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Posts Tagged ‘shopping’

The Simple Things

It’s always the simple things in life that you take for granted. And luckily (or unluckily) for me, I get a constant reminder of that in my day-to-day life here.

A few days ago I found myself in need of labels. Nothing fancy, just a few names and addresses printed out on sticky labels to then put onto some envelopes.

In my previous life this would be a simple task – either I would print them out at my office or I could pop over to Kinkos and have it done in five minutes. This, clearly, was not in the cards for me with these labels.

I started by asking Daniel. That should have solved it – he has an assistant and everything! But, lo and behold, Daniel’s Indian assistant has actually been outsourced to Chennai and therefore couldn’t print anything personal for him. The world is indeed a strange place.

So I began calling printing companies. My conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Hello, I’m calling because I want to print out some labels. Can you do that?
Them: Hold on

(wait for ten minutes and then a new person arrives)

Them: Hello? Why you calling?
Me: I want to print labels.
Them: What?
Me: Labels
Them: What is label?
Me: A sticky thing with an address printed on it.
Them: Called a what?
Me: A label.
Them:What is a label?
Me: Like I said, it’s a sticky piece of paper with an address printed on it.
Them: Who are you?
Me: My name is Ali
Them: Where you calling from?
Me: Bandra
Them: Why you are calling?
Me: Again, I’m calling about labels. LABELS
Them: Hold on

You then wait another ten minutes, have the same conversation again with a different person (who is equally confused by the concept of labels) until finally someone says:

Them: We don’t do
Me: Is there anyone you know of who can?
Them: Yes, call this number

Of course, the cycle then continues because the next person I called did the same thing, and the subsequent ten places all were equally as non-committal on the subject of labels. Finally I was put in touch with a man named Mr. Desai who said I should just come to his office.

I went with a friend of mine who was in town and we walked around a parking lot and pile of trash with goats surrounding it until we found Mr. Desai’s office.

A still-in-use printer

It was like we were transported back in time. The roof of the office consisted of sheets of metal with patches of light streaming through the various holes and cracks. The room was dark and dingy with floors so coated in dust our shoes made small footprints when we walked. Mr. Desai sat at a desk with piles of dusty old ledgers, like an Indian Ebeneezer Scrooge staring into his calculator. And in the corner stood a printer that looked closer to Johann Gutenberg’s era than Kinkos. It was absurd.

 

“You have emailed to me your file?” Mr Desai said slowly, unsure of his English.
“Yes,” I replied, indicating that I’d sent it to the email address he’d given me on the phone. But, of course, there was no computer in sight, so I wasn’t quite sure how this was all going to be accomplished.
“Excellent. It will only be a minute. You sure you want it sticky?” he said, as though I might be confused by the concept of what I needed.
“Yes, it needs to be sticky,” I responded simply.
“Acha, Okay,” he said, and then went back to his ledgers.

We sat and waited. I was so grateful I had someone with me because as the minutes ticked on it seemed like we might be there for hours.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, a man walked in the store, triumphantly holding papers above his head. They weren’t quite labels, but they were addresses printed on paper that would stick, and that was all I needed.

They were labels, India-style.

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Chaos. Vibrancy. Overstimulation. I’d missed that potent Mumbai blend. I wanted to be thrown right back into it.

So on our way home tonight I asked our driver if we could stop at Muhammed Ali Road. Most people only see it from above the flyover (or raised highway) on the way from South Bombay heading toward Mahalaxmi. It’s one of the Muslim areas of Mumbai and normally not particularly notable. But at night during Ramazan (the way Indian Muslims pronounce what we know as Ramadan) it comes alive.

A view of all the action on the road in the dark

Because Muslims fast all day during Ramazan, at night it’s time to celebrate. And Muhammed Ali Road is the center of Bombay’s Ramazan action. And tonight was the last night before Eid (the celebration of the end of Ramazan) so I knew we’d have to make it a priority today (jetlag be damned!).

Nisha, who is Muslim, had told us this would be a great place for us to go. She thought we would have a lot of fun. Our (Christian) driver was not so convinced.

“Ma’am, they are all gangsters here. They all get together to beat people. Look at the drivers in this area – no discipline. Why do you want to come here?”

