Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘furniture’

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Our shipment has arrived

I couldn’t believe I had to stand here and watch another heated discussion over cardboard.

Our security guard and the man from our moving company were going ten rounds over which of them got to keep the boxes after all of our belongings had been removed.  I watched, bemused, but nothing could keep me from the happiness of seeing my own items slowly emerge from their lucrative cardboard containers.

We have been in our apartment since June 30th. We had been told our shipment (clothes, kitchenware, some furniture – everything) would arrive the next day, on July 1st. Of course, as with most things here, it took quite a bit longer. Our shipment couldn’t be scheduled to come into India because the monsoon and overbooking had backed up flights. The monsoon?! As though they didn’t know a monsoon was coming and couldn’t have planned for it.  Then the airline left half our shipment behind on the layover in Qatar. Then it had to get through customs.

But here it was, 15 days late, and I still couldn’t get unpacked because somehow cardboard needs to be a recurring theme in my life. Daniel finally stepped in.

“What is the problem?”

“Sir, your security guard says he helped unload so he should get boxes in return.”

“So… again, what’s the problem?”

“Well sir, these boxes belong to our company.”

“No, they belong to me. Don’t they?”

“Well… yes sir. I guess sir.”

“Ok. So lets give him some boxes and you take the rest of the boxes.”

There he was, my mediating hero, solving the second great cardboard dilemma of 2010. Our security guard went downstairs, triumphant at his (partial) victory, while the movers continued to unpack.

As each item came out, our apartment felt more like home. But I was also struck by how many items we’d brought that we wouldn’t need. Every cotton polo shirt or light spring cardigan now appears to me as heavy as winter clothing. I’ve gotten so used to wearing light kurtas and thin cotton leggings or flimsy nylon t-shirts and linen capris.

While we packed most of our winter clothes, we were still foolish to think that we could just fully pack up our old apartment and transfer it uniformly to the opposite side of the world. A good percentage of our stuff is going to be shoved to the backs of closets, never to see the Indian light of day and only re-emerging into the New York air.

The (almost) finished apartment

But it’s ok because we’ve already been preparing ourselves for some of these replacements. Nisha has bought pans for roti’s and a pressure cooker for rice – our wok will probably just get a year off. I’ve already stocked up on free-flowing lightweight clothing and so the out-of-place elements in my closet will just seem new again in a year. Even our kettle will get a breather, since Indian chai needs a pot to boil both water and milk (used in the same proportion).

But while some items are replaced, for the most part it’s a merging of the two worlds – our kitchenware sits in a cupboard next to one of the ubiquitous gas cylinders everyone has here.  Photos of family and friends now intermingle with our new bar and rocking chair.  We can watch our DVDs while looking out the window to see huge Indian crows staring back. It’s a new kind of home — but with our belongings arriving late on Indian time, we’d at least been given a couple weeks to prepare.

Another view of the apartment

Read Full Post »

There are a lot of things here that take some getting used to – but none more so than adjusting my expectations when it comes to the cost of labor.

In New York, if I ordered a dozen cupcakes from one of the many, many bakeries I frequented the order might cost $30 (don’t get me started on the cost of cupcakes in New York. That’s another tale of adjusting expectations). But to get them delivered usually costs around $15 – increasing my cost by 50%. But you can’t blame the bakery – the cost of a delivery guy loading the cupcakes, getting to my apartment, ringing my doorbell, delivering the cupcakes and getting back to the bakery might actually cost $15.

In India, $15 might be the cost of hiring a person for an entire week. Americans are uniquely aware of this arbitrage – because we’ve all  seen outsourcing in action by this point.  Yet when you COME here with an American frame of reference, the rationality of this understanding is constantly replaced by the sheer amazement at the low cost of anything that needs a human touch.

I bring this all up because today we went furniture shopping. We’d done our basic shop at Hometown, as previously mentioned, but we had been waiting to buy a few nicer items that we could keep forever.  We had been told to go to Bhaghem Bombay – it’s a store you won’t find in any guidebook, but rave reviewers had assured us that this was the place where you’d get a fair price on some of the most amazing furniture you could imagine.

As with anything here, I kept a healthy dose of skepticism with me as we went into the store. How great could it be?

Harry, the man we’d been told to ask for, greeted us with the enthusiasm of a salesman who knows he has what you want and will make you want even the things you didn’t think you wanted. We were taken into the showroom and I knew we’d been steered in the right direction – beautiful intricately designed hand-carved tables, dressers, trunks and chairs surrounded us. We had come with an idea of what kind of items we were looking for — one big table or storage unit for our living room, perhaps a small side table — but we were immediately drawn to the bar.

Close up of one small section of carving

At the back of the room stood a tall teak bar unit. On the top, on the paneling and even on the back, intricate patterns had been delicately whittled into the surface. We could use it as the storage unit for our living room and, of course, it’s intended use as a bar.  When Harry saw my eye move towards it he immediately sprung to life.

