Whenever my mother comes from her long trips to a shopping mall, my siblings and I run to greet her. We offer her water and take the bags away from her hands while trying our best to hide our greed and impatience. She, on the other hand, plays it cool and acts nonchalant before she opens the bags and only two items come out. As our excitement dips, we question our mother about what she did while shopping if she did such little actual shopping?
Why do Pakistani shoppers spend so much time at the mall and come back empty handed? According to my observation in the different malls of Lahore, one out of 10 people have shopping bags in their hands.
The sudden sprouting of malls leads one to believe that a consumer culture is prevalent in Lahore, contrasting with the reality of the poor and middle class. Malls typically lease retail spaces expensively, with more cost for the spaces with more prominent settings. Only international, multi-national and well-known national companies can afford such rates. Consequently, the prices of products of such companies are also high, making them affordable only to the prosperous, and denoting them a luxury for the lower- middle class.
So then why is there so much diversity of class in every mall? Well, that’s the beauty of the mall-goers, not everyone has to buy something! Some just go window-shopping and ogle at the people and environment, treating malls as museums.
The original purpose of a shopping mall was to be a better and more convenient version of a marketplace. But nowadays, malls aren’t just traffic-less neatly stacked stores, but they multi-task and also work as movie cinemas, food streets, and mini adventure parks. Entering a mall is like entering an alternate reality. A reality with glossy, tiled, and white floors. This reality has the same brands and the same population as any other market of Lahore, but the air conditioning and cleanliness is a treat for Lahorites. The professionalism shown by some retailers is refreshing along with the spotless bathrooms. Is that not incentive enough?
Malls in Lahore are so unlike their humid surroundings that they’ve created a world of their own inside, luring people in with their grand appearance. This world isn’t all fun and games as it promises. Some mall authorities try to control the variety of people visiting malls. Instead of being proud of their popularity among all types of groups, they discourage certain people. Receipts, as proofs of having bought something, are required to be shown at the entry of certain places like the videogame zone at the Packages Mall. At the Emporium Mall, parking is free only if you get groceries from Hyper Star.
These trends are similar to Islamabad’s Centaurus’s selective entry fee for the only ones who can’t afford to pay. The reason behind such discrimination is understandable: The authorities try to avoid the awkward situation that some men create by intensely ogling at women. (A personal suggestion: Instead of fixing wrong with another wrong, the authorities could put such men to shame by putting up posters and signs that remind them to lower their gaze.)
“A day at the mall is quite tiring, but it is extremely convenient that everything is under one roof (especially during rain),” says Mahnoor Ahmed, a Lahori since birth.
Packages Mall takes pride in having 1.2 million sq ft equaling to about 27.5 acres. The malls really live up to their definition: a sheltered walk or promenade. The spacious and broad paths are intended to even make rush hour a delightful experience, but instead they end up exhausting the crowds. The Lahorites get their much needed exercise, but then undo this benefit by re-stuffing themselves with the variety of food available in the noisy yet inviting food courts.
The malls of Lahore also seem to be purveyors of national brands, with only a few international brands sprinkled here and there. This satisfies everyone’s kurta-shalwar needs, but for those who prefer modern tees and branded makeup, a mall isn’t extremely beneficial.
At the end of the day, such malls do refresh sore eyes from the dust and humidity of Lahore and, as 15-year-old Shehzmani puts it, “After all, it’s a mall!”
The large sized buildings in the middle of Lahore, however, do give a sense of space in the congested city, and are a motivation to get out of overcrowded houses.
Whether one thinks of a mall as a museum or as entertainment, it surely shows the advancement of Lahore towards a more contemporary and modern-day culture. After having seen the warm old walled city several times, I find the shopping malls to be a good step towards owning the multiple personalities of Lahore: Men with oil in their hair taking selfies with Chinese phone sets in front of fountains at the same time as the elite women get their French manicures next door and elderly ladies struggle to conquer their fear of the endless stairs in the escalator while busy youngsters look for cheap burgers.