After fifty plus years of living with the shopping mall, perhaps they have simply become second nature to Americans. But, when they are built in places like India, it is fascinating to see how the mall fits into a different context:
Officials at South City estimate that one in every five visitors is there simply to hang out. That would be in excess of 1 lakh people per week. Forum gets about 10-15% less. But both malls are dwarfed by City Centre in Salt Lake that is clearly the favourite among youngsters. There are days when the percentage of people hanging out is well over 50% of the total visitor count.
Psychologist Amarnath Mallick believes the phenomenon is primarily because people prefer the safe environment at these places. “There is no one to bother or harass you. There is no moral policing. Parents also prefer to send their kids to malls for a day out because they provide a lot of healthy entertainment opportunities,” he explained.
The glamour of a mall is also a major attraction. Sociologist Prasanta Ray says it is also to do with a feeling of modernity borrowed from western mindset. “Malls are exciting places to hang out. Being aesthetically designed, they are very captivating. You don’t know where time flies. Malls offer variety and cater to different age groups and attitudes,” he remarked.
“Apart from a few dirty parks that are not well lit, nearby theatres and a pathetic zoo, there is hardly any option to spend leisure time in Kolkata,” pointed out homemaker Dipika Roy, a mother of two who was seen enjoying lunch with her daughters at the food court of South City Mall. “The benches at the parks and gardens are either broken or covered with dust and bird droppings; playgrounds are dirty and the zoo is a mere apology for the real thing. Isn’t it quite natural we choose to spend time at the malls which are air-conditioned, have a variety of food on offer and toilets that are spic and span with attendants round-the-clock?”
As City Centre developer Harsh Neotia explains: “City Centre Salt Lake was our first mall and the so-called mall culture had not even set in then. Our dream was to create an address that would no doubt satisfy people’s shopping needs but where the atmosphere would also lend itself to all age groups and backgrounds, frequenting it for no specific reason. We wanted to create a campus-like feel – vibrant, warm and inclusive. It took the genius of Charles Correa to envision architecture that would enable all of it. Thus we have open and closed spaces, a horizontal rather than a vertical structure and shops and labels of all kinds. The adage for City Centre, therefore, has become ‘Mall n More’.”
But beyond the money, there’s a symbiotic relationship that has struck a chord between mall managers and mall rats. “With relatively lower footfall on weekdays, youngsters lend vibrancy to the mall. It builds up aspirational buying for especially this section of consumers who plan high value purchases and may not be able to indulge in impulsive shopping. We believe they are our patrons in the mid and long term,” said South City Projects deputy general manager (Events & PR) Reshmi Roy.
Here are some notable things about the mall:
1. They are safe.
2. They are clean.
3. They offer “something for everyone.”
4. They are welcoming.
5. They are Western. This is associated with certain brands, amenities, entertainment, and glamor.
5a. There is a buzz around “youth culture.” If you can attract a crowd of “cool” teenagers, particularly ones who buy the brands, they lend the mall credibility as a “cool” place to hang out.
In the end, the builders of the mall know what they are doing: they want the mall to become the de facto public space. And, it just so happens that you can spend money there as well as well as soak up Western ideas like consumerism, being cool, promoting youth culture, and being entertained. Everyone can be entertained or have their needs met if they are willing to spend a little money. In other words, these malls may be attractive spaces but they aren’t neutral spaces; there are messages and behaviors that the builders and owners want people to pick up. At the same time, it is still technically private space so you can’t do some of the things you can in public spaces (protests, gatherings, etc.).
It would be interesting to see how before this mall becomes a “normal” part of life in India and how this changes people’s reactions to it.