“This one of my favorite pieces. It took artisan three solid months to make. Here, you open–”  he opened the front cabinet to reveal wine racks and drawers and leafs that expanded the size of the piece — “This one of a kind. You not find something like this very often.”

I agreed. I had never seen anything like it. But of course, there was that one nagging question. “What is the price of this one of a kind, artisan carved, very large piece of furniture?”

“Because you recommended to me by a friend, it’s 28,000 rupee. Roughly $600.”

Now, I’ll pause the story here for a minute to put this in perspective. I’m clearly not going to argue that $600 of anyone’s money is a small amount. But when Daniel and I moved to New York and bought our furniture from Ikea- the cheapest store imaginable – our ‘Malm’ dressers (which combined used about as much wood as this bar) cost $300 each. They are the worst made pieces of crap (pardon my French) that you could imagine made from the cheapest wood (and plastic). And we still had to put them together with our own bare hands. A bar made with beautiful teak wood that has three months of carving work and an amazingly complex interior has the value of my two dressers that are barely acceptable in a dorm room.

All our new furniture

We decided we would buy it. How could we not? We can ship our items back at the end of the year by sea freight, and this is an item we literally would keep for the rest of our lives. I also got sucked into getting the most comfortable and beautiful wood and wrought iron rocking chair and we additionally purchased two small tables. Again, for perspective, the small table’s base is carved all the way around. The top of the table has inlaid designs. It cost roughly $50.

The flashes of guilt I’d felt early on in my stay tried to crawl back in (how can they pay skilled artists so little for their life’s work?). But my rationality repeated itself: this is what it costs here. This is the price they are asking for.

We walked out with a handshake from Harry and a promised Tuesday delivery once the items were polished. I also walked out with a new Indian frame of reference — one that meant I might just never be able to walk into a Pottery Barn again.

Read Full Post »

It was a moment I’ve been oddly dreading.

At 10am this morning we left our guesthouse and went over to the empty apartment. Waiting for us was Nisha, our new housekeeper, arriving for her first day. She’d been recommended to us through an expat group and we were relieved to have found someone so quickly and someone who didn’t want to live with us (often a requirement here).

I’ve been of two minds about having a housekeeper. One side says: it’s a job for this person, they’re making a fair wage, it’s not that much work compared to larger families. But the other side, the side that has this weird American anti-colonialist guilt keeps saying: how can I pay someone the low amount that they’re asking for? It’s criminal. She’s almost twice your age – she’s supposed to pick up after YOU?  Pick up after yourself.But rationality wins the day. We had accepted the wage she asked for, so it pushed my guilty conscience a bit to the side.

When we stepped out to meet her she took to Phoebe right away, which put me at ease. She and I decided that first up we would go shopping for some household goods.

It turns out that she had previously been working for 12 years in catering, a job that required her to get up at 3:30am every morning to travel down to South Mumbai and begin cooking very early in the morning. She’d gotten sick of it and wanted to be able to spend more time with her two sons. This job will allow her to live at home and keep more normal hours – even if her home is a full 2 hours by train from ours. Guilt for her travel time? Or happiness that a woman who wanted a more manageable job has found one?

She helped me navigate the home store – while every sign and number was in English, the people working IN the store seemed more comfortable and ready to help in Hindi. My early reluctance was beginning to fade. I need this help, I thought.  Then I came up to the register to pay for my odds and ends – cleaning supplies, a few odd dishes to tide us over, an iron – and I looked at the total. I looked at Nisha to see if she saw. She didn’t. The total was only a little bit less than what she was earning in a month. The number blinked at me from the register and I quickly moved to pay.

I met Daniel back at the apartment and I didn’t have time to dwell on the blinking number still burning in my mind.  We had to go get furniture if we ever wanted our empty apartment to turn into our home.

Home Town - India's "Largest Home Making Destination"

We left Nisha with Phoebe and drove out to the aptly named Home Town – an Ikea-esque store in every visible sense. But we found that there was one difference: like every other part of Mumbai, Home Town existed in India Time.

India Time refers to the fact that Indians don’t really seem to suffer from the grips of punctuality. There’s always a traffic jam, always something making everyone late or slower or arriving the next day. And no one here seems to mind because they all live in India time.

Daniel, however, does not. We started inquiring about furniture. “How long until we could have this couch delivered?”

“25 days. It’s not in stock.”
“And this one?”
“25 days as well. Also not in stock.”
“Why don’t you show us things that are IN stock.”
“Ok, this couch here is in stock. 6 days for delivery”
“Why would it take 6 days to deliver something you already have?”

And on and on it went. Our customer service representative, who’d greeted us with a badge that said “Ask me for help!”, was continuously confused by these two gora (aka white people) who didn’t seem to live in the same time zone that they did.  Why ever would we need a mattress quickly? Don’t we understand that things in Mumbai don’t just appear, even if they are in a store only a short drive from our house?

The conversation continued. Daniel asked to speak to the manager. He got them down to two days. It was consensus.

