Call me Ortsac Ledif — that’s Fidel Castro backwards — but what is it about everybody slagging shopping malls these days as if they were the latest form of pestilence to strike our wonderful town of Gomorrah? People who had never complained about open drains and shops piling up on the main road, not to mention building laws that make Dharavi look like a Mies van der Rohe creation, are scrambling over each other to knock these wonderful, life-affirming steel and glass — okay, concrete and cement — symbols of class-destroying modernity.
Why, just the other day, I read an article by a ‘culture type’ who, just by writing the words ‘shiny malls’, was making a point about how soul-destroying modern life has become. The fact that the air is being filled by the chuckles of hand-rubbing, beady-eyed property barons is never allowed to be forgotten each time you pass a mall. Now the intelligenitalia has been joined by the authorities who have found an easy target to pick on. Last week, authorities announced plans of closing malls in Gurgaon for one day of the week so that congestion and power shortages could be tackled. These are the same blokes who allowed a stretch of malls to sprout along one street not too long ago. Now, the malls are being pitched as the reason why traffic comes to a stand-still and why Gurgaon residents have to depend on their buildings’ generator sets for power.
For me, all this is tosh. Not only do I like entering these climate-controlled special escalator zones of numerous shopfronts all under one roof, but I also take great pleasure celebrating them morally and aesthetically. The moral bit first. This is where everyone, whether it’s Tina Ambani née Munim or our cook Anjali, can enter without having to change footwear. There’s no darwan giving you dirty looks here if you don’t look like someone who’s going to buy three pairs of jeans from the Levis store.
Aesthetically, malls are the real temples of modern India. True, in terms of architectural splendour, malls in India don’t have much to offer apart from the ‘cavernous pit’ look in the middle ringed by floors of shopping corridors. But why should malls in general get the rap? You don’t hate Haldiram Bhujiawala outlets just because the one next door is a tacky hole in the wall.
The Vasco Da Gama mall in Lisbon, with its rooftop terrace overlooking a waterfront park is a stunning set piece. The Discovery Mall in Bali overlooking the Kuta beach is another gem. I’m not the arty type, but fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld insists that the Queen Victoria Mall in Sydney is one of the finest structures in the world. Closer home, the mundaneness of the Centrestage Mall in Noida can be contrasted with the promenade-scape of the City Centre Mall in Calcutta or the lego-like sprawl of the Phoenix Mills Mall in Bombay.
The modern upper-middle-class twit’s rage against malls isn’t totally new. When the first Parisian arcades — covered passageways between busy avenues lined on both sides by stores — came up between the 1780s and 1850s, they were hailed as modern wonders. They also resurrected the phenomenon of strolling, otherwise a hazardous activity ‘outside’ in 18th-19th century Paris. Filled with shops, restaurants, theatres and toilets, these arcades were the original malls visited by a goggle-eyed and growing middle-class. They celebrated not only shopping, but also ambling, watching, galavanting and just soaking in the crowds. The French poet Charles Baudelaire, an arcade fan, wrote in his 1863 essay, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: “Those who mix easily with the crowd know feverish pleasures that will forever be denied to the selfish, locked in a chest, and the indolent, confined like molluscs.” Hear, hear!
Then in the 1850s-60s, the same class that revelled in arcades turned around and started calling them abominations. That’s what social mobility does to middle-class bon-bons. Suddenly they start talking about malls destroying the skyline. Well, let me just say that at least here in Gomorrah, the sky is overrated.