IMG_2123POSTCARD 149: Delhi: Mall architecture, astonishingly playful buildings, concrete and steel monuments and shrines to maya (sanskrit: illusion) – in Chiang Mai they even named a shopping mall ‘MAYA’. The population welcomes the idea; step into the illusion… air-conditioned, bright and colourful. More and more of these in Bangkok, over the top – a lightweight upbeat city culture, low labour cost and construction projects are ongoing. Something hopelessly inevitable about it careering towards the relentless consumer culture of the West – except that in the East, people are more likely to ‘know’ when they’re stepping into the illusion. Cultural tradition, awareness and vestiges of spirituality; besides, everybody here knows that if somebody is in the market trying to sell you something, it means you have the option to negotiate a fair price… not so in the Mall, and that’s why so few people go there.

The Mall culture affects only a small percentage of the population (sounds like a virus) and, I have to say I’m sometimes part of that minority; the need for essential things for devices, bookshops and a good baker. To get to our mall we have to drive out of town and the three-building complex is situated in an undeveloped area – there’s a fourth building going up at the time of writing. Construction site workers’ community nearby, chickens and goats in a hot dry, dusty landscape. Come off the highway, through a great winding turn of rough unsurfaced road, potholes and puddles of water and into the short entry, manned by security – car examined, mirrors held underneath, look in the trunk, the engine. More security at the entrance, metal detector and security guards carry out a full body search before you get in the door.

It’s as if the whole concept of consumerism is subject to scrutiny; not as easy as it is in the West to simply be ‘pulled’ into the Mall like a magnet and disinclined to escape from the illusion. For many people the whole thing seems impossible to change, situated at the end of the consumerist food chain, as they are, and trapped in that predicament. No alternative, we have to purchase the product because we can’t create it ourselves – so far away from the artisan, so far away from doing things ourselves. People believe they can’t improvise… forgetting that the whole thing is improvised… language is improvised, life itself is improvised. All the systems that are in place were improvised to start with, and even though we may be subject to skillful marketing strategies, there’s still the innate ability to be creative, to improvise, to invent, to innovate, to find a way out of the illusion.

These carnivorous marketing creatures have to be gently pushed into the background in order to bring what’s really meaningful in life into focus. There’s a lightness, a floating in the air… the open-endedness of the human situation, groundlessness.

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” [Thomas Merton]


photo: shopping mall Bangkok

9 thoughts on “improvisation

  1. It seems like quite an ordeal to go to this mall, Tiramit! It doesn’t seem like the shops would have an easy time of staying in business, but maybe more people will seek out that “air-conditioned” illusion of tranquility the Mall’s provide. So much more “organized” than a teeming, market, no? It’s like a strange growth, consumerism. Like a quantum thing. You can have a meaningful interaction with a person in any store, in most any setting, if you and the other person are ready to have it, but the culture itself is something strange– not the sum of the parts. In a way, the “big box” stores consolidate a lot of what we desire in one location and its great– but on the other hand we lose something. We lose the service, the uniqueness, the local knowledge. We lose the shops in which we were “known”. We’re just faces, marks…


    • Thanks Michael… yep, once you get through all the obstacles, it functions in the way all malls do; all products available, Adidas, Nike, Samsung, Blackberry, Calvin Klein, Bvlgare, Cartier, Giorgio Armani, Versace, etc. And there are some individuals here, the insanely wealthy, for whom it’s all clothes-horse and bling. But if you can afford these kinds of products, the sensible thing would be to fly to Dubai and get them tax free… maybe such people are not sensible. It’s the illusion of it; built-in to consumerist behaviour and the general population are not up-to-speed with that life-style, as they are in Bangkok and Singapore. I imagine the whole thing stays in business by means of very long-term investment. For me it’s an opportunity to step back, see the interaction with sales staff as if I were a visitor from another planet. I’m so rarely here; lots of young people at the weekend, entertainment, music. It’s a strange growth, a created environment, the desire to acquire, riding on normal social behaviour, gradually becoming a characteristic, but not quite there yet…

  2. Excellent point about “mall culture” and the marketplace. I agree. Mall culture is corporate, remote, impersonal, distant, not local, not interactive. Hence, no bargaining, no personality, no relation to local culture, except to extinguish it, commodify it, neutralize and homogenize.

    • Thanks for this really comprehensive description of mall culture. I’m hoping that, in the case of India, historical conditioning can help resist it; cultural tradition already includes an explanation of this kind of mindless playfulness, identifies it as Lila or Maya and folk here are less likely to believe it’s something other than what it is…

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