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Posts Tagged ‘custom-made’

As I wrote about previously, my friend B is getting married in March and she is (bravely) doing her wedding invitations here in Mumbai.

This is a process that has some clear positives and negatives – the main positive is, not surprisingly, that it is much, much cheaper to do invitations here. The drawbacks are that the process takes longer and sometimes you fear that important elements will get lost in translation.

But after a lot of searching B had settled on Nikunj – the only person on ‘wedding invitation street’ who spoke English well and seemed to understand what she wanted. He seemed to find us amusing enough to put up with the multiple meetings, emails, calls and tweaks that it took to get it right. I certainly enjoyed watching the process unfold – its amazing the difference between American and Indian wedding invitations.

But eventually it came together: the design was set, the paper was picked and the colors agreed upon. It was time to print.

Early on in the process Nikunj had offhandedly mentioned that they did the printing nearby and it was all by hand. We were instantly excited at the idea of seeing invitation-making in action. So Nikunj had agreed to allow us to go to the printers with him.

We set off not really knowing what to expect. We walked up a steep ladder into a muggy room with 5 or 6 sweaty men – some were standing around, others diligently working on some letterhead. It was actually incredible – one by one they were making company letterhead with ink that they would briskly push across a silk-screen. B asked Nikunj if this was expensive letterhead – after all, getting each page done by hand must cost extra.

“No, this is normal letterhead,” he replied, waving away the question as though there wasn’t any reason to think human labor was costly.

And once again there was that reminder of the cost of doing business in India. To have two actual people sitting at a contraption manually putting out these pages was infinitely cheaper than buying and maintaining the machine that could do it without any help.

But we soon got sidetracked once we caught sight of the silk-screen for B’s invitations. We watched as the printer carefully started gluing paper down – he was creating a corner to align each invitation so that everything would be straight. This was not a high tech process.

What B really wanted was to check that the ink color matched her swatch – so we stood by and saw as the men mixed ink together, bit by bit until the colors eventually fit the swatch. You could tell this was something they could do without really thinking about it. Or as Nikunj said, “they can mix the colors with their eyes closed.”

Modern ink was being poured onto machines that clearly had been used for generations. The silk-screens were carefully cleaned by hand after each test batch of color. Fans whirred away as we stood watching. I was glad we’d been allowed into this very specific world of printing.

But I was also a little bit disappointed when, as we were walking out, Nikunj mentioned that in a few years he hoped to be able to buy machines to do the printing. His logic was that it would be faster. In the monsoon they wouldn’t have to wait for everything to dry. There would never be imperfections.

I couldn’t help but think of the men who could mix ink with their eyes closed and our wonder at watching them whisk the ink over the paper like magic. Maybe that’s glorifying a sweaty workshop a little too much. But I started to feel like we were getting to watch an art that may not be around for too much longer.

I think it might be time for me to order some new stationary.

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I had watched carefully as the carpenter measured out the space for our bookshelves. He was a small man – no taller than five feet – but he had no trouble imagining our bookshelves as six feet high.

I showed him some images on my computer of bookshelves and tv stands that I’d found online.  He nodded, talked to Nisha in Hindi a bit and we agreed he would come back in one week. I asked him how much it would be. He calculated out each item – two bookshelves, one tv stand, and one entry table with shelves.

“Six thousand?” he said.  This was less than $130 for four pieces of custom made furniture.  I still couldn’t get over it- I keep getting shocked by the low cost of anything custom-made.

Our new bookshelves

Of course, he worked on Indian time and the bookshelves actually took two weeks to make. And he tried to apply a ‘gora tax’, attemping to raise the price to 8,000 rupees for no particular reason (we still paid him 6,000).  But now, here they are — our bookshelves and tv stand made to the exact dimension of our space.

Yet while I marvel over my new bookshelves, I’m starting to realize that my love of all things ‘custom-made’ sets me apart from everyone else around me.  Indians themselves place no premium on an item being custom-made. It’s a clear-cut case of ‘the grass is always greener’. Western people love custom-made items because they are exclusive – it implies that your item is special and probably more expensive. Indians, though, can have anything custom made. What they love is an imported item, or a well known brand (I’m going to pause here and say that I know this is a gross generalization. But it’s what I have observed for the most part).

I had initially found it interesting that most Indians suggested furniture stores for our bookshelves instead of using a carpenter.  Every single suggested store carried expensive imported furniture. All we wanted was something cheap, since we’re only here for a year. But no one could fathom that we would rather have something custom made, even if it was cheaper. Nisha finally put us in touch with the carpenter she knew, but it was only after we’d driven around to various furniture stores.

And this attitude pervades into other items as well. When Daniel asked around his office about getting suits made, most people were shocked. Why would he want a custom made suit when he is from New York and can go to Bloomingdales or Macys? Why wouldn’t he want the brand? It was a shocking response to Americans who wish they could have a suit custom made to their exact measurements.

It’s also the same for women’s clothes. Expats run around looking for a great tailor to copy designs they see in magazines. Locals like to go to the chic Indian designer boutiques or the overpriced Western clothes in malls (although they will all get each item fixed by their tailor eventually).

It makes sense – you always want what you can’t have (or what other people can’t have). In my case, I’m just glad we’ve got our bookshelves. They may not be imported, but they surely fit right into our space.

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