There were 72 light switches mounted on a wooden board.
All the switches technically were called rocker switches, and they were arranged in the British fashion: push the bottom of the switch and the power turns on, push the top and the power turns off.
Behind each of them 220 volts of human-killer pulsing electricity was available to the shop every day—except between the hours of 1 and 3 in the afternoon.
I leaned back from the entrance to the narrow shop and looked right and left. All the neighboring shops in the little dusty gali (alley) of this part of old Delhi also had lots of power switches on their walls.
I turned back to the shop in front of me. It was only about five feet wide with a glass display counter running all the way from the front where I stood in the dusty street, to the back of the shop about 15 feet into gloom.
The merchant and his boy children, or nephews, or cousins, sat on the right side of the counter. The customers sat on a little blue padded bench on the left. The space available to move past the customers who were already sitting there was about the same amount of room you find inside of a car engine.
Why in the world did a little place like this need 72 light switches? I couldn’t even see a dozen light bulbs. But what light there was, was all aimed down on the little silver containers and bracelets that were carefully placed in the glass display case. The items shined up at us like tiny blinding footlights from a theater stage.
We were shopping for a couple of little supari containers. Supari is the generic name for breath fresheners, sort of like mints or candy or gum is in the United States.
There are a million types of supari available: some hard and made from betel nuts, some soft and chewy and aromatic, and some with pure edible silver or gold covering the little chunks you pop into your mouth. Mid- to upper-class women often carried their supari around in little silver containers that looked like the snuff boxes of olden days, or perhaps they looked like little spice containers you’d find in a very fancy kitchen.
The silver containers came in many different shapes. As long as the supari fit into the container, and the container fit into a woman’s purse, it was acceptable.
My wife breezed past me, her pink silk chunni floating weightless and horizontal behind her.
She somehow edged in past the women who were already sitting on the bench, and she did so in a way that their discussion with the vendor about prices was not interrupted and they didn’t have to change position.
I, on the other hand, stepped on a couple of bare toes—exposed in the chappals that everyone wore instead of closed-top shoes. The seated women started to look annoyed, but hearing the accent of my “Sorry, sorry” they knew I was a foreigner and was stupid to begin with, so they had to make allowances for me.
Their eyes got big when I sat next to my Indian wife—close—and then they turned their heads back to the counter items and to the vendor who hoped he could out-argue these women about a price.
The three women didn’t want to appear like they had noticed my wife and me—an Indian woman with a white guy—nor would they show any bad taste or ungraciousness in showing they thought how strange a sight we were. Indian men with Caucasian women weren’t so rare; but for a long time I was the only white American man married to an Indian woman that I had ever seen in this country of a billion people.
As soon as he could, the father vendor slid over to work with us. He brushed away his teenage son who had been eagerly settling in across from us to be our salesman. The son looked very disappointed. My wife later explained this preemptory action from the father was because I was a firangi, a foreigner, from America.
That meant he thought he could get lots and lots of money out of me.
But he didn’t know why we were there, nor did he have any proper fear for my wife’s bargaining abilities.
The three ladies of good taste, whom the father had left to the junior staff, jabbered away at each other and at their newly-assigned kid salesman. They spoke loudly, then softly, then loudly again. They covered a wide range of important points, at great length.
What in the world was so difficult? I wondered. I just had to find out, so I casually leaned over toward them. The eyes in the back of their heads felt me being nosey, and they clustered tighter together.
The items under discussion with them were silver ankle bracelets with bells. Would they look good on the daughter in the house that they were going to marry off soon? Were they heavy enough to impress the relatives? Were they true Indian silver or just plated? Did they sound nice when they jingled? Would they hang low enough on her feet so that everybody could see them below the hem of her sari?
Difficult issues to be considered at length, to be sure. I leaned back toward my wife.
The shop owner, who pretended not to notice our mixed nationalities, had sharp dark eyes, graying hair at the temples, and hands that moved very quickly over his merchandise. He was oozing, overflowing, beaming, slurping politeness to my wife and me. And he said to me in heavily accented English, “Welcome to India from your United States.”
