TO ENTER THE SELECT CITY WALK shopping mall in Saket, New Delhi, is to experience something like what Dorothy and her traveling companions in the Wizard of Oz do when they leave the black-and-white zone of Kansas for the dazzling Technicolor world of Emerald City. One has just made a harrowing journey through the dusty woods of Delhi traffic, fending off desperate boys with their stacks of English-language magazines and pirated bestsellers at stoplights. At the guarded gate, one must submit to the international flight-style security checks. All this before stepping into an exact replica of those fabled temples of fevered devotion to consumerism: the American shopping mall.
When I visited, the mall was decked out for Christmas. Not Christmas as it is celebrated in the quaint churches of Bandra or Goa or Cochin. But Christmas worshipped at the altar of the tinseled tree of the great god of shopping. Awe-struck families took turns snapping photos of themselves before the soaring plastic branches sweeping over the artificial snow and shiny super-sized parcels below. To my utter amazement, a group of teenage girls, three of them blonde, two plausibly Indian, performed a song-and-dance number to Jingle Bells (…dashing through the snow…). When I passed by later, they were sweetly harmonising the song Bing Crosby made a Christmas classic lo so many years ago: I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know... Cameras flashed all around. A friend visiting from Mumbai, who happens to live in Bandra, commented: “I had no idea there were so many Christians in South Delhi.” Her innocence touched me.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made the expression ‘inclusive growth’ a mantra. He has chided India’s rich for vulgar displays of wealth, and warned that “income and wealth inequalities can lead to social unrest.” He has further cautioned that, political stability aside, runaway consumption is not environmentally sustainable. Is anybody listening? And aren’t the government’s pro-growth policies actually encouraging the vulgar display of consumerism and celebrating the heady glee of purchasing power the Prime Minister decries in lofty speeches?