Better prices, creating dignified jobs for underprivileged young folks who could not, despite possible intelligence and desire, get a good education.
For over a decade since I first experienced J.G. Ballard’s dystopic novel, Kingdom Come, I have entered and waded through our malls in a suspicious, frightened anxiety; each step amplifying a visceral morbid fear of the intent and power of its creators over me and you.
Malls always invoked in me anxious inner fears as I trod through the consumerist extravaganza, created by brilliant people who designed these modern urban temples, inspired by scientists who design a maze for lab rats; watching us bring all our inadequacies and complexes, and credit, and sign it off in exchange for beautifully bundled objects of yearning and lust, on discount and special price offers, with free gifts, all of them promising to make us feel complete, human, or even happy for a short while; till the high lasts and the malls beckon us back again to hide in the glitter our dark petty failings.
The brands are gods. The seemingly happily smiling sales girls and boys, poseurs decked with fake smiles and put-on high decibel greetings, the low priests and choir singers of the new church. With rituals of trying new products, wearing those shoes and clothes, clicking on the new gadget locked to the tables and armed with a theft alarm, we both attempt in desperation to hide own falling hopes and failing dreams, of life lived half, even as the opium is served by the masses for the masses, in three flavours: vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, with additional choices of sprinkles and topping; both servers and the served happy and compliant of the matrix code of indulgent participation in the growth of our nation; one product, one shop, one mall, one credit card swipe at a time.
I understand the nation’s need for malls. They are infrastructure. They are an improvement on what we had before — small bazaars and shops, small merchants seldom giving us choice. Better prices, creating dignified jobs for underprivileged young folks who could not, despite possible intelligence and desire, get a good education.
The middle classes, upper- and middle-deckers shop with gusto; the lower citizens are delighted to witness and be part of the orgasmic ordeal of overspending, as housekeepers, as security folks and tech-app cabbies, and supervisors, and managers, and everything else.
But is the reign of the mall complete? Have they elevated themselves while we were studying the price tags and the bedevilled details of the loyalty programme to encash collected points into culture centres, into places of educational insight, into our social watering points where history will be recorded, culture reshaped, news made, gossip originated; where tinderers would make their first offline contacts, where introductions would be offered and taken; where first dates would be rendered, slowly, Wi-Fi enabled; and in so doing, has the mall replaced, the library, public park, playground, picnic spot of scenic beauty, the homes of our friends as the only place to turn to?
Retail heavens have. The news anchor of a music show records her countdown programme interactions with live crowd interjections. Another emcee is enticing kids, asking them to dance in front of her web cam for a digital media start-up in exchange for chocolates. One hustler declares never-before prices and gifts for old people. Someone wants you to try the new automobile, or sign up for a lottery. Girls are getting free make-up, free mehndi, free, free, free.
A man walks up a rapidly climbing escalator with a bucket of fries in one hand, a phone in another, possibly to lose some calories, even as his sleek belt begins to lose the battle against his tummy. He examines the lady approaching on the opposite escalator, downwards, with some interest, but sensing her dismissive glance, changes his expression to disinterest with the lightning speed of a government changing the benefit objectives of a subsidy scheme.
Me-too generation with its me-too moments, and hashtags.
Arrives a new busload of consumers for the malls. They are, behold, school children in uniform, huddled together by a teacher and her couple of assistants. The children, from a posh school, are in their causal smarts version; brimming with excitement and defiance, as the teacher gives her last set of instructions.
A school excursion. Not to a museum, or lake, or court, or TV channel, or hospital, or police station, or fire station, or archaeological monument or park, but instead, dive right into the maelstrom of materialism, of buying and selling, of discounts and offers, and I tell myself, why not? This is the future, the centrally air-conditioned nightmare, which should mark its hour of the future herd. The children, armed with mobile phones, rush to attack a cluster of counters, split into smaller groups, learning and perfecting the art of checking-out people and products and putting a price tag to each in a fleeting glance or less.
What would Abraham Lincoln write to this teacher, who is eyeing her various pupils conquer each stall and each counter with gratifying pace and finesse? Teach my son to pick up the best bargain? Teach my daughter to collect hear loyalty points every time? Teach my kids to discern the not-so-subtle distinction between the fellow upwardly mobile upper classes like ourselves, living in gated communities of villas and duplexes, from those who slave for us on the other side of the counters, and ensure the divides stay. Never accept a friend request from those who belong to a station far below in society and life? Just because the son of the servant has learnt some English and works in a mall does not make him an equal; tell him his place, use the international accent gained in a school whose annual fees is more than their decade’s income, now. Don’t let them easily breach the social divides build with diligence of many a subtle factor, education, caste, social and economic strata, and position, with a transgressional Linkedin connection.
What purpose does a school in Delhi or Mumbai or Hyderabad or Bengaluru find in a mall to teach their students, our children, the nation’s future? Why has the educational excursion and field trip gone mallwards?
Why, but because, the kingdom has come; and the all-hail tune of absolutism of the mall has reached a crescendo; and our subjugation by our new masters has been sealed and closed. With a shiny ribbon.
(The writer is the author of the bestselling MAN Asian Literary Prize longlisted novel, Autobiography of a Mad Nation, a columnist and a political analyst.)