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LAce Posted Monday, May 24th, 2004
Practicing Asia: Malled in Calcutta
Nicholas Beem

We came to the mall in search of refuge: from the Calcutta heat, the seven weeks of volunteer work in a haphazardly-modernizing mountainside city, and the struggle to change our visas in the face of infamous Indian bureaucracy. We wanted to see an English movie, any English movie - as long as it wasn't 3 1/2 hours long with Hindi musical numbers every 20 minutes.

The Inox shopping complex welcomed us with a uniformed security guard. With a nod, he opened the glass door and admitted us into an air-conditioned, post-colonial dystopia. Immediately, I buttoned up my collar and tried to make the money pouch underneath my shirt bulge a little less. We were terribly underdressed! The Indians in the mall were all done up, as if for temple: ornate saris, garish gold and diamond jewelry, pressed dress shirts and slacks. Everyone (but us) was there to worship at this shining altar of consumerism, to make rupee offerings and receive holy objects that testify to the owners' piety. The new members of the congregation were marked by an embarrassed hesitation when faced with an escalator.

This was is not an American Mall. No street punks with jingling piercings, no ghetto superstars in puffy coats, and certainly no sweaty backpackers in wrinkled clothes. The dress code is nearly monolithic. Yet it is built exactly like an American mall: 5 circular stories designed in that maddeningly manipulative way that requires you to walk past all the stores to get to the next elevator. The stores are overtly modern, with brushed steel display stands and flatscreen checkout computers. They sell leather shoes, fancy clocks and exotic foreign snack food like Skippy peanut butter. It was the strangest blend of familiarity and alienation.

Flotillas of families drifted by, necks twisting as they passed to get a better look at the two foreigners, nudging each other and laughing. Packs of teenagers in the latest Western fashions shot us critical glances as they passed. What was our status in this mall? Were we representatives of the culture that created the mall, the Brahmins of conspicuous consumption? Did they seek our approval for their mall, their behavior within? Did we let them down with our shabby appearance? Did they notice our amazement, our confusion, our mockery?

We bought our movie tickets on the third floor, along with some popcorn. The next floor was a food court selling Indianized versions of world cuisine. We tried to buy a Pepsi, but all the vendors required a debit card full of grotesquely-named "Burp" cash to buy anything. It's lucky we didn't buy the soda, because we were forced to hide the popcorn in our backpack when the security guards forbade us to bring it in.

"But they're selling this popcorn right next to the ticket counter!"

"What do you want me to do, sir?"

"Let me bring in the popcorn. There is no way I'll buy another popcorn inside the theatre."

"Sorry sir."

We attempted several other argumentative strategies, such as "Come on, just let us in." No luck. It was eerily American, except that the guards were polite and smiling.

The movie was the underwhelming but pleasingly American Duplex, starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore. Despite being only 1 1/2 hours long, there was an intermission. The audience was amused, despite the familiarity with New York real estate required to get many of the jokes.

We walked out of the movie in a daze, taking several loops past storefronts before realizing we were going in circles. We emerged into the hot parking lot, into an India that is just as surreal as the mall, with disfigured beggars that lie on the ground like dying fish and men that sell posters of smiling babies with the inscription "Sweet love is past a cloud." Somehow we felt more at home.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Lela Schneidman on Wednesday, May 26th, 2004 at 9:18 AM
this is a true story! i was there!

Posted by arendt speser on Friday, May 28th, 2004 at 6:30 PM
jeez, nick, all they need to do is set the ganges on fire and youŽd be back in providence!



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