The Chandigarh Cliques

I have a theory about City Beautiful. According to many, it may not be true or may be a bit over the edge but a theory it is. So here it goes.

Chandigarh, for all practical purposes, is a deeply traditional, even conservative city, no matter how modern its exterior. Yes, it was proclaimed as the “modern city” of new India and still is the heart of all that happens in North India. However, scratch the surface and what you find underneath the extremely cool, hep exterior is a closely-knit conservative society.

The “real residents” of Chandigarh, those who define the city and its character, are those who have been living in the city almost since its inception. They have been here since the beginning, and with their progeny, will be here ad infinitum. Given the size of Indian families ,with all the aunts, uncles and distant relatives thrown in, these families add up to a significant part of the total inhabitants, or those who matter anyways. These families more or less know each other and among themselves own most of the businesses and properties of the city. They all grew up together, in and around Chandigarh, in a handful of famous local schools and colleges- St John’s, Carmel Convent, Sacred Heart and colleges like MCM, GCG or DAV for Boys. Even after some excursions out in the wilderness, read Sanawar or Nainital, all the prodigal children came home calling to comfortably settle down in the laid-back life of Chandigarh. With the next generation, the horizons have expanded and the excursions out of the city generally mean a few years’ trip (educational or otherwise) to either Australia or Canada. Yet, at the end of the day, most come back to take over the family business or property and, armed with their expanded horizons, to take them to the next level. So, I guess, it will go on.

Is there something wrong with this kind of a societal up? Not per se except that, it gives the city its unique flavour, the underlying characteristic of which is snobbery. For all practical purposes, Chandigarh is a city functioning with a few coteries as the focal points. These are closely-knit, veritable centres of power, and entry in any of these is virtually impossible. There are few preordained schools where their children study, few restaurants they frequent and some social gatherings they grace- all  owned, run or managed by one of them. Of course, others, the public, too use and visit these schools or social places, but very clearly as outsiders. Stand outside any of these schools as the crowd gathers to pick up the children in the afternoon and the demarcation is obvious. No doubt, there is scandal, gossip, and all such ailments of modern socialising but within the hallowed circle of these cliques. An outsider is deemed to be so in all respects.

If you are a part of country’s elite bureaucracy, regardless of your “outsider, transferable”  status, you get a de facto admission, even though it is need based. However, make no mistake; it is purely owing to your IAS/IPS/IRS etc tag. Without these, you are a persona non grata. Even if you try to break into any of these cliques with money as your ticket, chances of success are not high for you are the nouveau riche wannabe. Owning fancy cars alone clearly is not good enough.

Having stated my theorem, let me clarify that this “old timers and old established family” characteristic is by no means unique to Chandigarh. Every city has them. What sets Chandigarh apart is the way this defines and rules the city’s ethos. I spent a considerable time in the city as a student and at that time, I was totally oblivious to this aspect of City Beautiful. Perhaps as hostel residents, we were all “outsiders” and had limited exposure to Chandigarh in its totality. However, when I came back to this city much later as a working woman with a family, the “outsider” status loomed large. Is it all in my mind? Maybe, maybe not. In any case it is worth some introspection by the denizens of City Beautiful- both the outsiders and the old timers.

Entering Chandigarh with elan- Elante Mall

Nothing happens in Chandigarh – Nothing much in any case that can count as a major event and generate enough interest and excitement. In fact at times you just might want to stand atop your house and scream out loud in order to generate some excitement !But when a huge mall opens up in a city , a city that despite being the hippest in the region, not to mention capital of two states, has strangely remained deprived of any shopping mall worth mentioning, it is an event that is bound to generate interest and rightly so. Yes it’s the latest happening hot spot of Chandigarh that I’m talking about- The Elante Mall in Chandigarh.

Elante-Mall-In-Chandigarh

There had been talk about a new mall opening up with all the international brands, food chains etc but seeing how such rumours arise and spread, I chose to ignore it. Until one day in April this year when an excited call from a friend informed me that indeed it was true. So it is that I first went to Elante in Industrial Area Chandigarh. My merry trip did not get off to a very good start since I managed to get lost on the way. Industrial Area is not a part of the city one frequents often unless it is for the servicing of your car. And there were no signboards to guide you either (Signboards are still not there but by now everyone worth his or her name knows about it. And if still in doubt, just follow the general flow of the traffic- you’ll end up bang in front of it !)

