There's a place in New Zealand called St Lukes that always comes to mind when I hear the word 'mall'. It was the magic consumer garden of my youth, a place where I could slurp massive chocolate milkshakes and browse bookstores and curiosity shops for hours without ever actually buying anything. That it has slowly metamorphosed as I have aged, becoming grander in physical scope and far less appealing in my head, has made no difference to my feeling that it is a Mall - perhaps not a Mall in the gargantuan American sense, but my Mall, for better or worse.
Before heading to Mumbai, I had visions of what the Indian mall would be like, and they didn't by any means line up with the comparative comfort to be found in the middle-class institution that is St Lukes. An Indian mall was surely just like the streets outside: noisy, litter-strewn and packed to the gills with shouting families and pockets of youth trying to look cool, all crammed into a frighteningly condensed space. Then I read Jayanth Tadinada's article 'The Great Indian Mall', a nightmare of pretension and mass hysteria colliding violently in one godforsaken building, and my heart rate rose. YOU'RE NOT (GOING TO BE) IN AUCKLAND ANY MORE, B.
South Mumbai's Palladium Mall veered some distance from any of my expectations. Upon arrival, my charming host needed to do some toy shopping for a children's birthday party, so she suggested I go for a wander in the main mall while she waded into the crush of Hamley's opposite. Off I went, into "Mumbai's most luxurious retail destination centre", and what greeted me was a cavernous space rising up three floors, ringed with exclusive outlets on each level. Everything sparkled and looked very expensive, all brand names and price tags, and the biggest impression of all came from the fact that it was nearly empty at lunchtime on a weekday.
I instinctively whipped out my cameraphone and started taking a few pictures. A security guard came hurrying over. "Sir. No photography." I apologised and put my phone back in my pocket, then started to meander up the escalators and into the abyss. I wasn't allowed to capture the moment, for whatever reason, but in a way there was nothing to capture - it was this bizarre, static world of exclusivity and nobody actually buying anything. Young shop assistants stood around, chatting and flirting, then standing over the rare customers that might cross their path. What did they make of it all?
At the adidas outlet, Shyam, a fresh-faced guy in his early twenties, was eager to sell me some expensive shirts and jackets - they had some small discount if you spent more than Rs 3500 - but I explained to him that I wasn't looking to buy, and that none of these clothes fit my oddly proportioned frame anyway. Instead, I asked him how long he'd worked here. "Almost two years," he said proudly. He told me that celebrities come here all the time, almost as a way of validating the mall's existence.
I had to admire Shyam's pride in his place of work. At the sterling silver kiosk on the ground floor, I found the same thing in Amreen - a woman with sparkling eyes and a friendly smile, also in her early twenties. She said it was only her third day on the job, and displayed the same sense of accomplishment: in getting work at Palladium Mall, she had made it big. Her eyes took on a faraway, grateful look when I asked her what she thought of it. "I love it here," she said without hesitation.
Having circumnavigated each of the main mall's four near-empty floors, I headed out to the main courtyard where a few brands had set up promotional kiosks. Micromax Mobile on one side and Nestea on the other were duelling with microphones and loud music to get the names, phone numbers and email addresses of as many punters as possible. In between them, there was a display of Philips widescreens surrounded by the slogan, "Great stories deserve a Philips Full HD LED." As unsure of themselves as everybody else looked, I probably looked the most bewildered and out of place.
Rejoining with my host, we headed into the final stop on everybody's malling agenda: Big Bazaar. It's India's Wal-Mart, the place you save for last so you can reward yourself by leaving immediately afterwards. And you know what? For me, it was a treat. It was far closer to my Kerala-influenced notion of communal shopping than the vast empty space next door: jostling for space in the aisles, being bombarded with offers and queuing for half an hour at the checkout. It may seem odd, but I felt a good deal more comfortable in that much more Indian atmosphere - more like the seething microcosm I'd earlier imagined - than in the coldness of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger boutiques.
Not only that, this was a lot more like good old St Lukes. If Palladium Mall's grand chamber is for the rich, then Big Bazaar is defiantly middle class, a wrestling match for the cheapest goods on whitewashed, overstocked shelves, and I could almost have been back in Auckland. I would go crazy if I had to go there every day, but once in a while, it's an experience, an entertainment and a place where I feel oddly at home. It may not be the bestof both worlds, but is at least a compromise between them.