And as a bonus we were going to get voucher for a certain amount off since we bought a bed and mattress set. But the voucher was upstairs. Then it was lost. Then they needed a new one. I looked at Daniel – if he had been a cartoon character steam would have been coming out of his ears as he tried to remain calm. We had to get back to meet an electrician. It would be ok though – they’re all on Indian time too. They expected us to be late.

We came home to a happy Phoebe who looked from Nisha to us and back again. She had given her seal of approval. And as we dropped her off at the train I watched her walk away feeling like the day had gone as well as it could. This is the world we’re living in. Indian time and unfair-seeming wages and all – it was ours now. And now at least we’ll have a guide who can help try to keep us on the right track.

(Just FYI, for anyone who is concerned Nisha is not our housekeeper’s real name. I’ll be using aliases throughout this blog for anyone who specifically hasn’t mentioned that they don’t mind me using their real names)

Read Full Post »

I stepped off the plane from Kuala Lumpur and took in the heat and the distinct smell of Bombay. It was time to really sink my teeth into the city. I walked briskly towards immigration with my Residential Permit in hand… and like a car in the back of a traffic jam I halted abruptly.

A young Indian man — also barreling his way towards immigration — had run into an elderly man going towards a flight. The crash sound was perceptible and both men fell back, staring at each other, shocked. I waited for the scolding that the younger man seemed to richly deserve. But instead the elderly man helped his fallen foe up by grasping his elbow and patting him on the back, almost hugging. It was a gesture that said “It’s ok. We all make mistakes.” And then, just like that, they parted.

It’s those small moments that make me feel at home in India so instantly again. There’s a brotherhood and mutual understanding among kinsmen. Mumbaikers number in millions and yet for moments they seem like a small community. I walked into customs and proudly held out my residential permit. Where do I live? Here. I am a resident of Mumbai.

Phoebe in the new, empty, apartment

But by the next morning that little fantasy had been dealt a swift blow.

“We’re just going to leave the apartment unlocked and the workers can come in to finish painting. It’s not like we have anything here yet.”

We were leaving our broker and our landlord’s broker to head to lunch. We’d taken ownership of our apartment and the wheels were in motion. There was painting to be completed and odds and ends to be fixed, but in a few hours some workers would come over and finish.

“You can’t leave the apartment unlocked,” our broker said, matter of factly. “The workers can easily steal your stuff.”

Daniel and I blinked at her, still confused. Nothing had been moved in. “All that’s here is the refrigerator.” Daniel replied.

“Right. They’ll steal that.”
“In broad daylight? A fridge?”
“If you leave anything unlocked – your car, your apartment – big things and small things will be taken. The people downstairs wouldn’t care. Don’t leave anything out.”

Our landlord’s broker nodded enthusiastically. The locksmiths working on changing the locks on our door just carried on without a word. What happened to my trusting, forgiving society?

As I stood bewildered, Daniel silently handed over the box to our new lock that the locksmiths were installing. As if the universe was trying to wipe the smug enjoyment off my face from my stolen moment the previous evening, I looked at the box. Among the ‘Features’ listed (such as Patented Lockable Knob and 3 Heavy Duty Bolts) there was this:

Enables Locking of servants and thieves within your house, it said.

I tried to stifle a laugh. Really? Lock your SERVANTS and THIEVES in. Together? What will they be doing there, I wonder. Locked together the thieves and servants of India are plotting to take over our fridge? Once again, there goes my simplistic romantic view. India is, of course, so much more complex than a few days spent here in its shadows.

I went to lunch and was treated to another piece of home and my past. Catherine Tousignant, my Andover English teacher, was visiting Mumbai on what I wanted to call an “Andover Mission”. They’re working on teaching a more global perspective and as such she and a few teachers are here meeting with students and local teachers to try and find pathways of collaboration. It truly made me a little jealous of current students.

But the day was still dedicated to work. When I returned from lunch there were errands to be had. We have an apartment to fill, after all. The servants and thieves need items to be locked in with.

All the curtains waiting to be purchased

So we started with curtains. Haggling and curtain draping, more haggling and fabrics. Daniel discussed and bargained while I tried to not get in the way. I tried to furtively look the salespeople in the eye – are our prices fair? Or are we always just going to have to accept the foreign price.

“For furnishings, make sure to go to the fixed price stores. There aren’t a lot of them, but you’ll need it,” our broker had said nonchalantly. I find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that we’re going to have to keep proving over and over again that just because we’re foreign doesn’t mean we want to get ripped off.

The heat of day and the errands of the day had wiped us out. We came back to the guesthouse (where we’re still staying until we get furniture) to sit down before dinner. I started looking at emails. I looked at the date.

“Oh my goodness, Daniel”, I said after a minute.

“What?”

“It’s our 6 year anniversary today.” We both laughed. We’d talked about it a few days ago in Kuala Lumpur. But somehow the day had just gotten away from us. There’s so much Mumbai absorption that the days and weeks just ran together and took us over. Our old life is hard to keep track of here. And furniture and curtains await.  Oh well. Tomorrow maybe we can keep our heads on straight.

Read Full Post »