Anyways, reach I did and I was pleasantly surprised even though most shops had not opened yet. There is something about the facade of a place that pretty much tells you what to expect out of it. And with fountains and nice open space in front, Elante stands tall indeed. On entering it, yet another surprise awaited me- it is vast and expansive. With its unique V- shape( it is that or have I got my sense of shapes and direction all messed up?), the Mall has all the shops nicely spaced out giving one illusion of space even when it is crowded. Having roamed around in Ambience Mall in Gurgaon and Select City Walk in Delhi, most malls, even the ones in NCR seem like match boxes to me. Somehow I almost feel claustrophobic in them. About DT Mall in IT Park, Chandigarh- don’t even get me started. Paras Downtown in any case is too much out of the way and the traffic snarls at Zirakpur intersection make a visit to that Mall a nightmare.

elante-mall..inside

Honestly, even though I started visiting Elante regularly after that I was not very sure what brands would actually open, and more importantly, how much time they would take. Mango opened, as did Marks and Spencer. Zara came with its flamboyant multi floor look. Body Shop, Clinique, Inglot, Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle, Westside, Forest Essentials, Aldo, Steve Madden, The Collective, Color Bar, Da Milano, Promod…and the list is long indeed.  MAC took its own sweet time to open forcing me at one point to stick my head in through the shutters only to find baffled workers who had no clue as to when it would open. Eating joints are by now in plenty- from international chains like Chilis and Haagen Daazs, Nandos to our very own Nik Bakers and Backpackers. Apart from the top floor devoted to eating places and entertainment, I particularly like the outer courtyard that houses these coffee shops. With lot of live performance slated for the courtyard, this promises to be the beginning of something interesting. My son was particularly excited to see Fun City that he has been missing sorely ever since we moved out of Gurgaon. And the cherry topping on his joy was Hamleys. Though not as big as the one in Delhi, yet it is exciting enough for the little ones. And  finally of course, good old Big Bazaar, with its cheap discounts and deals, grabbing its trademark basement spot. Yes the pictures is complete but for an international level health club.

Having said all this, and lavished all praises for brand presence and design, how does the mall match up to its counterparts in Delhi? Well considering that it is just starting, it is way too early to pass a judgement. There are teething troubles that need to be sorted out and hopefully they will be. My concern here, for Elante, is of a different nature- not simply matching the standards that you have set for yourselves but maintaining those standards as well. Most basic of these are the hygiene and cleanliness specially of the washrooms and there has been some concern on same front. And while it is lovely to finally have all these big names in the city, I do hope these brands intend training their staff well and stocking themselves up as well. There really is no point if we still have to go to Delhi to shop for those very brands that are now present here. As a case point,right at the beginning, probably sometime in April, when I went looking for makeup brushes in Inglot, the SA had no idea what a stippling brush was. She just lamely pointed out to all the brushes she had in stock. While this kind of lack of knowledge is expected of SA of drugstore brands like Maybelline, Lakme and Revlon ( and I see plenty of that at their counters in Shopper’s Stop and Westside and Lifestyle), from Inglot it’s a bit of a letdown. I hope that all these are just initial hiccups and we will be provided with good services.

Coming to the crowd that is flocking to Elante- people, while it’s all very well to go there to look around, feel great about it and just window shop, eventually what is going to motivate these brands and invite more similar ones, is not the teeming “junta” in the aisles but the genuine shoppers. As of now, the majority of the crowd consists of those who are there just to roam around- be it the locals or those from nearby areas. While the tri city can never match up to NCR’s potential in terms of revenue generation, these brands do have to earn. So folks,enough of gawking- shop!!

Before I wind up, I just have to share this real life howler regarding Elante. On its Facebook page ( and there are so many of those) I put up a query as to when was MAC opening when one gentleman replied that it was already open- he had eaten there. Kill me someone!! MAC, my dear boy, not Mc Donald’s. The good old Punjabi spirit- stomach first ( no offences anyone). No wonder then these brands have taken so long to come here. What chance does Nando’s peri peri stand before Tehal Singh’s Chicken when MAC has had to bow before good ol’ Mc Donalds! I do hope all of them can coexist because we need both of them !!

