Field Note – Traditions
There is one Indian tradition with which I’ve struggled: haggling. It is one of the most widespread customs that differ from those of the U.S. The art of bargaining takes a long time to learn and after four months I don’t think I’ve come close to mastering it. It’s essential to learn to haggle properly if you want to survive in India for a long time, for both financial and cultural reasons. Depending on where you are, you can be expected to haggle for everything from clothes to food and transportation to domestic services. Considering how few instances there are in the U.S. in which one can haggle for their purchase, it’s incredible how many are reliant on this practice in India.
I’ve honed my haggling skills with transportation services (autos) everywhere, but centered mostly in one place: Shilparamam arts and crafts village in Hyderabad. It is essentially a large bazaar with dozens of stalls selling clothes, jewellery, figurines of gods, wooden and stone goods and home wares. This is where I bought the majority of my souvenirs to bring home for friends and family, as well as the place where I learned how to bargain for the first time.
It can be uncomfortable at first, especially if you’re as unassertive and hesitant as I was. Even though everyone does it and the shopkeepers are used to it, I was wary of arguing prices for fear of insulting shopkeepers about the quality of their goods. I soon learned that they don’t expect foreigners to know to haggle and drive up the price two or three times what it’s actually worth. This knowledge pushed me to be more assertive in my bargaining. No one wants to be taken advantage of, especially if it’s a matter of money. You have to be steadfast and stubborn, even if it’s just a few dollars difference.
Here’s a sample interaction between a shopkeeper and I about a scarf:
Priya: Ye kitna hai? [How much is this?]
Shopkeeper: Rs. 1000, very good silk. [Notice how he answers in English because he can tell I’m a foreigner.]
P: 1000! That’s way too much for one scarf.
S: Madam, it’s pure silk. Very good quality.
P: I don’t doubt that, but it’s too much. I’ll give you 400.
S: Madam, this is silk! Hand-woven, look at the threads.
P: Yes, but it’s frayed on this corner and kind of dusty, so I can’t pay 1000 for it.
S: How much do you want to pay, madam? You’ll take for 900?
P: Nope, still much too much. I’d pay 900 for three scarves.
S: But this is very more quality than the other sellers. You go pay them 400 for a fake silk scarf.
P: Maybe I will, it’s a fairer price.
S: Okay madam, 800.
P: I’ll pay 400, that’s it.
S: No madam, this is silk!
[It goes on like this for a while, arguing about quality and competitors’ prices, etc.]
S: Okay madam, 500, okay?
P: Not quite. You know, I think I’m going to keep looking. Thank you. [Walk a few steps and pretend to look at another stall]
S: Madam! Okay, 400. You’ll take?
I have a gorgeous powder blue silk scarf I got through an exchange like this. I still think the price could have gotten even lower, but there’s a certain threshold that foreigners can’t really cross. No matter how good a bargainer you are, you’ll always end up paying more. It’s the sad truth that you’re at the whims of the shopkeeper.
One day, a friend and I wanted to buy some palm leaf wall hangings, beautiful folds inscribed with illustrations of animals. My friend (a blond girl from Michigan) got hers for Rs. 350 and I got mine for Rs. 300. There were almost identical, but I purchased mine after her and chatted a bit with the shopkeeper. We talked about India and my heritage (Indian on my mother’s side), and he ended up giving me a better price! This is really unfair but happens all the time. We all know that “Indian price” is always cheaper than what we end up paying. It’s just the way things are. The difference is just a dollar, but it’s more symbolic than literal.
Knowing a bit of the local language or Hindi helps because it convinces the shopkeeper that you have experience (even if you don’t). In Hindi, Ye kitna hai? means “How much is this?”. This is a basic phrase you can use throughout India while shopping. Ye kya hai? is “What is this?”, helpful when you’re in an unfamiliar place or shopping for food. Basic numbers (1-10) are good to know as well: ek, do, tin, char, panc, cheh, sat, ath, nau, das. Ji han (or just han) is “yes” and nahin is “no” (the n’s at the end of these words aren’t hard, just sort of nasal). And of course, the Indian head wobble is prevalent no matter where you go. (If you don’t know what this is, Google it—it’s fascinating and fun to try!)
I’m not sure why haggling has such a big role in Indian culture, or why it’s retained its place in Indian marketplaces when Western commercial concepts like fixed prices are becoming more and more prevalent. Nonetheless, it’s clear that haggling is a signature practice of India. It also contributes to the personality types that I observed during my time there. I was initially put off by the rude and insensitive ways I was treated by people sometimes (being cut in line, pushed or shoved, glared at, etc.). It took a while to understand that this is not because people are inherently mean, but that this is a part of their culture that requires assertive action. Getting to the front, scoring the best price and making one’s presence known are essential for some, especially when coming from a background in which a small lead makes all the difference.
To really immerse yourself in the Indian experience, you’ll have to bargain with a shopkeeper or autowalla at some point. CNN’s Travel blog has a quick article about a few techniques used in the process: http://travel.cnn.com/mumbai/shop/how-bargain-india-ultimate-guide-134371. I find myself more often than not using a combination of bluffing and being (moderately) unreasonable. If a shopkeeper asks for triple the price of something I know should be less, I will absolutely call him out on it. (This confidence is newfound, one that I never had before I came to India.) Being determined and sticking to your goal is a crucial part of this process, and you can come out with a new confidence and coolness under pressure—not to mention the awesome stuff you can get for a great price!