I still have not figured out how shopkeepers know that I’m from the United States instead of Europe, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Canada. It must be ESP genes turned on some time along their long, long line of generations of salesmen. Some of the vendors I’ve visited over the years even could tell I lived in California. Maybe some of them even could pick out the city we lived in; it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Had these shopkeepers traveled the world?
No. It was magic. Most shop owners spent their entire lives within a 100-kilometer radius of where they sat day after day.
The way a person shops in India in one of these little stores is very different from the way it is done in the United States. The merchant pulls out all kinds of things from his case, and lays them before the patron.
The first items automatically are discarded by the customer, disdainfully, almost wiping them off the counter in disinterest and disapproval. Sometimes this part of the sales process will be loud, with many large arm movements and lots of very fast Hindi in annoyed tones.
In the United States such actions from a customer would propel the manager with explosive force out of the back of the store to see what upset the customer so.
But here, this was the way it was done. Words of negative energy are spoken by the customer as she performs her efficient and haughty discard of his first dozen or so suggested items: “No. No. This is ugly. I don’t want this. No, this is wrong. I don’t like this. What a hideous pattern. No. Not this either.” Each word is tinged with a sharp, strident tonal edge, like two cars colliding, the metal wrenching and screeching and violently being torn apart.
When I heard these first-stage negotiations initially, my delicate American ears were bruised and I cringed. But I just didn’t understand.
Where I was born we have no script titled “How to Buy Stuff.” So, the use of such language coupled with the tone of speaking was not something for which I’ve been trained.
But in India, I’m sure that there is a written script for dealing with merchants, and everyone born in India must have read this script as a child. I’ve yet to see a copy of the text, but I know it must exist somewhere because everyone follows it everywhere in the country.
According to the script, the manner a woman is supposed to speak to a shop owner for the first few minutes carries waves of nuance. It implies, as a matter of course, that she thought the salesman was a worm, that his family might as well get out of the business, that his stuff is not even worth giving away, and even the street people wouldn’t take it if thrown at them from a passing automobile.
The vendor however expects this and is in no way offended. It is all part of the shopkeeper-customer mating dance. He smiles, and brings out a few dozen more items to show her.
It didn’t take me long to see that it works this way in every store. Once we were shopping for some formal saris—six yards of silken cloth with real gold thread and designs that were obviously impossible to create on any Western weaving machine. The bolts of cloth containing the six yards of repeating-pattern sari are so beautiful and obviously valuable that you would want to put it in a safe deposit box in the States.
No two bolts of sari material are alike in any given store. Ever. I haven’t figured that one out even today: must be clever distribution from the manufacturers. But here, in this and every sari shop, they are discarded by customers one after another as they are each brought out.
But the notable thing is, that in the case of saris being displayed, the salespeople themselves throw away these beautiful billowing silky things that would wrap any woman in an aura of superior wealth.
But this is only the next scene of the Indian “How to Buy Stuff” script. When the customer tosses a sari away from her, disliking a green pattern for example, the salesman takes it and tosses it even farther away, and in this manner shows that he agrees totally with the customer. He crumples it up and throws it without looking down the length of the counter where a young member of the family, girl or boy, deftly catches it and subtly refolds it and puts it back on the 50-row-high shelving behind the salespeople.
These youngsters, who take care of the putting-away work so silently, so invisibly, could teach a British butler a thing or two. Although, I doubt a butler would be barefoot as they were, and would climb the shelves without a ladder to replace the stock.
My wife finished her supari container purchase. I looked to my right, worrying about how much room we had at the moment to get out of the store. But the three women shoppers had left. I saw their backs retreating. The beautiful chunnis wrapped decoratively around their shoulders flew behind them in their jet wash.
The crowd in the tiny street soaked us up as we left the shop. I followed my wife single-file because of the press of the crowd. People were bouncing around in the gali like water drops in a hot pan, all intent on going in whatever direction they were headed, regardless of the obstacles. Obstacles were nothing. Nothing on the street—other people, persuasive shopkeepers, the chaos—was going to change the firm resolve of a person to get to where she was going, nor make her alter the way she chose to get there.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.