Today I’m going to take you on the world’s shortest sightseeing tour, in which we will cross the street from one shopping mall to another. The shopping malls are located in India Shining, the proud, new, resurgent India out to take over the world; however, the street is still firmly in Bharat, the ageless, eternal land of preordained destiny and reincarnation.
Our journey starts at the DT City Centre mall in Gurgaon. It’s a smallish box-shaped shopping mall, three stories high, with maybe 50 shops, rather cramped, and would be entirely unremarkable in most of the developed world — but it was among the first to open in Gurgaon and is a landmark of sufficient stature that a Metro station planned outside will be named after it. Tenants include Ruby Tuesday, where Indians get to indulge their fantasies of being America (wood paneling, cowboy-themed crap, old Coke ads on the walls) and meals of hamburgers and fries cost Rs.500 (~US$10) a pop. Opposite it is Pizza Hut, in the inner atrium is a Barista coffee shop, and most other tenants are small little shops selling jewelry or scarves or CDs or whatever it is that small little shopping mall outlets sell.
As we step out the door, we can watch the security parade, in which all shoppers are made to walk through a metal detector. As everybody is toting purses or backpacks, the detector duly says “beep”, which the security guards duly ignore as they wave everybody onward. But we’re going in the opposite direction. Outside the shopping mall is a parking lot, with modern, expensive cars (nearly all recently dented, scratched and banged). But between the parking lot and the street, there is a 20-meter strip of rutted dirt, muddy in the rain, dusty in the sun. It’s on an inclined hillside, but there are no steps or stairs, so shopper clambers over it randomly, gingerly treading around cow poop and garbage. There’s no road from the parking lot either, so you can also entertain yourself by watching cars try to avoid the worst potholes and pedestrians try to avoid getting run over by monster SUVs.
The strip has recently been bisected by a strip of pavement, running parallel to the main road, but not connected to the parking lot or the main road. This road is inhabited by a permanent logjam of rickshaw drivers, and the strip of dirt next to it has the guy who sells roast yams for Rs.5 (~US$0.10) a pop, the guy who sells paan masala and a scrum of beggars: the mother with listless rag doll child, the wizened old sadhu who looks at you with sad eyes and wordlessly motions toward his mouth, the aggressive ten-year-old girl with a dusty shock of hair, a permanent coat of grime and bony fingers that she uses to pinch those you who don’t pay up.
If you turn your head left, you’ll see a chunk of land cordoned off with Delhi Metro barriers: they’re doing preliminary drillings for an elevated high-speed mass transit system. On the right side, there is a massive construction site for a new shopping mall, and you can watch men bending steel and women carrying baskets of bricks on their heads as the work proceeds. Once the mall is complete, there will be an unbroken sprawl of malls eastward: DT City Centre, One India Place, Vipul’s Agora, Sahara Mall, CWC Mall, and MGF Mega Mall.
But we’ll keep going in a straight line. Ahead of us is Mehrauli-Gurgaon (MG) Road, one of Gurgaon’s two main links to Delhi. It’s three lanes in both directions and full of cars, autorickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, cows and the occasional bullock cart from morning till night. Unusually, there is a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights here; however, the lights are near-universally ignored, and people can thus only cross on foot by massing into clumps of sufficient volume that their bulk and the messy cleanup that hitting them would require intimidates even the most leadfooted of drivers. In the middle of the road is a median strip and a fence, with a gap here for the crossing, usually inhabited by a beggar lady and her baby, whose shit-streaked, naked, blue behind attracts both flies and alms.
If you make it across without being flattened by a truck (Tata Bye Bye!), you’ll find yourself standing in the busy lanes used by cars driving into and out from the MGF Metropolitan Mall. There are no provisions of any kind of pedestrians, so you just have to pick your way across the lane dividers and traffic wardens towards the stairs that come out of the mall and abruptly terminate on the pavement. MGF is anchored by a big cinema multiplex, and from the outside you can also spot a large McDonalds, a popular TGI Friday’s outlet and a Citibank ATM, which is permanently watched over by a dedicated security guard.
As you enter the mall, through another metal detector whose sole purpose seems to be to provide background noise (beep beep!), you’re greeted by a 10-meter pair of curvaceous breasts, barely contained in a lace top. It’s an advertisement for lingerie, in a country where an on-screen kiss in Dhoom 2 (released Nov 2006) generated outrage and a ongoing trial for obscenity. On the left wall, a Bollywood actress in butt-hugging jeans and a clingy silver top; on the right side, a model shows off her backless dress, two slinky legs and pumps that could also be used to skewer kebabs. At the far end of the mall is Chor Bizarre, where you can pay Rs. 500 (a decent monthly wage in some parts of Bihar) for a meal of Delhi-style street food, served by liveried waiters from an antique automobile converted into a buffet table, and whose general manager wrings his hands in genuine distress if you complain that the golguppa shells are a little too chewy.
The laws of writing dictate that I’m supposed to provide some kind of pithy closing statement here, but this is one of those times when India leaves me at a loss for words. Nowhere, but nowhere, in the world will you find the wealth of sheer misery that is India. The slow rollback of Gandhi’s murderously deluded policies of self-reliance and recent surge of economic growth is the best thing that has ever happened in this benighted land, but this distance to be covered yet is dauntingly vast. I’ll be back some day, but for now my quota is full.
And oh yes — do you want to do something? Donate to WaterPartners. Amoebic dysentery nearly killed a friend of mine, but she had the best medical care money can buy: millions of children every year aren’t as lucky, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.