Shopping and Snacking Can Illuminate Cultural Facets
By Adi Carpenter
The thing about India is that their capitals and large cities never feel that big. Every couple of blocks is another neighborhood with its own completely different sensation.
This was very obvious when we arrived at our first hotel, The Royal Heritage Hotel and Spa, a beautiful 190 year old building that was originally built by a prince for his princess as a private getaway house. It was a haven for the princess and her lady friends, and men were not allowed within its walls. In her lifetime not a single man stepped foot in the house. Tucked away behind a retaining wall, the hotel is its own little sanctuary. Beautiful flag stone entry way, lush and clean property, but if you walk up the incline it goes from country to heart of the city in 100 yards. Travel a block in any direction and the scene changes: you could be in a slum, a fish market or a five-story mall.
The popularity of malls in India is, quite literally, a new development. It’s strange to see the juxtaposition of sky-scraping malls and slums. The Trivandrum mall went by the name of Pothy’s; just a ten rupee ($.15), one-and-a-half mile ride. The front doors of the mall were flanked by huge jazzy fiberglass statues of elephants and bare-chested men trumpeting. A food court was adjoined to the outside of the building. It was a mini market of various southern cuisines stuffed down an alley.
Inside the mall you were overcome by the sheer size and rollicking atmosphere. The whole of the first two floors were a sea of sarees and fabrics of every type. Beautiful be-jeweled trims were slathered on glass surfaces like glittering sea foam. Fabrics of silk, cotton and polyester in every shade perceivable to the human eye overflowed from mahogany red shelves. Wall-to-wall racks of hanging sarees entrenched the remainder of the level in an ocean of color and sparkles. But this was not all that Pothy’s offered. There is an individual level for the super market, men’s wear, and bedding sections. It was a throwback to a time when anything and everything could be purchased in a single store.
The interesting difference from American shopping malls was not only the cheesy decorations, but the shopping etiquette. The group of us were taken by surprise with the differences in formalities and had some of the staff chasing after us, frantic, worried about getting in trouble.
The most obvious difference was that almost every customer had an attendant helping them who would then carry the items over to a booth where they would print the person’s name and the cost of everything you had chosen under that assistant. Then, you would take the slip of paper and pay for the items at a different counter at the front of the store where your chosen items were stored in cubbies behind the register. It made sense if they were worried people would steal things. A couple of times items were snatched out of my hands as I went to take my items to the register.
There are also curious customs around picking out garments you like. If you like a garment you give it to someone to hold while you shop around for other things. Then when you want to try something on they take you to the changing room. What I thought was particularly funny was the weird looks I received for comparing colors of sarees in front of the mirror. Quite a few women did the Indian version of a raised eye brow, which is a combination of a hunch and a squinty apprehensive look. Pothy’s was a mecca of textiles with the best prices and quality.
On our way back to the hotel we found this little open air deli of sorts that was making what we found to be tasty fried dough called parotta, right next to our hotel. It was fascinating to see only men surrounding the shop when we got there and they looked curious and taken aback as why we were there. Even after we had procured our parotta, they seemed curious as we sat on the curb and enjoyed the closest thing to dessert we had had so far. In our time there only one woman showed up to purchase what looked to be dinner for her family. It almost seemed as if the common type of meeting place for men, like an Indian sports bar, was to sit at open-air delis like these.