Open Essay

Is Mall the New Mandir?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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A meditation on Black Friday

If Black Friday doesn’t appear to have set urban India on fire, that need not mean Indians are less greedy for bargains than the Chinese whose Single Day Sale is the biggest in the world, according to Alibaba. It’s just that elite India is too discriminating to patronise the mad scramble of bargain sales. It’s also more discreet about spending money abroad.

Like Coca-Cola, hamburgers and everything else that spells globalisation, Black Friday is an American invention. The original justification for a shopping spree on the day after Thanksgiving Day, which is observed every year on the fourth Thursday of November, may have been innocent enough. Cut- price selling seemed unavoidable to clear shelves of turkey, pumpkin pie filling and other Thanksgiving leftovers to make room for Christmas cake and plum pudding. But events evolve their own rationale. Soon, it was irresistibly tempting to hike prices sky-high before the Black Friday mark-down of 50 per cent and more. What makes the manoeuvre especially attractive is that although the laws of gravity decree that what goes up must come down, descents are never quite as steep as the rise.

As with all things American, the habit caught on, even with Americans. India’s response is more nuanced. AB Vajpayee didn’t know he was articulating a profound truth when he described India and the United States as natural allies. Indian immigrants can be as American as they like, giving free rein to the craving for ostentatious materialism that India reserves only for favoured sons like the Ambanis or the Hindujas. Ordinary Indians are like the Pole who applied for a passport in the bad old Communist days. Asked for a reason, he explained he wanted to attend Ronald Reagan’s funeral. “But President Reagan isn’t dead yet!” exclaimed the astonished Warsaw commissar. “I know,” the applicant replied. “But I’d like to wait there for his death.”

Those who are denied the privileged Green Card (the modern equivalent of a passport in the former Soviet Bloc) are scornfully convinced that ‘Make in India’ is only for dehatis. According to Vikram Narayan, the chief of PayPal, top Indians shop in the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Japan—in that order. Dubai doesn’t figure in this PayPal shoppers’ paradise. There are too many Indians there.

Similarly, Black Friday would become like whisky blended in Scotland but bottled in India unless it’s celebrated in the home of the brave and the land of the free. VS Naipaul called it India’s “craze for foreign”. And not Indians and Poles alone. Top Communists in the Soviet Union treasured their American Lee and Levi’s jeans. Lower down the pecking order, they were allowed duplicates from Hong Kong. Those who grovelled at the bottom of the party hierarchy had to make do with Indian jeans. But elite India can’t afford the candour of the young couple from Delhi who visited Singapore when we lived there and proudly told me they had shopped till they dropped. Most are careful to cover their tracks.

California and some other states turned Black Friday into a public holiday. “What we are starting to see is Black Friday, Super Saturday and Cyber Monday all rolled into one in a sales season that lasts several weeks in the run-up to Christmas,” says the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Jon Copestake. After the three-day bonanza on 27, 28 and 30 November, some British establishments advertised Black Friday Week as a seven-day orgy. The name isn’t rooted in the slave trade. It is supposed to signify the moment when retail accounts move from red to black. The 2008 recession was a dampener, but ambitious shoppers and persuasive shopkeepers are made for each other. Nothing can keep them apart.

My Singaporean friends justify discount sales on the grounds they pump additional money into the economy. While that might apply to buying by visitors, economists call purchases by locals ‘displaced’ or ‘delayed’ spending that benefits no one. This is how it goes: a certain calm descends on the world during the fortnight before the great day. Carefully calibrated advertising works people up to a pitch of covetousness, but they carefully hold off buying anything until Black Friday dawns. That’s when they mop up all they ever wanted. ‘Dawn’ is perhaps not appropriate in England where some stores throw open their doors at midnight when it’s technically Friday but sunrise has yet to lighten the sky.

Long (sometimes pyjama-clad) queues wait until then in the cold drizzle of an English November with the same patience I have seen outside Calcutta’s Eden Gardens when a cut-price sale of Chinese household goods was expected. That proved a hoax. Having recently voted themselves one of the world’s most honest nations (surprise, surprise, the Chinese come last in this University of East Anglia survey!), the British naturally go through with the promised sale. When the doors open, it’s the Battle of Britain, the Dunkirk and Normandy landings combined, as shoppers fall savagely on their loot as if they were pounding the ISIS terrorists that David Cameron is dying to bomb to extinction.

The police were summoned in Manchester last year when two women fought ferociously over a 50-inch television set. The crowd stopped buying and watched entranced as two men came to fisticuffs in another store. Both incidents were reported from branches of Tesco, the supermarket which seems perpetually poised to break into the Indian market. Tesco was born in 1924 when Jack Cohen, an East London Jew, bought out a tea merchant named TE Stockwell, and tagged the first two letters (‘co’) of his own surname to the initials (‘Tes’) of his latest acquisition. Cohen was just 21 when he started out with a stall in the Well Street Market in what were then the slums of Hackney. One stall multiplied into many and Cohen’s ‘Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ motto made Tesco the world’s third largest supermarket (second in terms of profits) with operations in 14 countries.