Traffic Times

dog driving

 Chandigarh apparently has one of the best traffic in the country. What exactly that means, however, I have no idea. Driving in the city is no doubt a breeze, specially after Gurgaon (though the sad quality of FM does leave one wishing the drive were shorter). This “best traffic” tag however has me a bit confused. Does it mean that the drivers are law abiding? Or does it refer to the orderly traffic movement? Or maybe the vigilant traffic police? Or the fact that due to less population density, the number of vehicles on the road is bound to be less? Whatever be the reasons thereof, with a practically nonexistent public transport system and the Punjabi flair for flashy cars, the ease of traffic movement, is no doubt a welcome surprise and relief.

 

                   Chandigarh traffic does have some peculiarities all right. Staying in Gurgaon for almost 4 years, I had started wondering if we had any police force in the name of traffic police at all. Chandigarh drastically altered my perceptions. There is no dearth of traffic police in Chandigarh and the best part is that you don’t get to see any until, like an over smart Alec, you jump a light or do something similar. It took me a while to understand their modus operandi. If you can spot a cop from a distance, the chances of you continuing zipping at a speed of 90km an hour or breaking a few other half a dozen traffic rules are bleak. The whole fun of it is in the siege. No sooner have you jumped a red light or taken a wrong turn at the most innocuous of crossings, a hurly burly Sardar ji cop wll apparate in front of your car as if from thin air. To give them their due, for all the unpleasantness of the situation, the cops are, by and large, a pleasant lot. Of the various stories about greasing their palms or them targeting outside vehicles more, I can say nothing, not having experienced the same. All that I do know is that tears and playing the damsel in distress card does the trick as well. You apologise profusely, promise on the powers that be never to break a law again and look at them with tear filled eyes. Chances are they’ll let you go with a warning. A child with you who as promptly bursts into tears? Well they might even apologise for upsetting the child but they were just doing their job and saving you from harm. Of course you understand , you nod, and that’s it!!

 

             The lady officers on duty however are a bit of a different story and deserve your sympathy instead. To begin with, most of them seem emaciated so much so that had it not been for the little posts they stand on, you are most likely to miss them even while they wave you down. And such is our deference to law, that it is not uncommon to find many people just ignoring them and whizzing past. At one time, I actually saw some male officers giving back up by way of waving down all those who had ignored these ladies at the earlier light or crossing. Sector 9 inner market and the main road between sector 9 and sector 10 is often a sight for such bizarre happenings. I often find myself slowing down in a smoothly moving traffic out of sheer sympathy and deference to them, much to the chagrin and honking of those behind me.

 

       And this brings me to the most annoying habit of drivers in Chandigarh- honking at a red light. Before the ticker at the signal can hit a “0” and the light turns to an orange, forget a green, all hell breaks loose as it were. Incessant honking from all sides! I mean really people give me a break !! No one has any intention whatsoever of spending their life at the signal and will move at the first available opportunity. Unless a car is expected to grow wings and start flying, we all just have to wait. So very often I have resisted the temptation of stepping out and showering these pearls of wisdom on people behind me. But seriously..Let us learn something from the awful NCR traffic. Given the congestion in NCR, specially at peak time, very often you are just left waiting at a signal for quite some time before you can cross it. But nobody honks- not maniacally anyways. A few odd ones will do the irritant needful anyways but, by and large, the “Even a dog does not bark without a reason. Please don’t blow horn at red light” campaign seems to have driven home the point.

 

            Times are changing fast and a look at the profile of the vehicles in the city gives us a clue as to where we are headed. A haven for two wheelers and even cyclists at one time, Chandigarh is rapidly becoming a city not safe for two wheeled drives that leave your limbs dangling all over the place. There are exclusive cycling tracks but very rarely does one see any enthusiast on it. Even the University does not leave much scope for cycle usage given the vehicular rush there. My only regret is that I did not give cycling a chance while I could in my days at the University. Perhaps I should enjoy the drives in the city before they too become a thing of the past.