By Rasna Warah
I am one of those women you see in that architectural disaster on 4th Avenue Parklands wandering frantically from shop to shop, looking for the latest (pirated) copies of Bollywood music, rummaging through bales of kurtas and salwaar kameezes and generally looking pleased with herself after landing a bargain. I go there at least once every fortnight, and if I have money to spare, sometimes once a week, usually on a weekday when there are fewer people and when I can indulge in my addiction with a smaller crowd looking on.
When did this addiction start and why can't I get rid of it? Well, it's sort of like smoking, or drinking, or working even. Once you have a taste of it, the body craves for more, even if it is at its own peril.
I first came across the sights, smells and sounds of Diamond Plaza some years back when the Indian "mujra" scene was at its peak and disgruntled Kenyan Asian housewives were sending protest letters to newspapers to have the dancing girls from India deported. My interest then was to see if I could attend one of the mujras held in a restaurant in Diamond Plaza, with the intention, of course, of writing an article about it in support of the dozens of women who had lost their husbands to the wily and sexy dancing girls/prostitutes from India's slums (via Dubai). I never made it. I was too chicken to be seen in the company of drunk, lecherous males. Secretly, I was afraid I may recognize one of them, and that would put both of us in a compromising and embarrassing position.
I later went just to check out the place. In those days, Diamond Plaza was smaller and the shops were less stocked. Young Indian men straight from Mumbai, Surat or a small town in rural India manned the shops, some barely speaking English or Kiwsahili. Conversations between salesperson and customer were usually in Hindi and one had a distinct feeling that the poor salesperson lived in a squalid room in Parklands shared by dozens of his countrymen. Kenyan Asians derogatively called them "rockets" - i.e "people who landed from nowhere", and who threatened to out-shine local businesses by "outsourcing" their sales and managerial staff.
Unlike many people, I do not think that the "rocketisation" of Kenya is necessarily a bad thing. All immigrants bring with them a vibrancy, a culture and a work ethic that adds to the overall diversity of a nation, and makes it more interesting. After all, my ancestors were "rockets" once. Because they tend to work harder in their newly adopted countries, immigrants also contribute to the dynamism of the local economy by working longer hours and providing goods and services that the locals are unwilling or unable to provide. Some of them even pay taxes, buy houses, marry local women and apply for Kenyan citizenship. Like it or not, they are here to stay.
Diamond Plaza has also changed since its early days. It hasn't exactly become slicker, but the salespeople have become more savvy and there is also an infiltration of local Asian businesspeople, who at first looked down upon the new immigrants, but who it seems have become resigned to the fact that "if you can't beat them, join them". Now you can find shops selling "designer" clothes, "re-conditioned" mobile phones, "original" CDs, and a whole variety of goods ranging from sculptures of gods and goddesses to sex-enhancing creams and lotions. (These can be found on the ground floor, in adjacent shops!) Then there are the little cafes offering everything from chicken tikka to bhel puri. There is even a small temple with a real pujari, who for a fee, can tell you your fortune. Diamond Plaza is to me what River Road is to a broke university student: a place where you can buy anything you desire, at rates you can afford. The customer profile has also changed. Now you are as likely to find an American looking for bargain CDs at Diamond Plaza or a local celebrity shopping for glamourous sequinned tops (the kind worn by Bollywood actresses), as you are a Kenyan Asian housewife shopping for brinjals and bhindi. Yes, the world is coming to Diamond Plaza.
And this precisely is why I love this place so much. Here you can find all the contradictions, the beauty, the diversity, the chaos of India. On a visit, you feel you have sampled a bit of urban India in all its glory and all its garishness.
Like all addictions, there is a downside, of course. For instance, sometimes the pirate CDs I buy don't work, and the bargain kurtas fade after two washes. Not to mention the fact that every visit to Diamond Plaza is a potential health hazard as the building looks like it has not been constructed using any particular building code or architectural design and could collapse any time. But what can I say? I am hooked and I do not intend to give up my addiction any time soon. In fact, as I write this, I am feeling a sudden urge to drive there right now. See ya!