ABCDs and the Great Indian Mall
Michelle Sindha Thomas
It’s holiday season and flooding the mall are foreign returns and their American-born-confused-desi children. They crane their necks and look up at the gingerbread house and larger-than-life snowmen in the atrium, they squint in the filtered tropical midday light glinting off Sparky’s family fun zone, snapping pictures like mad not because they haven’t seen a multistory mall, but because they are shocked that this is India, not just that this is India, but that this is Kerala, Kerala of the backwaters and paddy fields and short, plump conservatives. They angle for the best shot, the perspective that can most accurately convey the . . . splendor. They make an audit of shops: An array of basic Western brands, Aldo and Hush Puppies and Fossil mixed in with youth-centric, India-reveling Fabindia and Chumbak. They approve, in fact they marvel. The mall is missing Prada and Louie, but it will do: With regard to luxury, Bhima, Alapatt, and Malabar gold shops and the Arab fragrance boutiques selling frankincense and myrrh more than compensate.
Somehow, with the arrival of the great Indian mall, the ABCDs also arrive. They had grown up gangly and awkward, glasses, braces, puffy hair, mathematics and spelling bees, enduring a distracting, near-constant negotiating with identity. They generally view themselves in the eyes of peers back in Toronto, Chicago, Houston. While they run alongside them in track and outperform them at academics and eagerly join their parties, they maintain a nagging suspicion that these peers believe them lucky to live in their keep, in the keep of the West; they suspect their best friends subconsciously commend themselves for being so gracious as to extend hospitality to helpless coloreds. While the ABCDs live sheltered suburban lives maintained by big money, they grapple deep unrest, assessing always which barbs to laugh off and which to address, testing out white classmates, storekeepers, violin teachers before ever opening their hearts. The ABCDs align most easily with Others: blacks, bi-racials, refugees.
But now, the ABCDs are no longer huts and farms and gray dust (Most of what they know, they know from National Geographic and a two-week trip to great-grandmother’s deathbed ten years back.). The great Indian mall is an absolute shock: Indian-born-non-confused-desis in silks with swagger and Adidas and Rado watches and haircuts they’d never be bold enough to try. The ABCDs, by turn, feel awkward in their whatever-ugh-it’s-hot clothes thrown on for family outings: Ill-fitting t-shirts and ultra-ethnic elephant-printed pyjama pants — marketed and sold only in tourist zones, exclusively to European backpackers on gap year.
The ABCDs' first stop is HiDesign, where they spend their entire allowance on laptop cases crafted from local leather and vegetable dye. They feel a tingle of pride with the knowledge of such responsible craftsmanship, and in their minds play out the dialogue as it will happen back in school. Next, they visit Fabindia and pick out soft, light cotton tunics. Wow, and they have pockets, too? They learn that their heretofore smallish pecs are actually extra large in Kerala, in fact even the extra large won’t fit properly. “No problem,” says grandmother, "The tailor will alter for you within two hours. Let’s go for lunch.” After falafel pockets and pistachio milkshakes, more shopping: Curly-toed shoes, tea-walla bobble head toys, sandalwood phone covers. They pick up the custom-fitted tunics and finish off the afternoon with tea: “Dad, this chai is so good, why didn’t you ever tell me this is how it's supposed to taste?"
The ABCDs breathe a little easier as they step back out into the humid evening. Over the next two weeks, aunties remind them that their voices are still too loud for polite company and their movements will always lack grace, but observant uncles notice they have taken on a certain new ease. During these weeks, they develop clever ways to combat mosquitos, damp air, and intensely spicy food. When they feel overwhelmed, they whisper to a favorite relative, “Would you drop me off at the mall?” There they rest and regather, sip iced coffee and FaceTime with buddies back home while noticing potential new ones studying at a table nearby.
Back at home in the West, their chiropractors will notice a difference in their neck muscles, a dissipation of chronic tension headaches. History teachers will see new hands raised with questions about immigration policy and post-colonialism and state-scale communism, teammates will notice exotic beat patterns in warm-up playlists. Back at the great American malls of Minneapolis and St. Louis and Boston, the ABCDs will begin adjusting their choices: Hot pink Pumas, block printed button-downs, gold iPhones customized with wallpapers from a December full of birdsong and cousins and palm trees.
Kerala may never be ready for bikinis at Cherai beach. . .
and the ABCDs may never be confident enough for bikinis anyplace —
But there’s hope.