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January 12, 2000
A Desi Goes Shopping in America
One of the most pleasant things to do in America is shopping. I would even go so far as to say that shopping malls are the hub of American civilization.
Teenagers 'hang out' there, elderly couples meet friends at the food court, lovers make a date to meet in the lingerie shop and harried housewives drag their toddlers to give them some space to run around.
For tourists like us, window shopping is a wonderful and cheap pastime. American shops lavish the kind of attention to their window displays that a mother would lavish on her child. The mannequins are braided, clothed and decorated with utmost care. The accessories are chosen as if they were works of art.
When we visited New York last year, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed by a visit to Bloomingdale's. It seemed as if the window displays at Barney's New York and Saks Fifth Avenue were as beautiful as the modern art that was displayed in the museums.
Perhaps, if a future civilization wants to understand the most important elements of our civilization, the window displays of shopping malls might be chosen as representative of our times.
The problem with window shopping is that it is equal parts desire and frustration. Desire for those beautiful jewels and frustration when you see the accompanying dollar sign. But window shopping has helped me build castles in the air that one day, my husband or son will buy me the Tiffany diamond bracelet that costs a cool $ 10,000 and I can live happily ever after.
Shopping can only be enjoyed if you are absolutely independent. If you have encumbrances tugging at your sari, or nagging you to be quick, the spontaneity and charm of shopping disappear into thin air. As a rule, it is not wise to shop with men who do not know that shopping lies in looking through a hundred things before you decide a. which object you would like to purchase or b. discard all of them as being unsatisfactory.
The concept of looking through clothes for hours without buying anything is alien to men, who buy an expensive shirt at the drop of a hat without comparing prices at several shops.
How women who exhibit so much impatience during a football game can become models of patience at such a tedious, repetitive activity is an enigma to men. I realize this and have my husband wait at those points where he can be useful -- the checkout counter where he pays the bill and carries the parcels.
There is another prerequisite for making shopping a success -- anonymity. This applies especially in India where everyone knows everyone else by name, rank, title and even salary. One woman IAS official told me she could only shop freely outside her state where she would not be recognized.
Freedom of choice gets distorted if one is conscious that others know who one is. For years, I could not buy a crepe silk sari that I coveted because I was the collector of a small town and had to buy cotton saris as befitting a 'dignified' government official.
In America, one can shop in a supermarket with no suspicious clerk following you with distrust. All the prices are marked and one doesn't need to ask the price from some supercilious shop-girl who will turn her nose up merely because you asked her the price.
Shopping in America is doubly exciting because of the 'sales' that pop up everywhere -- dollar-day sales, Christmas sales, the day-after-Christmas sale and so on. I cannot imagine any shop in India, particularly venerable ones like Raymond's or Titan, throwing the day-after-Diwali sales and selling things at rock-bottom prices.
My favorite shopping centers in the west are the Hay Market in Boston where you can choose your vegetables and fruits and the Rotterdam Flower market. The 'passage' in The Hague where no cars can come and the Hong Kong Shopping Centers run a close second.
This Christmas, I was with my doctor daughter in Florida. We had to shop for gifts for the office girls, the nurses at the hospital, the schoolteachers in the two schools where my grandchildren study, the neighbor who had cheerfully looked after the dog during their trips to India, the postman, the landscaper, the cleaning lady, the many friends of my teenage granddaughter and grandson, the karate, tennis, piano and violin tutors, Indian friends, and American friends. The variety of people who populate an average Indian-American life was mind-boggling.
The stores were overwhelming as well. For one thing, there were large crowds everywhere, be it the Mall, the crafts or the toy stores or the department stores. There were droves of people in the supermarkets which offered food baskets and other goodies as gifts. To cap it all, there was a sale to lure one, here, there, and everywhere.
We chose a 'theme' for the office girls, since we couldn't remember what gifts we had given them last year. This year, we decided to give them candle stands with candles since the markets were flooded with varieties of them. The next year, it will be handbags and year after that, it might well be something new in the market. It was difficult to meet the requirements of my teenage granddaughter whose list of friends and gifts kept ever expanding. In seeking the right gift for each one, there was both agony and ecstasy.
The stress and strain of the holiday season which is intended to promote peace and harmony peaks on the day after Christmas when people queue up at the customer service counter to return or exchange the gifts they have received. I wonder what would happen if the giver and the receiver find themselves there at the same time!
And what of the pounds you shed as fast as the dollars, while you walk and shop till you drop? I must check on this next Christmas time.
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