We have stopped off at Ritesh’s aunt’s house in between afternoon meetings. Ritesh and I are busy checking email, while his aunt is making some calls. I hear her on the phone, having what seems to be a polite but firm argument in Hindi, and guess that she is talking to one of her colleagues. Ritesh grins at me – “She is talking to her fruit guy – she is bargaining with him over the cost of mangoes and insisting that the quality of the mangoes he gave her last time wasn’t what she paid for.”
Bargaining is a way of life and an art form in India. You simply are expected to bargain for things that you buy – at least in many settings – and people will genuinely think you strange if you don’t bargain (though they won’t dissuade you, if you insist on paying the first high price they offer you . . .).
I am and have always been a terrible bargainer. For one thing, I am always hesitant to question the value of something that someone has made or has selected to sell, for risk of insulting that person. For another, although I can hold my own in any argument, I have this fundamental aversion to actually instigating a disagreement (I am ever the peacemaker among friends and family . . .). That being said, I do realize that both of those sentiments actually miss the point and my fear/hesitation when it comes to bargaining is roundly misplaced. Bargaining is not really about arguing or disagreeing at all; rather, it is about finding the point where a good or service is appropriately valued – market economics, except that there is only one buyer and one seller and you have to personally haggle back and forth to reach the right price point.
I finally decide to try to be brave in Dilli Haat. Dilli Haat is an amazing open market next to Delhi’s INA Colony, where craftsmen from all over India are given the opportunity to rent stall space for a certain number of weeks each year, to sell their goods to the public.
I stumble upon a stall where two gentlemen are selling hand-crafted wooden works – everything from tables and chairs, to bowls and plates, to toys. A couple of stunningly, intricately carved plates catch my eye – my mom and stepdad are enamored with exactly those kinds of dishes, and I see two in particular that they would love. When I inquire about them, the craftsmen assure me that the plates had been carved from a single piece of wood – a pretty significant feat, given the complexity of the carving on the plates (okay, to be honest – the fact that they are perfectly round already impresses me . . . ). “How much?” I ask. “Four hundred rupees.” About seven dollars, at the current exchange rate. I nod and walk away . . . I spend some time wandering through the rest of the market and don’t see anything that catches my eye the same way that the plates did. So (after a pep talk and some advice from Ritesh!), I return to the stall to ask again about my favorite of the two plates. “How much?” “Four hundred rupees.” Me, holding my breath, bracing for the quizzical, possibly insulted look on the craftsman’s face, “How about one-fifty?” Urg – there’s the look! “Three-fifty.” Me (fighting urges to cave and give the man my money), “Two hundred?” Him, “Three-fifty.” Me, “Two hundred.” Him, “Three hundred.” At that, I put down the plate, give a stiff-lipped, half-smile, and proceed to begin to walk away. I am no more than five steps on my way when, “Okay, two-fifty??” I try very hard to not stop, but only just to hesitate . . . “Two-fifty??” I turn around, walk back, and pick up the plate one more time, pretending to double-check for flaws or cracks. “Okay, two-fifty.” And the deal is done! The plate is carefully wrapped up in newspaper and handed to me in a plastic bag as I simultaneously hand over the two hundred and fifty rupees.
Was it a bargaining success? Okay, probably not exactly – Ritesh seems to think he could have gotten it for 200 rupees – but for me, it was a step in the direction of getting past my fears and insecurities around the whole thing and a step toward getting the hang of the economics of shopping in India.