“I don’t think it’s that bad in the main areas,” I said, trying to be tactful. I knew plenty of people who had ventured out perfectly safely to eat and celebrate. I had a sense that while there may have been some grain of truth to parts of what he said, it struck me as probably one of the many stereotypes fellow Bombayiites had about other castes and neighborhoods that they probably knew very little about.

People crowding into stalls

Besides, there was nothing but excitement and food and salesmanship surrounding us. Everywhere you looked, food was cooking on indoor and outdoor stoves, men sold bangles and kufis, stilettos and hijabs. Sellers negotiated animatedly with potential buyers. The scene goes on and on like that for miles. You can stay on the main road or venture down side streets where the food can range from typical rice dishes to the more adventurous (brains and tongues and any other animal part you can name). And if you’re driving in, don’t be in a rush. It’s wall to wall traffic as everyone tries to push their way through the crowd.

It’s hard to describe the feeling that was in the air but I guess as a Jewish person I could relate to it somewhat – after all day of fasting on Yom Kippur I’m usually giddy with excitement to eat. If I could multiply that by an entire month of fasting each day I can’t imagine how elated I would be every night just to eat and soak in the energy. It seemed sort of fitting that we were going to see Ramazan’s end right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. For us and everyone around us tomorrow is a new beginning.

It was a good welcome back.

One stall with one tiny light

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I am starting to feel some pressure to beef up my Hindi.  After all, if a person tells you that your language skills give them a sense of national pride, you need to try as hard as possible.

This all started with a trip to purchase a phone – Nisha’s phone broke so we went on an expedition for a new one.

While we’re out, Nisha and I have gotten into the habit of prodding each other – I’ll make her read signs and she’ll make me repeat numbers back to her in Hindi.  I’ve needed the extra help with the numbers, because learning them in practice is tricky – even if you can say them all fast in a row, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can remember a specific number off the bat (I.e. you might count to ten in succession, but do you remember which one means eight?).

This has proven even harder for large numbers. If something cost 1,260 rupees, you have to remember how to say one, a thousand, two, a hundred AND sixty. It looks like one number on the page when in reality you’re remembering five numbers and putting them together.

The reason I used this number as an example is because when we got to the phone store, we were told that the basic phone cost 1,260 rupees. And as the store clerk announced this, I chirped back at him “Ek hazaar doe saw sarth” (or 1,260 in Hindi). I looked to Nisha, as I always do, to make sure this was right. But once I saw her nod I turned around and noticed that every one of the seven people helping us was staring at me in amusement.

“You know Hindi?” one of them said.
“Tora, tora Hindi boltay,” I said, (roughly translates to “I speak little, little Hindi”). They clapped their hands with delight.

“Where did you learn Hindi?”  I nodded towards Nisha but their curiosity wasn’t satisfied, “Why you learn Hindi? Where are you from?”

“Well,” I started, “I’m from America. And I only know very very little Hindi. But I’m learning it because I think it’s important to know the basics while I’m living in India.”

They all looked at each other and nodded. One man who had been silent up until that point suddenly came to the front of the counter and looked me dead in the eyes.

“You have no idea what this is to us,” he said. “If people like you want to come here and speak in our language it means something great for India.”

“We are very happy to hear you speaking Hindi,” another man said. “Yes,” another concurred, “It gives national pride.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to this. My basic Hindi gives these people national pride? That I can recite numbers (extremely slowly) in Hindi? How could I possibly believe that?

The many helping hands in the phone store- new phones and new sims

Here I was, surrounded by more than half a dozen young Indian men who spoke perfect English and yet they wanted to praise me for the rudimentary Hindi words I had picked up.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t learned very much yet, but they would hear none of it. They spoke in quick Hindi to Nisha trying to find out more information about me.

I wasn’t going to protest. After all, this was why I’d wanted to learn Hindi, right? I wanted to be politically correct and culturally sensitive and all of that. But it’s one thing to think that you should try hard to respect the culture you’ve moved into; It’s quite another to have someone tell you that it’s meaningful to them that you’re trying.  It made me feel like I should be trying harder.

And this certainly wasn’t the first time my terrible Hindi has received a shocked reception. Everywhere I go – at bars, in rickshaws, at markets and now at the phone store – most Indians seem bemused that I’m at least trying to speak their language.  No one expects white people to try at all (since English is the co-national language here), so even the basics in Hindi are congratulated.

