China teaches - and the Great Kolkata Shopping Festival confirms - that Communists are the greatest consumerists. Shopping is the new opiate of the masses.
I thought one bought what one needs when the need arises. But our tourist guides in Beijing and Shanghai were far less interested in showing us revolutionary sights than in forcing us to buy artificial silk, imitation jade and dubious perfume. At the end of a day of exhausting struggle between a guide and us, he exclaimed angrily, "If you don't buy anything, I won't get any commission!"
The old Soviet Union, with its GUM department store, actually a huge, multi-storey mall encompassing over 150 stores and kiosks, elevated buying into a politico-cultural extravaganza.
The nomenklatura could buy champagne, caviar, chocolate and cognac - the four C's of Western decadence - from valyutnyy magazin (hard currency shops). The Soviet consulate in Kolkata told me that thanks to rupee-rouble trade, these shops would accept my rupees. Nothing of the kind. They treated rupees as contemptuously as a Thos Cook cashier in Paris when I once tried to change the few notes left in my wallet.
Nylons and jeans were the Soviet status symbols in those days, like Parker pens and foreign cigarettes earlier. The joke was that only offspring of the Kremlin's mighty could afford the real McCoy - American Lees and Levis. The second rank bought imitations from Hongkong and Taiwan. The third had to be content with Indian denim. But at least we were "phoren" and therefore in the pecking order.
Hearing smart Delhi housewives, back from holidaying in Bangkok or Dubai, proudly announce, "I shopped till I dropped!" always makes me wonder how easily the advertising cliche has slipped into ordinary usage with those women not even aware of being lambs parrotting the wolf's favourite phrase.
But why blame Delhi when it's Kolkata that is now celebrating a 30-day festival aimed at selling goods worth Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) through nearly 3,000 participating retailers? West Bengal's tourism minister, Manabendra Mukherjee, says this first-ever such event in India "has been conceptualised with a view to changing the perception of Kolkata and also to demonstrate the market potential of the city and the state."
If that means encouraging shopping, he needn't have bothered for no Indian city is as chock-a-block with stalls and stores. Chowringhee and Park Street don't need the festive season to throb like Singapore's Orchard Road or Oxford Street in London; like other Kolkata thoroughfares, they are always packed. New York retailers might rate this year's shopping the worst in 17 years, but no matter what economists and sociologists say about the city's decline, shops that sell sarees, jewellery and spicy cooked food like kebab rolls or the croquettes Bengalis call chop are always crowded.
Kolkata might claim to be India's cultural capital but an overheard exchange was revealing. A woman asked a stallholder at Gariahat where she could get a bus for Jadavpur. Go straight till you see, Anjali Jewellers; there's a bus stop right outside, the stallholder replied. His assistant wanted to know why he hadn't mentioned the huge domed edifice of the Ramkrishna Mission as the landmark, and was told, "Everyone knows a jewellery shop." It recalls Najip Ali, a Malay entertainer, calling "materialism" the only "self-expression left in Singapore." As he said, "People happy, they buy things. People sad, they go shopping."
Mukherjee says that from next year the festival will concentrate on foreigners. I should imagine he will find Bengalis are much more avid buyers. Foreigners are able to spend more but also have many alternative shopping outlets.
In his previous incarnation as information technology minister, with an office overlooking the Westside and Pantaloons malls in that shoppers' paradise, Camac Street, Mukherjee declared that Bengalis were "no longer diffident about consumption". They never were actually, which is why India's largest Pizza Hut is in Calcutta. So is the Sony World franchise-holder with the highest sales. Asim Dasgupta, West Bengal's scholarly finance minister, claims that rural folk spend Rs 17,000 crore (Rs 170 billion) on non-farm goods and services. They are the simple ones who fall for all those glitzy TV ads.
We also know now why despite promises to clear the streets, the Left Front really encourages the pavement stalls that make walking impossible. Stall holders fund the front's constituent parties; shoppers are voters. The Great Kolkata Shopping Festival's timing is also crucial. There's much more compulsive buying during Durga Puja but a Christmas-New Year event carries no hint of religion for the majority. It's a secular efflorescence.