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Issue 33

How To Bargain In India

By Shivani Shah

You would imagine that a person who grew up in Mumbai and has spent most of her life living there would be an expert at bargaining with the many roadside vendors in the city. When it comes to me, you’d be wrong.

When I was a teenager I thought it was just a lack of confidence. Here I was, all of five feet tall, trying so hard to be taken seriously while I was being jostled about by the many people traversing the narrow pavements of Colaba Causeway. It’s hard to demand a deep discount on anything when you literally can’t stand your ground.

As I joined the world of the gainfully employed (read: could afford to shop in actual stores) my visits to Causeway reduced. When I did go back it was usually to stores and restaurants nestled in the bylanes of the busy road. Curio Cottage, a jewellery store in a lane just off the foot of Causeway, has half my money. I’ve spent many a happy hour at Woodside Inn just across the street. The only roadside shop I still visit with any regularity is one where the prices are low and fixed. My lack of bargaining skills and I are very comfortable in this shop.

When my sister asked me a couple of months ago if I wanted to join her for a morning of shopping at Causeway I agreed immediately. It had been a while since I visited “Colaba guy”, as I call my shop of choice, so I was sure he’d have a new selection of clothes to peruse. We’d go there, shop, and get back home for lunch. Easy as pie.

My sister, however, had different plans. It had been years since we’d shopped at Causeway and she wanted to spend some time browsing. Walk the entire stretch and see what was available. I stood at the foot of the street, just metres away from my beloved Curio Cottage, and stared down what seemed like an obstacle course. The pavement was filled with these temporary yet permanent shops on both sides, leaving just a slender strip of tile for you to walk on. The vendors displayed their jewellery and knick-knacks on tables and hung clothes, bags and belts from the frames of the stalls. They stood in front of their stalls, calling out to anyone and everyone passing by to come and take a look at the assortment of items on sale.

And then the bargaining game would begin. It’s tedious to play the game until one of you – hopefully the other guy – backs down first. Over and over again at every single shop. So why even bother? Because the prices they quote are meant for the many tourists that live in and frequent Colaba who also bargain because the vendors’ tricks are the world’s worst kept secret. You’d be a fool if you just paid up what they asked. If this were fifteen years ago I might have been tired at just the idea of bargaining, but this time I looked at it as a challenge. I wasn’t a young, naïve teenager anymore. I may still be five feet tall, but I was 30-something years old and, dammit, I was going to act like an adult.

We began our journey down Causeway outside Café Mondegar amidst multiple jewellery shops, and my eyes soon fell on a necklace that would go beautifully with one of my many plain black shirts and t-shirts. I tried it on in three different colours and decided I liked the (fake, obviously) gold one best. My sister agreed, so I enquired about the price.

“250 rupees, madam.”

I thought for a second. Convention dictates that the first price he quotes isn’t the final price, and a quote of 250 means the absolute most you should pay is 200. But it was obvious that I liked it and was going to buy it no matter what, so I half-heartedly said, “250? I’ll give you 200.”

“230.”

Feeling as though I was acting very badly in a very badly written school play, I pretended to think about it for a few seconds. “Okay,” I said with a shrug. He took out a little plastic bag to put the necklace in while I fished out the money, mentally very pleased at my paltry 20 rupee discount. With my fake gold necklace safely in my bag I made my way down the road, emboldened by my “success” at bargaining.

We walked slowly, and I gravitated towards more jewellery shops and found more things I liked. Another gold necklace and a gold ring later I was out 350 rupees more – this time I’d managed a discount of an entire 30 rupees.

As we wandered further down the road we found a clothes shop my sister liked, so we spent a considerable amount of time browsing. It’s also when we decided to try a new tactic – instead of speaking English and letting on which clothes we really liked, we would speak in French. We can understand and say phrases like “Ce n’est pas mal”, “C’est bon”, or “Je n’aime pas” without having to think about them at all. It worked a little, and twenty minutes later my sister was able to buy some shirts with reasonable success at bargaining.

This trip is turning out to be much better than I’d anticipated, I thought smugly. I could hear some people around me bargaining confidently in English the way normal people do. I decided that I would try it too.

Summer was upon us and I spotted some nice cotton tunics that would be perfect in the sweltering heat Mumbai summers are famous for. I picked out a floral tunic and asked how much it cost.

“400.”

I’d shopped – and bargained – at this particular shop before, and this time I was determined to bargain properly. “300,” I said.

The man laughed and said no.

“325?” I asked, a little less sure of myself.

“400.”

“350?”

“400.”

I put it back on the rack and walked away. I would have secretly gladly paid the 400 in the first place, but my wounded pride wouldn’t let me anymore. He’d seen through the façade and recognised a rank amateur.

We walked further down the road, me still smarting from my failure, and thankfully inched closer to the end. My bad mood didn’t last for very long, though. The delicious smell of garlic soon wafted through the air, and as my healthy sister stopped to buy some fruit, I made a quick dash to the institutional Piccadilly Restaurant for lots of garlic cream, pickles and pita. With my unplanned lunch packed and ready to go, I no longer cared about wounded pride and lost sales. A good meal, like a good cup of coffee, can always elevate my mood and put things in perspective. Being crappy at bargaining isn’t really a life problem if you don’t let being a scapegoat bother you too much.

At long last we reached the end of our walk, and I had never been happier to see Colaba guy. We browsed idly through the racks, picking up multiple items of clothing each. He found our sizes, we paid for the clothes, and everybody walked away happy. It was the smoothest transaction of the day for either of us.

We examined our purchases as we drove back home, pleased at a morning well spent. I may have managed to get a total discount of only 50 rupees in the entire trip, but I was pleased with myself nonetheless. I had bought several things that I really liked at prices that didn’t break the bank. That was good enough for me.

      

Shivani Shah spent several years practising law until she gave it up to pursue a life of creativity. She is a writer and photographer living in Mumbai who tweets at @wordsbyshivani and has an unhealthy obsession with green tea.

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