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Posts Tagged ‘South Bombay’

Late last night I saw a full-fledged brawl between ten men break out in the middle of a main street. Somehow, though, this wasn’t the place where I came into contact with the Mumbai police.

The night had started promisingly. We headed down to South Bombay to go a birthday party of a friend. It was nice to escape the smoky bars of Bandra and get a change of scene.

Everyone was having a good time, but as the early evening deepened into late night, there was a knock on the door.   In walked two serious-looking men dressed in khaki from their yellow-embellished hats on their heads all the way down. They were police officers, and they were not there to join the party.

It hadn’t seemed to me like we were actually making a lot of noise – the party was just fifteen or twenty people, and while we did have music on I hadn’t noticed it being overly loud. I got the sense that we were about to be the subjects of a shakedown.

Our hosts went outside to try and talk to the officers. We had turned the music off and we were all prepared to leave, if need be. I later found out that the officers had tried to start with a game of bluff- first they wanted to take us all to jail (for what?). Then they were going to take just the host/birthday boy and his set of speakers to jail (seriously). Of course, they really just wanted a bribe.

Another friend at the party, who grew up in Bombay, tried to intervene. She thought if the cops were paid off then it just contributed to the culture of corruption. She appealed to their sense of Indian hospitality, telling them that since some of the guests at the party (ie: us) were Americans who had just moved to India, it was inhospitable to create a scene at the party. Sadly they were unmoved by this line of reasoning (although she did take down their names and vow to report them).

They were, however, moved by a payment of 2,000 rupees (about $42).

As the police left we figured it was late enough at night that we should probably leave as well. A group of us going back to Bandra hopped in the car to make our way north.

The only time in Mumbai when there is little to no traffic is in the middle of the night, so I was surprised when, only fifteen minutes into our journey, we started slowing down. I looked out the window – a huge fight was taking place.

We were on the Worli sea face on a three-lane road, but only one was moving. Parked cars and a group of men fighting one another occupied the rest. They were taking a no-holds-barred approach: a few were swinging at the others as fiercely as they could while their friends tried to hold them back. Another friend had stepped out of the fight to direct traffic (how thoughtful!). But the fighting was brutal.

I noticed, as we slowly drove by, a few brightly colored Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked at various points near the fight. I had to imagine this was a drug deal or mafia related incident (unless otherwise very wealthy people decide to stop traffic and pick fights randomly in the middle of the night).  The people fighting didn’t notice or bother any of the cars on the road driving past. They just seemed to want to pick the most dramatic place to stage their showdown.

Of course, for this incident, the police were nowhere to be found. Who are they to get involved in an underworld dispute? After all, there are important parties to break up and get paid for.

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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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