Sunday, May 11, 2008

When the cat's away....

...... the mouse takes his credit card shopping. Mr Roland’s on a course, and Monu won’t hear of having the day off. “New mall,” he says, bossily, “Nice nice shops.” Well, that’s almost what he says, but he can’t pronounce “sh” properly. He says “fis” instead of “fish.” He also says, “Sit!” when we hit bad traffic, but, in his defence, he doesn’t smoke or drink, and he only plays cards for matchsticks...
So, the Oberoi mall. New shopping precinct, with its paint still wet. It’s supposed to open the last week of May, but has flung wide its doors, a whole fortnight ahead of schedule. It wouldn’t happen in the UK. Over the gleaming entrance, it promises “Fun, food, fashion, films!” I tell Monu, that I’m not coming out again, until I’ve had some of everything.

First, there’s the gauntlet of security to run. At the entrance to malls and big hotels, the car’s searched too – we have to open the bonnet, and they pass a dubious Heath Robinson contraption – a makeup mirror lashed to a stick – under the back of the car, checking for “devices.” I could have a pocketful of grenades, and a stick of gelignite stuffed down my salwar, but the security man’s too busy saluting me, and saying good morning, to find out. (At the entrance to our local Haiko, my handbag’s not only searched, but locked, with a thin strip of plastic looped through the zip and round the handle. How do they think I’m going to pay, by osmosis?)
At the Oberoi mall, my bag and I go separate ways, for ratification. We join forces again, the other side of the metal-detector doorway, officially Fit To Shop.
In a heartbeat, it’s obvious how they were able to open the Oberoi a fortnight early. It’s not finished yet, that’s why. Three-quarters of the shops are still boarded up, promising marvels soon. It will be four storeys of gliding elevators and plate glass, thronged with middle India, out browsing, and spending its new wealth. The piped music’s making my contact lenses wobble. I can hear hammers and drills, the other side of the boarding, where Mothercare and Debenhams are about to spring into being, but the Body Shop’s already open for business, as is Mr Raymond’s, the gentleman’s outfitter. In Lifestyle, welcome garlands festoon the stairwell, while workmen huddle on the floor, finishing the grouting. Shoppers step over them, on the way to “Jewellery and Watches.” I take my purchases to the pay-counter, where no less than eleven assistants clamour to serve me. In fairness, one of them’s a displaced security guard, and there’s also a lady from accounts, going through a file – but I occupy at least five of the remaining cashiers, processing my transaction, and packing my shopping, as if they were freighting the Holy Grail across the subcontinent.
At the other end of the mall – when I have gone up and down all the escalators several times, so I won’t be out again too soon, and have Monu think his idea wasn’t a good one – there’s Central. The fragrances for men and women department has racks of glossy, underlit shelves, but no perfume or aftershave. The customers have arrived before the stock. I’m given a rose, which compensates me for much.
In Central’s Food Bazaar, I pick up what looks like a packet of pasta, but it’s a snack. I ask the assistant, if it has to be fried. He so wants to help, he’s almost in tears, but can’t understand the question, let alone frame an answer. He goes for his mate. His mate goes for his mate. I mime my dilemma - to deep-pan-fry, or not to deep-pan-fry? (I catch myself saying, “Small, small oil?” Monu has a lot to answer for) – but apparently, it’s the 4-star heart-attack option, bring on the ghee. Salt? I say-and-mime. No salt, mercifully. For a minute there, I thought our arteries were in trouble.
I choose a bar of chocolate for Monu, in the absence of any home-bred boys to pamper, and ask the confectionery-wallah the price – “This one, ten rupee.” He picks up a different bar: “This one, five rupee.... this one, ten.... this one, ten....” and, suddenly, I have nine treat bars in my confused hands, and a small retinue of well-meaning shop-assistants, come to watch big spending, western-style. I hope Monu likes chocolate...

It’s very Indian, having the opening launch, before the men have towed the final skip away. The Mahindra Bank opens its Powai branch, with flowers and balloons and potted bay trees, before the building shell’s complete, let alone the fixtures and fittings. The roof’s not yet on the sixth floor, and the surrounding shops are still having finishing touches like walls and floors installed, but the Bank’s trading. To safeguard unwary customers, a net’s vaguely looped over the shop front, to catch falling masonry. Well, hopefully, to catch it. Unit by unit, the little arcade sparkles into life – Papa John’s pizzeria, Adam’s and Cabbage Patch kids’ stores – all foreign franchises, no room for quirky one-off shops like Kuldeep Scooters or Shivam Glass House or the Chauhan Cloth Centre. The Mahindra Bank will be up for its first repairs, before the Subway Sandwich Shop sells it first Chicken Madras-filled focaccia.
I feel a real pang for the little lock-ups in the streets. I tell Monu about the death of corner shops, back home, and the aircraft-hangar multiples which have crushed them. We shake our heads, sadly. Mumbai’s turning into just another modern city, and they’re calling it progress. Looking around, though, at the cows grazing on the pavement, and the heaps of rubble lining every road, the day, you can’t tell if you’re in Mumbai or Barcelona, is a long way off.