Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Of A Warmly Welcoming Westgate Mall and Badri's Bride too!

During the Westgate Mall attack on 21st September 2013 and throughout that entire gruesome weekend, we had watched with increasing horror and terror as the heart wrenching events unfolded. Even as we watched live coverage of the attack on television, we only had to rush to our back balcony to watch the plumes of smoke unfurling with increasing intensity over Westlands, the area where we stay and where Westgate is located. The booms from the explosions that we could hear seemed to be eerily echoed via the television in our living room.
I had vowed then and there and in my blog post of that time as well, that one day we would go back to Westgate and we would run up those polished, yellow hued steps again as easily as we had been doing in the preceding years. At that time, looking at the devastation that had occured, I did not know how and when but I knew one day we would do it...
In the meantime, my son's school bus friend began visiting us every Friday, once he had recovered a bit, physically at least. He had been at Westgate with his mother on that fateful day and she had not made it out alive, while he, himself had been severely injured. And so I saw, first hand, how terror tears apart a family and things are never the same again. I saw how a thirteen year old struggled without his mother and how he never seemed to want to go back home from our house... We were more than happy to have him over and feed him his favourite Indian foods. This pattern continued for almost two years until he became a busy high schooler and started adjusting a bit better to life without Mom.
Westgate was painstakingly restored over the next two years (work still continues in parts of the mall) and had reopened by mid 2015. My husband and children made occasional forays to the mall, sometimes for a movie, at times to pick up my daughter's favourite Thai noodles and at other times to buy a pizza from the new-in-Nairobi Pizza Hut. My daughter met friends there and I willingly dropped her off outside the mall. But somehow, I, personally, could never summon up the courage to revisit what had been my favourite mall in Nairobi and my go to place for everything from wheat flour to a mobile phone recharge voucher to the Tuesday Masai Market souvenirs. The image of my son's shattered friend was too fresh in my mind.
All that changed two Sundays ago. My son wanted to watch a particular movie that no one else wanted to. I did not want him to go alone and so we hunted for one that the rest of us could watch as well. We found the latest Bollywood blockbuster but the timings for the two movies did not match at the older mall close to home. My daughter checked the Westgate multiplex theatre timings and it was a perfect match! So he would be alone in his theatre while we would be in the one right next door. And I realised that, providentially, the time had finally come for me to visit Westgate, three and a half years after the attack...
There was a long line of cars snaking their way towards the parking area where security had, of course, been beefed up, with armed soldiers guarding all the entrances, not just at Westgate, but at every single mall in Kenya. So the children and I got off right at the famous yellow steps, while my husband continued driving towards the parking. Pushing back memories of the dead person I had seen lying on those very steps in the early television visuals which were being beamed even as the attack was going on, I walked briskly up the steps. A quick security screening later, we were in the Mall. At first glance, it seemed as if nothing had changed, but a closer look revealed that, actually, everything had changed. Shops had shifted location, some had shut shop at Westgate and had moved to other malls and new entities had made an appearance. Wherever I looked, I could see it in my mind's eye as it had been on the day of the attack. Those extensive and excruciatingly detailed images of terror have been permanently seared on my brain and it took immense effort to clear my mind. I took a deep breath and my olfactory senses were hit by the old familiar Westgate smell,an amalgamation of the fragrance of expensive perfumes wafting out from various shops and the aroma of roasted coffee beans from the coffee shop on the ground floor. I was at home immediately and felt as if Westgate was welcoming me personally and reassuring me that there was no blood and gore around any more. The floors felt so familiar beneath my feet as I searched for an ATM machine. It took a few minutes because the entire bank of ATM machines had been shifted to the opposite side from where they used to be earlier.. Small changes which one must take in one's stride...I walked rapidly past fancy wooden carts selling various traditionally Kenyan items, past a revamped food court, then the escalators took me smoothly up to the last floor and finally I was at the multiplex. Had I really been away for nearly four years?
With my son safely settled in for his movie, my daughter, my husband and I were free to focus on ours. 'Badri Ki Dulhaniya' which translates to Badri's Bride, comes from a renowned Bollywood movie production house, but that, of course, does not automatically guarantee a good movie. We were in for a pleasant surprise.
Set in small town India, it was a refreshing change from jaded European locales. Decent, wearable outfits, no foul language and double entendres, no raunchy lyrics and 'item' numbers with scantily clad ladies prancing around, trying to seduce salivating men, meant half the battle had been won. I could actually watch without wanting to flee home ten minutes into the movie.
But the best part was yet to come. This movie  has the courage to tackle an issue that is a very sensitive one in India and it is one that the bravest and the best shy away from: DOWRY and all that it entails. From bride burning to a girl's parents being forever in debt to female foeticide, as no one wants what will become a liability when the time for marriage comes. All these scenarios and many more can be directly attributed to this one, evil scrounge that still has large parts of India firmly in its evil clutches. The groom to be looks on 'helplessly' as deals are made and sealed, even as girls' lives are negotiated and grooms are 'bought' just to prevent the 'umarried' tag that is sure to follow if a girl is not married off within a stipulated time frame.
While a handful of men from the educated class do not make demands and actually refuse to take anything at all from the girl's parents, most Indian men do succumb to greed and toe their parents' line in this matter. Others may not openly make demands but it understood by both parties that a certain amount of gold, a few diamonds and plenty of 'gifts' are expected to come with the girl, to say nothing of a lavish wedding, which includes a multi course catered meal consisting of half the world's cuisines.The movie is all about how the heroine challenges the stereotypical image of a docile bride to be and how she struggles to establish herself as an independant, earning entity. The groom actually cooks the account books of his own company, in order to pay the high dowry demanded by his own patriarchal father, but the bride even objects to this, as she rightly believes all men must take a firm stand against the social evil of dowry and just say NO, no matter who is footing the bill.
I personally agree and feel we need some grass root changes in the law so that wedding expenses are equally borne by both the wedding parties. Just the anti dowry law is not enough because demands are still made and fulfilled too...Times have radically changed and so there's no reason why a girl's parents and the girl, because most are earning by the time they marry, should foot the huge bill alone, no matter whether they can afford it or not. Any self respecting boy, like my own husband and my sister's husband did,  must share the wedding expense, along with his parents. Until that happens, a girl child will continue to remain unwanted in most homes in India, especially rural ones.
Let's hope this movie has helped an important message to percolate right down to the very dregs of Indian society. And by that I mean those who demand dowry and those who actually give it, no matter what their caste or financial position...Let's hope the eyes of worthless people have been opened because that's what they are, no matter how high their net worth!
It was a Sunday well spent. I had conquered my deep emotions and had finally visited Westgate mall, just like the heroine in the movie had won a hard earned victory over the Dowry demon...

                                     And Westgate, like Phoenix, actually rose from the ashes...
                                                        Heart breaking devastation....
                                                      Followed by painstaking restoration!

P.S : All images are from the net.

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