POSTCARD 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]