Red Fort is under attack.
[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]
In the heart of New Delhi, not many acres away from the green expanse of the imposing Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Palace), built from the sandstones that were quarried from the deserts of Rajasthan, stand grey, design-less, concrete structures.
Constructed when India was dreamily in love with everything Soviet, these Moscow-style blocks were planted as a tongue-lickout tease to the colonial arrogance of the surrounding monuments, created by the British masters dreaming of an everlasting Rule Britannia.
These drab buildings, housing ministries and offices with Soviet-sounding names, like the Planning Commission of India, belong to a common school of architecture that boast of installations which appears to have been airdropped all over the socialist world: from Sofia to Havana, from Tirana to Pyongang.
That drab commonality was the essence of communism: same color, same uniform, same party posts, and the same gods — the cult of Marxism-Leninism echoing from the flooded rice-fields of Vietnam to the frozen traffic squares of Warsaw.
The romance, and terror, of the communism is now over. But another, and yet similar, process is underway. The space vacated by the uniformity of communism is swiftly being flushed in by the glamour of a new order — a lifestyle equally homogenous and universal, which promises to remove the last stains of individuality and independence, which is determined to bury the final remains of authenticity, uniqueness and variety that makes up the beauty of this world. This is the 21st century communism — the world of Malls, Multiplexes and McDonald's.
The McDonaldization of the World
Making the way through a row of small jewelry stores situated on both sides of the two-lane driveway in Karachi’s decrepit Saddar commercial district, one would soon come across a blue-colored block called Atrium Mall whose front display hoardings familiar enough to make a scared American spy feel at home — KFC and Pizza Hut.
After being searched for a hidden bomb or a Kalashnikov by a uniformed guard, step inside one of the fast-food outlets. Let it be Pizza Hut. It is the same familiar world from then onwards: orange light emanating from tastefully concealed bulbs, and stewards attired in the same recognizable uniform, consisting of red-lined shirt, black trousers, and red baseball caps.
Saddar's steward might be an Ismaili boy hailing from the remote Swat Valley of Pakistan, perhaps handsomer than his counterpart in an outlet of the same chain in Bangkok, but both of them display the same behavioral pattern: a deliberate, labored informal attitude -- shrugging shoulders, looking-into-the-eye strategy and accented American English.
The menu is the same, excluding a pig here and a cow there. There will be the same salad counter, offering the same choices in the same portion in the same rate, in the center of the eatery. You were in Karachi, Pakistan. But it could easily have been a Pizza Hut in Chicago or Kobe.
The Seduction of McDonald's
Children love McDonald's burgers. The food may be fattening and seriously unhealthy, but they are tantalizingly inexpensive. Packaged in the unmistakable aura of the American dream, the cheapest burger in India is priced at merely 20- rupees, equivalent to US $0.5.
No matter what the permutations and combinations of McDonald's menus in different parts of the world, it all comes down to patties mixed in bread crumbs and deep fried. You will not get an authentic Chiken Tikka in Bombay's McDonald's, or a richly-flavored Bouillabaisse stew in Marseilles's, or a fulfilling Haggis in Edinburgh's. It would be the same burgers, having the same flavor, with certain superficial twists to cater to the sensibilities of the local markets.
The Invasion of the Malls
Each bazaar in Delhi has its own buzz. Sarojini Nagar Market specializes in stoned jeans and pretty sandals at bargainable prices. South Extension Market has glamorous Saree showrooms. It is a shopping district where hop-scotching from Mehra Jewelers to Ebony Garment Store has to be interrupted by a hurried feeding of oily Aloo-Gobhi and Sweet Mango Lassi in the corner Bangali Sweet Shop.
Connaught Place, the celebrated British-built central shopping district of New Delhi, has its charm of aimless loitering in the white colonial corridors of the family-friendly Inner Circle, and of experiencing a salacious pleasure of being proposed and followed by prostitutes in the seedier Outer Circle. Palika Bazaar happens to be the destination for blue film junkies, and Nehru Place the shopping mecca for pirated software.
Paharganj Main Bazaar, situated opposite the New Delhi Railway Station that offers cheap hostels to western backpackers, is the place to look for small, hippy-friendly Buddha statues and to doodle down authentic Israeli Falafel, besides savoring the pleasure of walking past exotic bakeries displaying German graffiti. And if you have a daring for some wild life, this teeming bazaar also provides discrete services of Nigerian drug peddlers and fat-white Central Asian prostitutes.
But slowly, gradually, this charming world is coming to an end. All across Delhi, including in its teeming suburbs, the landscape is sprouting shopping malls as fast as pimples appear on the smooth cheeks of a 14-year-old nymphet. You can buy Levi Jeans, canned vegetables, factory pickles, children's toys, branded underwear, served over by indifferent uniformed attendants, all under the one roof of these air-conditioned bubbles.
The romance of a bazaar excursion will be lost.
The Multiple Choices of the Multiplex
In New Delhi's greeny Chanakayapuri enclave stands a theatre of the same name. It has several legends attached to it. Richard Attenborough's Gandhi - that went on to won 8 Oscars — had its world premiere on its screen in 1982. Many middle-aged couples claim to have started their courting in its dark corners. Unfortunately, this single-screen auditorium with a capacity of a thousand seats is now breathing its last days. It is getting ready for the new owners who have declared their plans of implanting a multiplex on its ruins.
The ancient Plaza and Rivoli theaters of Connaught Place, built during the days when India was still ruled by Buckingham Palace, have already been taken over by an aggressively hip multiplex company. These theaters now screen more then one film at any single day. Regal, another film-house in the same district — once patronized by Lord Mountbatten, India's last British Governor General, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister — too appears to be jerking out its dying spasms.
It is more likely that in the not-very-distant years Delhi, like other cities in India, like many cities throughout the world, will have no single screen theatre left. We will then not go to watch a film, but only to enjoy the experience. If you will not get the ticket of this film, you will buy for that film. The film itself will not matter. The ambience will be the decider. And what is ambience in a multiplex auditorium but simple expectations of sound-proof walls, cushioned chairs, wide arm-rests and ample leg space!
In a multiplex of choices, choices will be the last thing to scout for.
A World Gone With The Wind
So, after few years, on weekend evenings, different locales in the planet will savor the same experience. Bhaskar and Renu in Delhi; or Roland and Sethe in New Orleans; or Zheng Jindong and Jiang Li in Shanghai will go to the same-shaped malls, look into each other's eyes while drinking Mocha coffee in the similarly-designed Starbucks lounges, pay for exactly-the-same-tasting Roasted Chicken Breast Sandwiches in the Subway counters, watch Mission Impossible:7 in the corner seats of the in-house multiplex (Auditorium 3), shop Tommy Hilfiger and Nike in the flood-lit, glass-walled showrooms, and say hey-hi to the same-looking, similarly-dressed, similarly bar-coded and branded friends, flying up or down the escalators.
The old world is to disappear.
Welcome to a shining new world. Welcome to a new communist order where everyone will be same, and every place will be familiar.