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Posts Tagged ‘guilt’

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.

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I made 200 rupees today.  That may sound impressive. And perhaps it is. But you should know that 200 rupees equal a whopping 4 dollars and 28 cents. But I made it from selling something that I formerly considered trash.

Our apparently valuble cardboard boxes

I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday I said to Nisha and Ray (the manager of all the work going on in our apartment, who today fixed a broken light, our broken toilet and a broken doorbell. There seems to be always something new!) that I needed to find a way to throw out the many furniture boxes we had sitting around. I couldn’t put them outside because of the monsoon but they were just taking up space in the spare bedroom.

“Throw out?” they both responded, looking at me like I had three heads.

I stared back. “Well, we have to get them out of the house eventually,” I said a bit sheepishly. I didn’t know what I’d said that was incorrect but clearly I was in the wrong somehow and I might as well be preemptively embarrassed for my own stupidity.

“No, you get these guys,” Nisha explained in the manner of someone talking to a very nice but very slow child, “they come around every day. They buy cardboard and newspaper from you. You can get money for it.”

“I tell guy at gate if they come by to send them up,” Ray said, as he walked out of the apartment, clearly on a mission to inform my doorman (or “guy at gate”, apparently) to send strangers into my house foraging for heavy-duty paper products.

And as promised, they arrived the next morning. They came in and sternly began evaluating my ‘goods’. They spoke in quick, sharp Hindi to Nisha. She turned to me and said, “They’re offering you 150 rupee. I don’t think that’s enough.”

“Well, tell them that it doesn’t bother me if they sit in the extra room for a few more days.”

“Yes,” she said, “Good. We’ll get them to 200.”  She talked animatedly to the man in charge, clearly rejecting his initial offer. He moved away from her and started to look at the boxes more closely. I wondered what on earth he was trying to find. It clearly was part of his negotiating strategy.

She leaned over to me as he looked away. “Say to me loudly that you don’t need the boxes to go away yet if they don’t give a fair price.”

I just looked at her. “They don’t speak English, I could say anything and they wouldn’t know the difference.”

To make the point, I said some make-believe gibberish about pigs flying in my most stern voice to see if I could get Nisha to laugh. She did, but with her back turned to the men all they heard was my insistence. Clearly I was VERY serious about pigs flying.

But it worked and we had a deal. The men agreed to 200 rupee and began to collapse and take away the boxes. Nisha took the plastic wrapping off some of the boxes.

“Is ok if I take these? My roof is leaking from monsoon and this will help.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to go over to her house and single-handedly fix her roof (as though I could do that without breaking her roof and/or killing myself). I wanted, though, to not embarrass her.

“Yeah of course. Take whatever you need!” I said, as though my enthusiasm for plastic somehow made it all better.  But it’s only ME who is embarrassed. She seems to feel this is a normal question that shouldn’t faze me as it is clearly not fazing her.

It’s a funny thing, the American guilt. It’s clearly one sided and not even recognized here. She’s not upset; she just wants some plastic.  It’s me who is embarrassed, not her.  It’s me who has to get over it because she was never in it or under it. She folded up the plastic without noticing my own pathetic internal Greek tragedy.  And the boxes continued to be collapsed and taken away.

Victory! The newly earned 200 rupee

A moment later, once they finished, I opened my hand and two crisp 100 rupee notes were pressed into it.  Success. It was my very own trash into treasure story, but clearly I could take no credit for the victory.  It marveled in the uniqueness of that experience.

“Some things are very different here,” I said to Nisha.
“Like what?”
“Well, I never knew you could sell cardboard to men who came to your house.”

Just then the monsoon started up again and the noise took over the room.  “And this constant rain is different,” I said.

“You don’t have rain in New York?”
“Well, we have rain, but we have it in short spurts all year.”
“You have rain all year?”
“Yes, but it’s not like this all year. It rains for a day or two then it doesn’t rain for a few weeks. Then it rains some more and then no rain for a bit.”
“Even in winter? Or spring?”  She was clearly shocked at the idea of rain in November or March.

That question, that kind of moment, is when I’m reminded that there’s a whole world whose experience with even the most basic parts of humanity – such as rain – is completely different to my own.  There’s no right or wrong – just a whole new way to see the world.

I had spent a larger portion of my day at a coffee with the American Women’s Club than I did with the boxes or the conversations about rain. But the interaction with the day-to-day life of India stuck with me more than the attempt to find remnants of home here (even if it was nice to be around a bevy of American accents for 2 hours and I will definitely be happy to have those coffee respites while I’m in Mumbai).

What a world of learning I’ve entered into. Today: rain and cardboard. Tomorrow, who knows what’s next.

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