Where is the exit, I asked. Behind you, ma’am. No, no, I don’t mean the exit of Malleys. I mean the exit of the mall. Ma’am, it’s on level 3. But I entered at the atrium, I protested. No, ma’am, this is the basement. You entered on level 3.
I did not argue because I could not bear to look at her vapid face for another second. Perhaps she was right, perhaps not. I walked out slowly. I bought a Diet Coke from the popcorn stall and sat down at a small cluster of thin round tables. As I sipped wearily, the torsos of people brushed by me. There is a whole atrium out there, I thought in irritation, and yet people manage to brush past me like a cloud of flies.
Perhaps it was over-the-top on my part, but I was beginning to feel a little tearful. I was so very tired. I would hook up with Radha and leave with her. I dialled Radha.
Babes, where have you been, she said, we’ve all finished our coffees and shopping, we’re on our way out. We? Who’s we? I asked. I thought you were alone. No, no, we’re all here, Betty, Mink, Vani, we’re all done now. Wait, I said, I’ll leave with you. We’re already in the car, babes, catch you later. Wait, I said, what exit did you leave from? Why, she said. I’m kind of lost in this stupid place, I can’t find the way out.
There was a silence and then uncontrolled giggling, apparently from the entire car. Babes, look for signs that say Exit, she said, in a slow drawl. More laughter in the background. They were high on shopping and caffeine. I felt jealous at the thought of all of them in the car, going off home in high spirits. Why hadn’t Radha told me they were all there together, I thought resentfully.
I can’t find the damned exit, yaar, I said, putting on a brave voice, a nonchalant one.
What did you buy, she said. For a moment I couldn’t remember, so irrelevant was the question to my present concerns. But I looked down at my tangle of bags and said, a crystal sugar bowl, a Niccolo Lamy bag, a Swarovski Ganesh...Oh you and your Swarovskis, she said, cutting me off. Her laugh was unkind. I did not want directions to the exit from her any more. Bye then, I said. Ciao, ciao, babes. The line went blank.
I hauled myself up and wound my way to the third floor, as directed by the Malley’s salesgirl. I must have spent hours looking for the exit, wandering the sprawling walkways that radiated out from the central shaft, peering into the well for clues and signs, consulting the floor maps a dozen times, following the directions to the exits, unable to find a single one. I looked for a central information desk. There wasn’t one.
I lost my phone. I plugged it into a public charging dock, turned my back for a minute, and it disappeared. All my numbers gone. Just like that. Such a head-spinning nausea gripped me then, I felt my guts would heave out. I swallowed the saliva and the panic gathering in my mouth, once, twice, ten times, forcing it down my throat.
I made my way to the electronics floor to buy a new phone, only to discover they didn’t sell SIM cards. I persuaded one of the orange-and-yellow-clad salesgirls to come with me to the map and explain the way out. I went up a floor, down a floor, asking other customers for directions. Are you about to leave, I began asking people, hoping that I could follow them out. Most looked puzzled and simply said no, we are not.
Finally, a middle-aged couple said yes, we are about to leave, and so I attached myself to them.
We just need to buy a few things first, said the man, kindly. Their shopping went on for over an hour, during which time they kept turning to look at me in bemusement, but I gritted my teeth and stuck to my guns. I refused to walk away and waste the time I had already invested in them.
Soon it became intolerable for both parties. The woman, in a floral salwar-kameez and a giant pink flower stuck into a black-dyed bun, leaned towards her husband and said something, glancing at me in distrust. The husband looked embarrassed, but turned to me and said, excuse me, madam, but why are you following us? You said you were about to leave, I spluttered in indignation, my voice heavy with tears. I need to get out! You can find the exit yourself, no, said the woman in a rather aggressive voice. Her husband began nodding and smiling at me, but pushed at her elbow to go. I backed off.
I dragged yet another salesgirl out of her shop and demanded that she show me the way herself. When she said she was unable to leave her department, I lost my temper. What the hell do you people want, I hissed, money? You want money? I’ll give you money. See, see here, see my shopping, all designer labels that show you I have money, money, money, I’ll give you lots if you just take me to the damned exit.
I lost my head, spewing out poisonous words at her. She kept trying to interrupt me, saying ma’am, ma’am, whenever I stopped for breath. Finally, when I ran out of steam, I simply panted and glared at her. Ma’am, she said, please take the red zone elevator to level 5 and follow the exit signs through Malleys.
Late that night I held another can of Diet Coke in my hand, seated in the atrium. My fingers shook and I wiped a tear from my face now and then.
All of a sudden I heard a group of people walking by me saying Exit, let’s go there.
Exit, exit, the word was scattered like pearls through their babble. I leaped up and attached myself to them like a tail. They were a group of about ten, with a chubby aunty up front, wearing a T-shirt and track pants, followed by an assortment of family members, teenagers and moms, all leaning together conspiratorially. They know the secret of the exit, I thought, with excitement.
Rapidly, they made their way up the escalator to the first floor, skirted around the central shaft to the escalator for the second floor, and once again skirted around the shaft to the escalator for the third floor. It was a lot of fast walking and dodging people to keep up with the surprisingly light-footed group.
That fool of a salesgirl was right, I thought, gleefully, the exit is on level 3. All at once I felt fresh and quenched by the Diet Coke, my shopping bags now a glad weight on my arms. I even ran a hand through my hair to smooth it down.
On level 3, however, the group paused in front of a small stand-alone shop, discussed something loudly over the music that blared out from it, and disappeared inside. In dismay I stood stock-still. It was a dark, cave-like outlet selling various coloured jeans and metal-studded leather jackets. The name of the shop was Exit.
I looked about me in misery. Clearly there was only one reasonable thing to do now. I must wait till closing time and follow the crowds out – a desperate ploy but the only feasible one.
A uniformed woman tap-tapped by in the orange-and-yellow colours of the mall. Excuse me, I said, what time does the mall shut? It’s open twenty-four-hours, ma’am, she said, and went on her way. Where is the exit, I called after her weakly, but she was out of earshot and my knees were buckling under me.
Excerpted with permission from “The Mall”, from These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape, Tejaswini Apte-Rahm, Aleph Books.