I love Om Puri. Actually, I hate that first sentence, it is so easy to say love and hate these days without really meaning it. How can I love him? I don’t even know him, but, I do love the characters he plays in films.
I recently rewatched The 100 Foot Journey. I saw it first when I was still incarcerated in the UK and loved the way the first scenes took me back to India and how the characters, in particular reminded me of friends from ‘home.’ The relationship with food and the understanding of food having soul, the flavour combinations and the breaking with norms is something else I enjoyed but it was the bargaining scenes which really made me smile.
Om Puri perfectly catches the juxtaposition not only between the differing French and Indian cultures but also his internal battle in keeping his traditions whilst coping with the mortification of his more modern thinking children. The main conflict that there is between them is this attitude towards bargaining. There are three times it is brought up in the film. Once when, having broken down in a small village and finding a room for the night, his children beg him not to bargain with the hotelier, you can just tell it is something they have to endure, often. The following day when Helen Mirren accuses him of not being able to afford the restaurant he wishes to buy as she heard that he bargained for his hotel rooms. ‘Madame,’ he says, ‘bargaining doesn’t mean that I am poor, it means that I am thrifty.’ Well said.
And the classic scene when Om Puri and Helen Mirren are bargaining over the price of Hassan, Om Puri’s son, whom ‘Madam Mallory’ recognises as having a great talent and potential as a chef. She sits up all night in the cold waiting for Om. He leaves her waiting until the morning and then having established just how much she wants his son, goes down to start the proceedings. She starts in the two hundreds, he in the six hundreds and the game commences. Just as it is getting heated (and interesting) Hassan appears and asks his own price (too low of course) and his father berates him, ‘You have ruined the whole game.’ And that is the point.
Bargaining is an intrinsic part the Indian psyche, and as an expat living in India it is so easy to miss this fact. Not the bargaining, that is impossible to miss, but the cultural aspect of it. Particularly when living in Delhi when the mere sight of white skin can push up the price of any item from potatoes to rent paid on houses exponentially. It is easy to feel that one is merely a meal ticket, one to be ripped off at every available opportunity.
But what made me feel better about Delhi is when I discovered that it’s not just the white skin syndrome, even my friends from Rajasthan or Kerala get ripped off in Delhi, it’s the very nature of the city. Both as a result of its location and history, Delhi’s people are more fierce when it comes to bargaining, yes there is an element of lets rip the foreigners off, but everyone in Delhi is fighting so hard to make a living. It is a mad crazy city with a population bordering on 20 million people, money has to be made where it can.
But that aside, back to my original observation that bargaining is an art form, it passes the day, every purchaser wants to feel they have a good deal, whilst the vendor doesn’t want to feel ripped off and to have a good bargain when out hassling for your vegetables makes for a good start to the day. This is a part of the bargaining culture in India which can and should be enjoyed. It is not just about the price, it is about the enjoyment, it is about feeling that you have got a good price, it is about making the day more interesting.
On a daily basis I head out to find an auto to take me to work. I know that the journey shouldn’t cost a local more than 40 rupees, I have a predetermined cap at 50. They spot the white lady and stop pretty quickly, I tell them where I want to go in English, they usually start somewhere around 100 (though one chap did chance his arm at 350). I switch to Hindi,
‘Arree come on brother, I do this journey every day, twice a day, 30 done.’ And give the classic Indian head wobble (and yes, I can do it properly!)
They look shocked but then a twinkle appears in their eye, the ‘she knows the game twinkle’ and now the fun starts, they counter,
‘Yes but madam, very far (it’s a 5 minute journey), and very very traffic this time, 70.’ I respond, still in Hindi ,
‘I know, I travel at the same time every day, 40.’
They pretend to consider, pretend to work out the route in their heads one last tentative ’60?’ and I know I have them, so I walk off. They give chase, we agree on 50 and in I get.
The strange thing about this is, our western perception is that they would be cross at having been screwed down. But on quite a few occasions, they have then proceeded with the conversation, smiling, madam knows Hindi very well, or madam knows bargaining very well. It’s all part of the daily game. They got a better price then they should (marginally), and I got a decent rate, we both saved face and we are both happy.
Of course there are times when resolve weakens and I do pay the asking price. Take for example the old man I have mentioned before in my Delhi diaries, who delivers fruit to the houses in the area. To be fair, he does always give a fair price, but he must be in his 70’s and now turns up every Saturday morning without fail pushing a laden cart which I could barely budge and at 0830 sharp is announcing his wares under my balcony. When I say without fail, it doesn’t matter if it is 40C or pouring with rain, there his is. So what if he adds 10 rupees per kilo? Seriously.
My best ever deal though was my last house in Delhi. Friends told me about a great place that had just been vacated, they knew the previous tenants had been paying 32K for it, it was within my budget and in the right area, I went to see it. I met the landlord Anjan Bose outside, he seemed to be a friendly affable chap. We went in, it was a spacious 3 bed, bigger than I needed but it had been trashed and I mean trashed by the previous tenants. I looked around, skeptically. Finally, not overly enamoured anyway, I asked the price,
’75 thousand,’ was his response, my eyebrows raised, he continued, looking me straight in the eye, ‘And it isn’t because you are white, market prices have increased.’
I took a deep breath, glanced around with a ‘look at the state of this place, you can’t be serious look on my face’, and sighed, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, you see, I have worked out my finances and 40 is all I can afford.’ I didn’t wait for a response, ‘never mind, thank you anyway and good luck.’ And I left.
Three days later a call came through, he wanted me to come back and see the place, he had had it done up. He obviously wanted me. Foreigners as tenants are quite sought after, a) we don’t tend to trash places and b) we move out when we are meant to. These are two huge factors for a landlord to consider. I went, the place was transformed, I liked it, but he was still asking 75K. We chatted and chewed the fat but it was still a no go.
Two days later he asked me to go and meet his wife the following day. I told him that I was unable to as I was heading to my favourite city for the weekend but as they were in my area, why didn’t they bob in for tea.
This was my ace. You see not only did this give them the chance to see just how nice and neat and clean I kept my house (UK friends don’t laugh, in India we have maids!) but Mr Bose was from Calcutta and I had just happened to mention that my favourite city was Calcutta.
‘Oh, is there where you are from Mr Bose, really?’ (Innocence dripping off me.) How lucky you are, is there anywhere you suggest I visit.’
Naturally I wasn’t going anywhere near Calcutta that weekend, but the game was on, and I had the winning hand. It took another week or so but I finally got the place for 45k. Happy days. Anyone who knows Mr Bose was shocked, you managed WHAT!!!? But I had and moved in the following weekend.
I know it is easy to let the daily battle grind you down, but it’s all a case of perspective, bargaining by and large is cultural, not personal, treat it as a game to be learned and mastered, practise your skills and see how you improve, it really can be fun, and for me, I hope this is one aspect of Indian culture that doesn’t get lost in the race towards westernisation.