The Ansal Royal Plaza sticks out from the rest of Jodhpur in almost every way imaginable. It’s several stories higher than the surrounding structures. Its architecture eschews old-fashioned, functional right angles in favor of aesthetic modern slants. A web-like array of turquoise glass sprawls over two of the outer faces. And a large sign near the entryway brandishes the infamous golden arches of the world’s most ubiquitous fast food chain.
This building is home to Jodhpur’s one and only Western-style shopping mall. Several months ago, when I wandered into its air-conditioned central atrium during my early explorations of the city, I was astonished to see brand name clothing, escalators, and crowds of smiling youth engaged in conspicuous consumption.
At the mall’s two-story McDonald’s, which is constantly packed, members of Jodhpur’s expanding middle class enjoy McVeggies, McAloo Tikkis, and if they’re really hungry, Chicken Maharaja-Macs. The menu lacks red meat due to the Hindu prohibition of beef and the Muslim prohibition of pork but instead offers these chicken and vegetarian alternatives (I should note that I haven’t actually seen the menu—I’ve stayed out of the restaurant to avoid looking like an American stereotype—but I found it all online). Despite the local touches, Jodhpur’s McDonald’s is basically the same as any other McDonald’s, a reminder that globalization and the industrialized food system are inescapable.
A few weeks ago, India took another step towards global consumerism by opening its doors to foreign big-box retailers like Walmart. This decision, along with increases in the price of fuel, sparked outrage from the main opposition party, which called for a nationwide strike in response. Other parties echoed the call, and businesses shut down across the country. In Mumbai, where I was at the time, the most popular opposition party didn’t support the strike and businesses ran as usual, but Jodhpur, I heard, was practically a ghost town. While the strike demonstrated widespread popular discontent, it wasn’t enough to change the reforms. Walmart plans to open its first Indian stores within the next two years.
India already has a few retail chains of its own. In Jodhpur, I occasionally shop at a department store called Big Bazaar, which sells clothes, groceries, and housewares. I discovered it several weeks after my trip to the Ansal Royal Plaza, and it had been a long time since I’d seen a Western-style shopping center. As an environmentalist, I felt repulsed at the unstoppable spread of consumerism, but as a shopper, I felt relieved to see neatly arranged merchandise with well-marked prices. The Big Bazaar had none of the exasperating chaos and haggling of the real bazaar downtown.
Back at the Ansal Royal Plaza, a shop called Marwar Lifestyle best symbolizes India’s shift towards consumer culture. It sells high-end clothes, jewelry, and other accessories, and its window displays a shelf of ornamental porcelain figures. All of them are white, and their formal clothes are distinctively Western. These figures do not resemble the Marwar lifestyle I’ve observed outside air-conditioned shopping malls. They represent an entirely new lifestyle, influenced by the West, developing in the Marwar region and the whole of India, a lifestyle of mass purchasing and mass production, a lifestyle of Big Bazaars replacing big bazaars, a lifestyle of Maharaja-Macs.
The new Marwar lifestyle brings convenience and a higher quality of life, but it takes a toll in the form of energy and natural resources. This toll is frightening prospect. While Western nations still bear a great deal of responsibility, and while it’s hard to place too much blame on individuals, sooner or later, we’ll all have to deal the environmental consequences of more than a billion Indians slouching towards a Western way of life.