You’ve never shopped, really shopped, until you’ve shopped in India. It’s not the haggling, although that’s an adventure. It’s the deep and leisurely process of choosing from the multitudes. It’s the sweet seduction of the sale, polished over millennia, that is the marvel.
No one stands up to shop for anything of significance, not a bangle, a perfume essence, a child’s pyjama or a wedding sari. A bauble has caught your eye; you enter and you’re seated before the merchant on a bench in front of a wall stacked floor to ceiling with shawls, stoles, bangles, perfumes, rubies. Tourists, by nature thirsty, are offered drinks.
Indian merchants, swift, shrewd analysts of taste, temperament and means, can, with a few well-placed questions, tell you if you’re wool or pashmina, bergamot or verveine, blue or red, baguette or emerald cut. Men will stack bracelets 15 deep on your wrists, shuffling them with the skill of blackjack dealers, sizing up you, your colours, your mood.
And then the floodgates open.
Merchant families, in businesses that date back generations – six or seven is not uncommon – have inventory that runs deep, very deep – knee deep, chest deep, you might drown. Shawls of every hue, weave and material are pulled from plastic sleeves. The work is examined – the quality of craftsmanship, which in a shawl can be measured in the quality and quantity of stitches, front and back. Exquisite are the pieces in which recto and verso are nearly indistinguishable, so fine is the embroidery. Feel more blue than brown? There are hundreds. Like the border a certain way? We have countless. And so it builds, like a wave. A nod puts the piece in one pile; a furrowed brow banishes it. Best not to exclaim too much over the beauty – difficult for a newbie – or you’ll spoil your chances in the bargaining phase.
From the vast pile of goods before you, you begin to winnow down, but by this time, your eye has become accustomed, some other morsel catches it, and feeling bold, you ask to see another pattern line. A new tributary of goods is created, so even as you narrow things down, your possibilities grow. The bangle-dealer shuffles together an inspired new group of colours from his endless decks; the gem-cutter’s master picks out ever more dazzling configurations of jewels, heaping them before you, the perfumer offers essence of earth. Earth? In any other culture, jewels are precious and rare. In India, they are precious and endlessly plentiful. Some 5,000 people work in the jewelry trade in Jaipur, a world centre for the cutting and polishing of gems. You can walk upstairs and see men working in an atelier, piles of rubies before them, and come downstairs and see what will be going out to the great jewelry houses of the world. They know every one, can quote collections and looks, have an appreciation for Bulgari and Pomellato.
Eventually, finally, somewhere between rapture and exhaustion, you strike a deal. The merchant’s fellows, sensing the end, silently begin refolding, rewrapping and restacking the dozens and dozens and dozens of quilts and stoles and shawls and hangings you’ve rejected. Your purchases are slid into envelopes or bound into miraculously small, shippable bundles.
And then, just before the endorphins seep away, just as you’ve turned from the treasure, the merchant will make a find, pulling out a bangle you hadn’t noticed, another shawl in a style that he senses you might appreciate, a ring, freshly polished from the workshop above.
Relentless, smiling, cajoling, charming, India never, ever stops selling you, even when you’ve bought in. Even beggar children have the more-is-more reflex: they’ll glue themselves to the side of your car at a red light, gesturing towards their mouths; when you give them a 10 rupee note, they instantly begin holding up their bare feet, in case they can hit you up for money for shoes. Then they chase you down the street as the light changes, laughing.
The new treasure sings to the new-expert you and the newbie you; it’s so shimmeringly right, you pause, just for a moment, in the doorway, and wonder. The price is excellent, and when are you ever going to be here again, and where will you find work so spectacular and now, well, now the rationales come to you, quickly and smoothly.
And so it begins again.
story © Dianna Carr images © Francis Tremblay