. I sniffed around for dark dank corners that are usually visited by more normal denizens to ease their bladders, but found none. A friendly security guard, not a regular specimen, came up to me and said, "That way is a dead end, sir."

I scoured every lift to check for graffiti, the ?I love you forever' types.

There were none. A friendly liftman, he was actually there, said, "Have a good day sir" as I stepped out.

This is not India, I told myself. Talking of lifts, the one that was not working had a warning placard announcing the same. Generally, when lifts do not function, the authorities find out last. So, there are usually people stuck inside who bang and scream as if they are running out of oxygen, although all of them must have been stuck in a lift sometime in their lives.

Even the escalators were working. The last time an escalator was installed in Delhi was at the Railway station, quite a few years back. It has never functioned; at least nobody claims to have seen it move.

Finally, I had to check whether the one bastion of Indianness was transcended?litter. Littering is a birthright and some parents feel proud when their children eject toffee bites and potato chip bags everywhere. It gives them a sense of power and independence, of being able to do what one wants to, of freedom and democracy.

Sadly, there was no litter at the mall.

Ascertaining the behind-the-scene psyche that has resulted in this sea-change was important. The corporate office of one mall was the stop-point for such answers. The manager on duty was patient and heard out the woes. "Where has India disappeared", I asked.

His explanation was simple. Indians per say do not like to be the first to do anything. One does it if everybody does it and if no one does it, one does not do it either.

"Just as we had one Miss Universe and now we have so many. It is the same syndrome" he explained.

"The critical issue over here", he further added, "is to ensure that the first of such happenings do not happen. If one person spits in a corner, within minutes there will be 50 more spitting at the same spot which will turn into an impromptu permanent spittoon. Similarly if one person writes on the wall of the lift, 100 will follow in 20 seconds and the entire mall will be one American graffiti" he explained. "The key is security, and we are very tight, though polite about it. But, at the same time apprehensive as one slip-up (quite literally) means things will go haywire."

I did not agree with the manager. More and more Indians have been exposed to systems abroad and know of their spotless functioning. Perhaps, it's a change of heart and mind. But one could also be jumping the gun. As they say around here, "we are like this only."

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