And I’m sure that for most people, half the fun is in watching this foreign person struggle with a bad accent at their language. But every time my bad Hindi makes someone laugh, or whenever they ask me to repeat my words again for their friends, I’m getting the sense that it’s the most crucial way for me to adapt. It’s an immediate signal that I’m trying, ever so slowly, to fit into Indian culture instead of trying to make it adapt to me. And that seems to be appreciated.

As we left the store I waved and said, “Muje apsay milnee acha laga”.
“It’s nice to meet you too, ma’am!” they replied, before talking animatedly amongst themselves while continuously looking back at Nisha and me as we walked away

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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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When I asked our new driver where we could buy cheap plants for the apartment, I wasn’t expecting the place we ended up.

We drove into Santacruz, a few miles north of Bandra. Once off the highway and down a long road, we started slowing down.

“Ok, here ma’am,” the driver said.

The side of the road plant market

The houses behind the plant market

I looked out my window as he pulled over and stopped. I hadn’t noticed as we’d been driving, but the entire roadside was lined with plants. Plants up and down as far as the eye could see – trees, bushes, flowering plants, everything . And behind the rows and rows of flowers and trees were small slum houses. It was a jarring sight – colorful luscious plants hiding the homes of the people selling them. And the many sellers were out, watching us emerge from the car.

We immediately got a sales pitch: “What you looking for? What you want? I have good plants, very good trees. Or flower you like? This one tree is 300 rupee,” one seller said, pointing at a large tree.

“Teen-saw rupiya? Neh, neh” I replied, indicating that 300 rupees was too much. In reality 300 rupees is only $6 and change. It’s hard to see a five-foot tall tree for the price of a large ice cream in New York as a bad deal. But you can’t think like that here – if you constantly convert in your head you’ll allow yourself to be overcharged over and over again. You have to bargain for what is fair.

As it’s been with most locals, the seller found even my very very limited Hindi quite surprising. No one expects me to know anything, so the most basic phrases and numbers get me far. I kept walking, with the hopes of now being taken more seriously.

For shopping, this tactic has generally been working for me now that I’ve learned the basic numbers. And once I’ve confused people with my little bits of Hindi, I use a foolproof phrase that makes them like me as well (or at least gets them to laugh at me enough to like me a little bit more than they would normally). I had realized the power of this phrase a few days previously while negotiating with a man selling me bananas.

“Kitna huah?” I’d asked (How much?).
“40 rupees ma’am”
“Chalees rupiya?” He looked at me, surprised that I knew the word in Hindi for 40.
“Yes,” he laughed, “Chalees rupiya. That is the price.”
“Neh, neh.” I said, knowing full well that a dozen bananas should be closer to 20 or 30 rupees. But I knew my white face was stopping him from treating me fairly.

“Kyoo gora tax?” I asked

The banana seller laughed. I had asked him why he gave me a white person tax. He found this very amusing and immediately changed the price. With some price knowledge attached to a bit of humor I could at least escape some of price gauging that came with my race.

So I asked the flower seller the same thing: “Kyoo gora tax?”

Nisha started laughing immediately while the seller just looked at me. He started chuckling, clearly amused. He walked over to his fellow sellers and began to talk animatedly. He was telling them what I said and they all were looking over and smiling. I’d won them over – I was willing to make fun of myself and so now we could begin to bargain with real prices.

potting the plants

We picked out one large tree and four medium flowering plants. After my cajoling and Nisha’s instance, all the plants together were priced at a more realistic 345 rupees. The young boys who’d been watching the negotiations intently were now instructed to begin potting the plants. They sat down on the wet ground, dug up mud, tenderly picked away old dirt from the roots, and placed my new plants in their containers.

I’m not used to slums yet. It’s still hard for me to negotiate with a man when I can see that his house is barely standing and that he has no toilet or running water. But for this time at least I felt like everyone had gotten a fair shake – and perhaps a little amusement.

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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 have learned a very important phrase in Hindi, one whose usage can have a grave impact on your wallet. Kitanā?, I can ask. And by saying this in Hindi I can be sure to reduce the cost of any item, even if the cost will still remain in the range of ‘white person price.’ The biggest problem, of course, if that I’m not far enough along in my Hindi to know what the responses to this question mean.

