Mall rats

Posted: June 17, 2012 in Delhi life
Tags: , , , , , ,

A word from our sponsors
Loyal Readers, I must start by waving a giant blue warning sign. Oh Mother, tell your children not to do what I have done! Yes, at long last, my laptop is finally knocking at the door of the great pearly Apple store in the sky—even God’s own Geek Squad couldn’t save it now. Four years, 47-degree heat, dust storms, and innumerable questionable downloads later, it was the old bedside beverage whatdunnit. Four (admittedly sizeable) droplets landed on the mouse and, with immense meaningfulness, the letters D, T, and K. I reacted much like filmic monsters do just before the kamikaze hero lands his nuke in their eye: I cocked my head and gave a bemused grunt, and everything went horribly, moistly wrong.

The laptop still wheezes awake, death-rattling melodramatically. ‘Just for once,’ it seems to be saying beneath that oddly intact shiny helmet, ‘let me look upon you with my own eyes, Luke.’ Luckily I didn’t listen, as I have the technological skills of a pipistrelle bat. Actually, its brain seems OK–but now along with a broken disc drive, the keyboard and mouse also don’t work except to right-click and mute. It’s become the Stephen Hawking of laptops, or perhaps that Diving Bell and the Butterfly bloke, trapped and bored and thinking in furious silence. Either way, this means all further updates will use the laptop’s pretty village idiot cousin, the iPad, and its offensively bad Autocorrect. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

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Kunj action
Ten days to go, and I realise how little I’ve actually said about D-Town, ‘that monstrous, addictive city’. Like London, Delhi feels like a series of distinct quarters, the character of each preserved still further by dubious transport and urban planning—so that our relatives hadn’t ventured a handful of metro stops north to Old Delhi for years, or ever visited the city’s southwest. At least in my end of town, each muhalla is composed of concentric circles of housing around a market–‘Residents are both figuratively and physically forced to turn their backs towards everything outside. It’s introversion by municipal design.’ Here, then, are some parting snapshots of the varied areas I’ve been loitering in for the past five months.

I begin, of course, with my home turf: Vasant Kunj, a sprawling low-density area just south of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s safari park of a campus. Approached across an area of sewage stink and dusty forest (which leads occasional city-mouse auto drivers to plead, ‘Madam, you take me in jungle. Very far, very dangerous, you give more’), it bustles like a genteel ant hive in the mornings, and is pitch black and paranoid at night, with the clatter of the nightwatchman’s stick and the roar of drunk drivers and the 01:13 to Bangkok the only sound.

The Kunj is almost entirely ignored by travel writers. Not so by Delhi’s middle classes, who nod approvingly when I give my Stalinistically number-heavy address—‘Ah!’ they exclaim wizard-like—‘Ambience! Promenade! Emporio!

For I live in the centre of polysyllabic, Europhilic modernity: three of Delhi’s great malls flank our street. They loom, alien, a kilometre beyond the pat-a-cakes of dung fuel and acrid burning plastic that line our local mini-slum, sending the bourgeoisie’s obese pets sputtering. The latter used to be ‘semi-pukka’ houses, apparently, with cement and electricity, until the municipal government ‘beautified’ the area and smashed everything. Rich Delhiites complain that the state’s hands are tied by democracy, unlike Beijing’s, but some citizens are far, far more equal than others.

Spotless, soulless, ice-cold, the malls are where the middle classes come to play. Here ladies—and the whining albino freaks that are Westerners—can hang out without being stared at. Families make a day of it, shopping eating bowling cinemaing drinking dancing (just like that Betty song, cool kids). I concede they are relaxing places for those with doctor-parent-induced OCD, a love of imported goat’s cheese, and a desire to watch Euro 2012 (argh stress) or Prometheus (argh stress in a good way).

They are also sinister, dystopian places, always too empty and heavily guarded, with feral rich kids and lab rat lighting and interrogation room chic (in fact, Indian changing rooms are Kafkaesquely called ‘trial rooms’). I hold my breath waiting for a zombie attack or a doomy voiceover from HAL.

Luckily vestiges of Indian customer service survive to recontextualise you: car parks reached only through barbed wire-filled building sites, layers of receipt bureaucracy, whitening creams. Once I tried to return some ill-advised shorts. ‘Exchange?’ repeated the security guard, with a sharp intake of breath. The entire mall clattered to a standstill. No fewer than seven people were required for the transaction; I signed four different documents; and finally I was forced to placate them by buying socks. Only trying to buy football boots was worse—the incredulous ‘for ladies?‘ and more than usually sceptical glances at my breasts.

‘India’s dreamtown–and its purgatory’
Further southeast still, rearing out of the smog and scrubland, is the Kunj’s notorious neighbour,

the schizoid, bulimic satellite city of Gurgaon—a city which isn’t a city, which is both Delhi and not-Delhi, and which is so engorged by the fruits of modernity that it needs a regular anti-emetic… a soulless, dispiriting, lonely experience… Were all cities destined ultimately to resemble each other? —Sam Miller

Ten years ago—or perhaps even five—Gurgaon had a smattering of titanic office buildings. Now it sprawls, tower after block of exclusive flats after golf course, in varying degrees of architectural offensiveness. In ten years people will complain about the colossal waste of space; now they complain because the public infrastructure is famously poor, with flooded drains and endless traffic in the corporate morning. Inside, blocks have armed guards and swimming pools, and only fools, thugs and gigantic black hogs venture onto the pavements.

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At the weekend I ventured here to the Kingdom of Dreams, a sticky borrowed three-year-old adoringly suctioned to my torso. TimeOut describes it as ‘the happy lovechild of [state-run souvenir emporium] Dilli Haat and Las Vegas’. There was an indoor beach. And musical shows. And a clown who left the three-year-old weeping hot Factor 50 tears. No more need be said—if only the iPad understood photos.

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