Mall+Kar

Cities

“Kar,” a suffix in the Marathi language meaning do/doer/does, is usually added to the end of one’s native or birthplace to indicate his/her belonging to that place. I am, for example, a “Mumbaikar,” Punekar, which means I come from Mumbai, Pune. The use of “kar” is similar to another play on words: the suffix “wallah” associates people with their occupation. Chaiwallah, for example, is a person who sells tea. Rickshawwallah is one who drives a rickshaw.

What then of “Mallkar?” To where would one expect the term Mallkar to refer? Does “Mallkar” fit into the above scheme? No. Rather, it belongs to no place, origin, or ethnicity. It is a term I have coined to describe an emerging phenomenon in India: the shopping mall and its patronizers. Slowly replacing the traditional marketplace, the shopping mall is the newest consumer performative space in India.

Mall: a new outgrowth consuming every corner. It is a themed, air conditioned box for shopping pleasure; people visit to buy many things under one roof. Every mall is a new, secured experience of comfort, style, joy, and convenience. Here name brands clash against each other for sales, bargain deals, attractive schemes, and prizes, bombarding unwary customers with new definitions of lifestyle. In order to instill a sense that he feels respected and cared for above others, inside the mall a shopper is treated no less than a celebrity, from security checks to carrying or banking his luggage. This is how a shopper is introduced to the idea of “Mall Culture.” All of this, however, may be a delusional experience, as each shopper really only receives the same old French wine repackaged in new bottles.

Malls detach from the fabric of a city and act independently. They behave as stand-alone systems belonging to no one. Thus, malls become modern-diversified-entertainment-hangout-retail arenas.

The Mall Culture is exactly opposite of an Indian traditional market; the latter always sprawls across the neighborhood, layers itself across time, has different means of sustenance, and very tactically cramps vibrant streets. They are filthy, yes, but the filth, crowd, noisy shopkeepers, and lousy music played on radios blaze all around you, welcoming you to the old traditional market. After all, it is not place of chic people: it is a place where one needs to be tactful, strategic, fast, and organized in order to strike the best deal.

  

 

Unlike in the shopping mall, within the Indian market there is trust, bargaining, and a personal attachment to the owner—even after the sale is complete. Moreover, the local vendors and marketers know your name, tastes, and choices, making shopping or the “bazaar” a practice, a ritual. And unlike the mall where there is only a superficial relationship between the customer and sales assistant, local stores in the market also give the individual a place to discuss personal problems, thereby binding shopper with shop. Unless one is a frequent customer, this level of relationship is rare in the mall. Furthermore, in the market erstwhile aristocrats jump out of their cars to choose fish with their maidservants before continuing their shopping spree. Such encounters give people a chance to interact (literally bump) in an open pool and market, transforming the theme park atmosphere into a sure chance for an unusual rendezvous.

In regards to setup, market shopkeepers directly interact with wholesalers. Thus, when any fluctuation occurs in the economy, demands are more quickly matched. Also, at the market, one usually purchases only necessary items. In contrast, at the mall a shopper may end up buying products he does not need, or easily surmounts his daily budget allowance.

Each new mall built affects Tier II and Tier III towns, not just in terms of identity but practically as well: questions over parking, traffic, and infrastructure must be resolved. Recently, however, shopping malls have felt the pinch of an economic slowdown. Construction of 27 malls in Mumbai (14) and NaviMumbai (13) has halted. One local newspaper reported almost 40 lakh square feet of total city space is occupied by malls. Despite this abundance of space, however, retailers still cannot afford rent in malls these days: a 42% decline of mall rentals was recently reported.

Markets are thriving and will continue to do so as long as a diversified economy exists. But markets are losing their charm. People prefer free home deliveries over local shopkeepers and roaming those cramped, smelly, noisy streets. Thus they end up at the mall.

Forces of globalization combined with an infusion of new money through the burgeoning BPO (business process outsourcing) industry in India has boosted personal freedom, and has led to an attitude of consumerism new to the Indian public. These commercial Shangri-las are not only battlegrounds for international brands; they push Indians to grapple with our collective psyche and force a suspension of parts of our value system. Malls put into question the innocence and small joys once had aplenty at local stores and markets.

  

 

Huge numbers of people are flooding malls to find refuge from heat, crowds, congestion, or to seek a comfortable shopping experience where families can dine, watch movies and shop together. Surely this move from the market to the mall is a reflection of “will,” a desire to seek new places where people can roam without purpose for hours—together.

July 21, 2009

photos by Amrut Abhyankar

 





 

Consumerism, India, Public Space