Its proposed Indian debut provoked the saffron hackles that the mild splash of St Valentine’s Day spending had already aroused. That resistance faded, however, when realisation dawned that the small traders who peddled St Valentine’s Day cards and other gifts were on the same side of the political fence. Commerce has no religion. All business is robustly secular—if the word hasn’t become a term of abuse. They would as happily cater to Durga Puja, Buddha Jayanti and Id-ul-Fitr. At the height of the global hysteria when The King rode the music charts to hordes of squealing adolescents, the same American firm that made and sold millions of ‘I love Elvis’ badges made another fortune on ‘I hate Elvis’ badges. It’s marketing that makes the world go round, even the pious swadeshi world.

Communist China has no scruples about flooding India, Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore with Hindu images and rakhi bandhans. There is even less conflict between Mandir and Mall than there is between God and Caesar in the biblical injunction. In fact, many malls have a little mandir tucked away somewhere. Just as it’s strategic to seek benediction before looking for bargains, it’s tactful to offer a word of thanks afterwards. As the ubiquitous ad says, ‘Upar wala sab dekh raha hai’ (The one above is watching all).

There is something sinister in a retail culture in which no one seems prepared to pay the full price for anything. As one round of sales follows another, the real worry isn’t about quality•••••••, ethical production standards or minimum wages. As my son, then only 12, asked in surprise when we first moved to Singapore, how could a special seasonal discount announcement be permanently painted on a shop window? He hadn’t yet realised there is no such thing as a discount. A correspondent in The Daily Telegraph writes that an £87 watch she wanted to buy cost £97 on Black Friday so that even after the discount, she paid 30 pence more than the ordinary price. Adults who know are still anxious to chase an illusion. Not that the chase is always financially fruitful. Visiting Tehran from London once, I felt I had scored a tremendous victory by beating down the seller of an Isfahan rug from the rial equivalent of £150 to a mere £50, the only currency I had. I later discovered the man changed my 50 one-pound notes into many more rials than he had originally demanded. But it was a satisfying transaction. I wouldn’t part with that Persian carpet for anything.

Time was when shopping was a necessity to satisfy essential needs. The village bazaar and the weekly haat provided what people wanted. Now, shopping creates the needs that must then be satisfied. An enterprise like the capital’s Dilli Haat tries to tastefully blend both. Shopping in—or, rather, visiting— Calcutta’s big English department stores was also entertainment in my childhood. Hall and Anderson was probably the most exclusive. Harrison Hathaway and Army and Navy Stores occupied imposing buildings. Whiteaway Laidlaw looked the grandest but I knew from my grandmother that fashionable society, led by the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, looked down on an establishment whose domed mansion—gloriously repainted with gilt pediments by Mamata Banerjee’s government—still dominates the Calcutta landscape. Pretending not to be able to remember the name, snobs referred to it as “Whitelaw and Laidaway”. It was a double entendre, since ‘laidaway’ also conveyed a hint of old and unsold stocks.

Colonial Singapore boasted some of these department stores which may have inspired the glittering shopping malls Lee Kuan Yew built. These air-conditioned marble and mosaic palaces weren’t intended to provide only retail facilities. With food courts, cafes, restaurants, bars, exhibition halls and cinemas, all connected by escalators that moved smoothly and swiftly, they were the temples of the new Singapore. Singaporeans, 80 per cent of whom lived in crowded, subsidised government housing, were invited to visit them, wander about and relax. Since Singapore is historically an Indian city, it is only fitting that the most spectacular shopping mall—Quest—should be in Calcutta. However, distinction has it dangers. With London belatedly following the Singapore-Calcutta lead, a Mr and Mrs Khan are being tried at the Old Bailey for planning to bomb the smart Westfield Shopping Centre.

Shopping may be changing dramatically. With the streets of London, Manchester and other big cities relatively quiet this year, with sparse crowds and deserted car parks, Black Friday seemed in danger of turning into Bleak Friday. But online sales soared over £1 billion, breaking all records in terms of value and number of sales. Shops like John Lewis and Argos reported slow loading pages, error messages, stalled websites and crashes as the orders came flooding in from across the seas.

Recalling the 50 per cent rise in sales on account of India’s Great Online Shopping Festival and projections of Indians spending Rs 54,700 crore by the end of the year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many of those internet bids came from Mumbai, Delhi and perhaps even smaller Indian cities. Just as Nitish Kumar’s prohibition will again drive drinking underground, Arun Jaitley’s financial management is bound to send foreign exchange transactions into the untraceable ether.