Kitanā, as you may have guessed, means ‘How much?’. In my phrase-a-day approach to learning Hindi, this has been one of the more useful ones. People may get a kick out of me saying ‘Mujhē bhindi achee leh gee’ (I like okra very much) or ‘Tora, tora Hindi bolteh’ (I speak little, little Hindi), but it doesn’t have quite the disarming effect as showing a seller that you’re perhaps a bit wise to their games. Or at least wise enough to have learned the phrase, if not yet the numbers they respond with.

But it’s still, of course, not enough to get a fair price. I think even a lifetime worth of Hindi and the long kurta’s I’ve been wearing wouldn’t get the price as low as if I just looked like I belonged.

Luckily Daniel and I had Nisha along for a day of shopping for household basics, and she had given us strict instructions:

“Don’t let them see us together. Walk in front of me and touch the things you like. I’ll go by a few minutes later and get the real price. Then we can decide if we want to buy.”

Side streets in Crawford Market

We went to the famed Crawford Market in South Bombay. It’s a building, its a neighborhood, it’s a conglomeration of shops and stands and street-hawkers.  Everyone has something to sell no matter the size or shape of their stall or storefront; and every seller is ready to make a deal. It’s a tourist attraction and local haunt that’s known for its cheap wares and myriad inventory.

We started out testing our pricing system with drying racks. I looked at a few and touched on the ones that we liked. We asked how much. It was 1,500 rupee (about $32). We scoffed and walked away.

A few minutes later Nisha came back.  800 rupee was the new price. But when we went back together to pay, the price suddenly increased to 1,250. We knew we’d have to try and get most of what we were looking for at one place – where they’d have too much to lose if we walked away from all the items.

While Nisha was searching for a singular place to purchase, I wandered over to a lighting store to look at standing lamps.

“How much?” I asked.

“4,400 rupees,” the man said, clearly under the impression that $94 for his most basic cheap standing lamp was a reasonable price to offer a gora.

“Nahee, Kitanā?” I asked (“No, how much”).

“Ah. 2,500,” he replied, still ripping me off but with a little bit more realistic intentions.

I walked out shaking my head at my own stupidity for even trying to negotiate in a place where people would never give me a reasonable rate.  And as I walked, lost in thought, I stepped into one of the monsoon’s ubiquitous puddles, splashing mud into my waterproof shoes and covering my legs. I sighed in frustration.

Many, many shops

But a man in a nearby shop shouted my way and pointed at a bucket of water next to him with a ladle. I said “Shukriyaa” in thanks and began pouring the water down my legs. Here was a man who probably would have tried to screw me if I’d come into his store looking to buy something. But he saw me in distress and immediately wanted to help.

It’s funny – the price structure isn’t personal here. It’s not malicious. It’s just everyone trying to make as much as they can off of the small sales they make.  And for every moment that I get exasperated with India, the people here never fail to make me love them an instant later. It’s just the way it is.

Nisha called me in to the shop she had selected and I thanked the man again for his help. I went in and she handed me a pre-written price list with all the items we needed. The owners weren’t going to haggle with me – they knew we’d walk away if they tried to change so many already agreed upon prices. We had found success.

We spent the other portion of our shopping day in the opposite setting to Crawford Market. We pulled up to the Phoenix Mall and went into a store called Big Bazaar, which is like a dingier Bed Bath and Beyond with a grocery store thrown in the back. We picked up the items we couldn’t get at Crawford Market.

Big Bazaar's rice and lentils

But even at a mall that housed a Zara, Marks and Spencers, Burberry and McDonalds under one roof, you couldn’t stereotype it into a completely Western context. Upstairs in Big Bazaar you can go look at saris and kurtas. And when you walk into the grocery section you run smack into big tubs of rice and lentils, surrounded by prospective shoppers putting their hands in to test the quality. The two men in charge just scoop out bags and bags of the staples as customers flock to their most important section.  It’s a comforting piece of an Indian market sitting in a grocery aisle lit by florescent lights and decorated with signs showing happy families in polo shirts and jeans.

When we came back to our apartment, purchases in hand, we felt victory was ours. We’d gotten the basics we needed and we’d added some Indian cookware and flatware to our repertoire. But of course, when we tried to take it all upstairs the elevator had stopped working – and haggling and Hindi couldn’t buy us out of this one. Never a dull moment here – and never a time when we’re allowed to forget that we’re always going to have to try a little bit harder to make it all work.

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