Haggling in India

Photo by Carl Densem

It feels as though everyone in India is an entrepreneur. A fair assumption when travelling the country is that no product or service is too insignificant to bargain over. Even those already in employ, such as IndiGo baggage charge collectors, appear somewhat disappointed not to be cajoled. An expectant look, daring you to twist their arm, is included in the fare.

Enterprising ways give theatrical and surprising turns to mundane chores. Groceries promise a thrilling twist. Servicing your car can feel like a hostage crisis. A taxi ride can take more turns than the road even offers.

Take the example of my friends and I needing 10 bouquets shortly before the start of a wedding.

At an otherwise nondescript street corner, we found a busily-threading flower walla (shopkeeper) tending to two customers. Shekhar, the savviest amongst us, leads price negotiations around, and often over, enquiries from other passers-by. Meanwhile, our semi-attendant walla weaves vines and sparkling ribbons around lavish hydrangeas with the dexterity of Goddess Durga. After 10 minutes it all ends in a flurry and, before I know it, we’re back in our taxi high-tailing it down the street.

Do we really have time for this? I come all this way for an Indian wedding and spend the night in florist trade talks. Perfect. Suddenly, we’re thrown forward as the taxi lurches into reverse and, back at the walla’s makeshift worktable, he’s preparing our order with a juggler’s precision. I’m dumbfounded. What just happened?

It dawns on me: that was the negotiation! Worthy of a Penn & Teller finale, I was misdirected by what appeared to be a breakdown when there was never any thought of us leaving the table, so to speak. Our bid was the abruptness of that indignant wheel spin. As I rewind events, I marvel at the choreography – the window left down, the door not quite closed – that solicited an acceptable offer shouted from a block away.

How hard can it be? Awestruck and wanting a chance to lead the haggle, I visit Calangute’s street market to buy fruit. In my first of many mistakes, I pick out a pitiful old woman on her haunches, encircling a bucket’s worth of produce, and ask for four oranges and two bananas.

In my head I’m busy converting the price I’d expect to pay in Vancouver into rupees and readying myself for an exaggerated lob that I’ll undercut with gusto. Game, set and match. So you can imagine my surprise when I snap back to find her unloading everything she’s got into my hands.

There are fruits I have never seen before and, I think, some rocks in there. As things turn pear-shaped, I come to the conclusion she has launched a war of attrition; by offloading her medley of fruit and stones on me, she assumes I’ll give in to an ignorantly large offer.

My protestations fall on suddenly – or perhaps genuinely – deaf ears, and my attempts to reiterate (in Hindi, mind you) my order are rebuffed by hand shooing and head rolling. Realizing the situation is now beyond saving, I pull the only manoeuvre I can think of and make for the nearest escape, handing her rocks back as I turn.

Not guilefully, as I was shown by Shekhar, or presciently, assuming she would reform her tactics, but out of sheer embarrassment and failure. Whether insults, actual offers or the delayed onset of pity for my feeble attempt, she shouts after me for what seems an eternity.

Wherever you may view yourself, or end up, on the haggle-o-meter, give it a whirl.

Who knows, maybe your neighbourhood grocer is up for sparring over the price of grapes, but nobody ever asked.

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