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HANGING OUT

I remember the time when the Pantaloons outlet at Gariahat was opened in the late 1990s. Till then, I had been accustomed to old-school shopping: accompanying elders to shops in Gariahat or New Market. Or smaller stores in the neighbourhood and the local bazaar for groceries and things of everyday use. There were specific shops we used to visit for each kind of item to be bought. Shopping itself was a close-knit, rigid affair — with its own set of unwritten rules. I would look in starry-eyed wonder at the Pantaloons store and imagine how anyone could possibly navigate their way through the vast, almost organic, expanses of polished floor that threw up all together clothes and shoes and jewellery and sunglasses and undergarments and so much else. Soon I was old enough to shop alone and I realized that that very diverse but organic ecology of the building made it incredibly easy to complete my entire Durga Puja shopping at one go. That, to me, was the beginning of the ‘mall’ style of shopping.

Not long after that, the city saw the ‘brand revolution’ and the growth of actual malls. For some students — who did not have enough pocket money to afford the high-end brands — the malls offered a space to window-shop and browse. The older, cumbersome way of heckling the shopkeeper to produce before you the kind of shirt you wanted, for example, was not always the easiest of experiences. Especially when you wanted only to look at the shirt and then decide if you would save up to buy it after getting the next month’s pocket money. For young people who were working, malls offered a space that stocked things which helped them validate their status as money-earners. All of a sudden, everyone was wearing Chuck Taylors and many of the New Market shoe-stores stopped stocking the ‘unbranded’ colourful canvas shoes. Malls looked like good places to ‘hang out’ in. One could eat, loiter in a comfortable, air-conditioned, bustling place, watch a movie, click pictures, watch cricket matches and, if lucky, even get to see a local starlet out shopping or, occasionally, an Abhishek Bachchan-on-a-visit extravaganza. A mall visit would invariably make one feel like one is part of a greater, glamorous, boisterous and proud culture. And on those instances when a group of friends could not come to a consensus about where to go or what to do, it could stop at a mall to consider the options. Shopping (or window-shopping, as the case may be) was no longer just that. It had turned into a package — and so had hanging out. A mall was like a sprawling market turned compact — packed (and stacked) into a smaller space. Growing mostly vertically rather than horizontally, it almost screamed upward mobility.

Even school-children became brand conscious and so did their parents. Status-competition among young people was whittled down to a ‘brand-ier than thou’ fray, and you had to be able to afford branded items. I say whittled down because brand-based competition for status is direct and, for want of a better word, easy. It needs money more than discretion. As long as you know the brand of a particular bag you see someone carrying and that catches your fancy, you can get the same bag at a mall where the brand has a store. If the bag were unbranded, you would have a tough time finding another of its kind. Everyone was suddenly willing to spend more money in the malls for things that were cheaper outside. Unbranded junk jewellery, for example, bought from the aptly-named Hangout in City Centre was ‘cooler’ than the same jewellery bought from little stalls along, say, the Hatibagan market footpath.

Just as whales have their barnacles, the malls soon grew appendages in the form of little stalls for food and knick-knacks. Inside met outside to create the total carnival. And so it has remained, threatened perhaps only by e-commerce. The threat is only to shopping at the malls, but not to hanging out.