Avenue road, a narrow street made narrower by rows of two-wheelers and auto rickshaws parked on either side, hadn’t changed much over the years. I used to come here during college days; the array of small bookshops that lined the street sold my college textbooks and guides. This time, after many years, I had come looking for some titles in Hindi which, I was surprised to learn, no big bookstore in Bangalore stocked.
The street was crowded and dust-ridden, as usual. Most people I saw were labourers who worked in neighbouring areas and used this street as a thoroughfare; there were also some students – plainly dressed and carrying a book or two – at the bookshops. Above the shops, closely-spaced and discoloured signboards competed with each other announcing their near identical wares. At a nearby South-Indian fast food outlet a barefooted boy wearing shorts and a soiled T-shirt swiped tables vacated by people after their cup of filter-coffee. Up ahead there was an old woman selling fresh flowers from the heap in her basket, while a little girl by her side tried to shoo a cow that had crept close.
Standing there, taking in this scene and the surrounding din of a busy marketplace, it was difficult to imagine that while this street had gone about its usual business for over a decade (since I was here last), a huge IT revolution had taken place in this city. There seemed no clear signs of change visible here; the signs, as it turned out, were elsewhere.
At the end of the street I entered a photo studio that offered “instant” passport-sized photographs. The photo was taken with a digital camera, and a photo-printer instantly ejected multiple copies of tiny portraits in matt finish paper. As I paid at the counter, another customer asked for the negative of the photos he had just received.
“Sir these are from a digital camera” the man behind the counter explained. “There is nothing like a negative these days.”
The customer, still puzzled, asked how he could get more copies.
“Sir for that we have mentioned a serial number on the bill. Anytime you want a copy, you can give us the serial number and we’ll print out more copies for you.”
“So I will have to come here only for the copies?”
“Yes sir, you have to come here only.”
The digital world, in addition to speeding up processes, had opened new ways to retain customers.
* * *
I took an auto rickshaw from Avenue road to the recently opened Forum mall in Koramangala. I had read about The Forum: it was Bangalore’s biggest mall, occupying three floors with dozens of glittering shops, food-outlets, a 11-screen multiplex cinema and a multi-storey car park that could accommodate a thousand cars. Such large malls, common in Europe and the US, were relatively new in India.
The auto ride through one-way streets bursting with traffic took over an hour; it was dark when I reached Koramangala. At first glance, The Forum appeared on the outside like a cross between a cinema hall and a shopping arcade: movie posters covered one side of the facade, and tall masts carried well-lit displays of well-known brands. Inside, I walked across windows displaying crystals from Svarovski, computers from Apple, and music systems from Bose. Soft music filled the background as I glided on escalators from one floor to next, from one expensive display to next. Around me I found mostly teenagers and young-adults, fashionably dressed and willing to spend. At McDonalds a group of boys in neatly starched uniforms took orders from a long queue of people carrying elegant shopping bags. There was another queue at the multiplex: people waiting to pay rupees 500 for a Gold Class cinema experience.
Avenue road seemed a place very distant, perhaps in a different city altogether.
* * *
Some days later I visited another mall on Brigade road: the 5th Avenue. I remembered this mall from my college days: I had been there soon after its gala opening. It was, a friend had told me, the star of Brigade road. The decorations certainly had seemed to indicate so. You entered through a granite-floored passage that opened into a foyer with shops on four sides and a fancy restaurant in the middle. There was a glass capsule lift in one corner and an escalator at the opposite end. A small queue had gathered outside the capsule lift: people were eager to experience this new arrival in town. It was a small mall, but there was much optimism that the concept would catch on: the mall had done well in the West, and people after all preferred one-stop shopping destinations where they could access different brands and have a snack nearby.
Perhaps it was my recollection of this early visit that gave me the jolt I received when I entered 5th Avenue this time. The granite flooring had chipped in places, and it no longer matched the shiny image I carried. The once fancy restaurant looked worn now; most tables were empty. The escalator had been shut down, and stuck in-between its jagged steps were scraps of paper, cigarette-butts and plastic covers. People were using this escalator as a staircase, stepping over all the filth. The capsule lift still worked, although one could no longer see clearly through the stain-covered glass on its sides. The shops seemed to be doing badly: there was hardly anybody shopping, and the shop attendants looked bored and listless.
The economics behind this decline was easy to see: Brigade road, with all its shops and restaurants, was like one big mall; another small mall added little value here. Further, shops tucked inside 5th Avenue were not as accessible and prominent as the ones on Brigade road, and the mall offered little incentive (in addition to shopping) to draw people in.
But while economics can create and destroy assets, attitude and culture is what preserves and sustains them. The Forum is glittering today; how will it be tomorrow, I wondered, as I walked out of 5th Avenue into the familiar buzz of Brigade road.