February 2, 2010

The game

I am fed up with being ripped off and being made a fool every time I shop as I consistently return home to find that the local price is about half the price I paid for the item. Whether it is food, clothing, taxis, or books, I seem to pay a foreigner's tax, a tourist premium; I am held to a different scale that charges me as an unwelcome guest. On the contrary, the shopkeepers gladly welcome me, aware of the naivete that I exude through my hair, eyes, skin, speech, and clothes, knowing full well that they can easily take advantage of my ignorance of the cost of their goods. Indeed, they are not ashamed of their dishonesty; in fact, they describe what I call cheating, a mere "sport" where "sometimes you win, sometimes you lose." Well, I always lose. And this weekend, I had enough. I went shopping for a sari, having gotten sick of the starers as I walk down the street. I simply needed to fit in, at least in my dress. I'll admit the colors and intricate patterns have been tempting me even with my detest for materialism—it is like walking through an art museum every day seeing the beautiful patterns of their saris and pashminas. I didn't intend to buy anything yet, but just wandered through the shops on Saturday eyeing the possibilities and disappointing shopkeepers who were irritated at my indecision and refusal to buy. I am extremely picky besides. Thus, I kept shopping, of course not finding the perfect sari. At the final shop, I found one I was mildly fond of, a colorful yellow and red one with Bengali animal print. I wasn't crazy about it, but the man gave me chai and was so insistent I take it that I basically couldn't leave without buying it. I even bargained down 375 Rs to 200 Rs. Nevertheless, once I got home, I learned from my host mom that I had bought quite the shitty sari; it was worth only 50 Rs, and the kind street sweepers wear (actually, I like their saris best and wanted that kind). Normally, I would just try to get over the loss, but my host mom and Padma were so livid that I had been so cheated and were unable to accept my error. "You have to watch your money! They are theives out there! Never buy anything on your own. You must return it. We will find out what to do. 200 Rs is hard to earn! What a waste!" It didn't help me feel any better. The worst was when I tried to wear it, I could understand their judgment of its poor quality. It was impossible to wrap around the starchy and stiff piece of cloth. I still have no idea how this thing is worn, even with the help from these Indian women. They kept going on and on about the price and how I had been cheated. I resolved to rid myself of the reminder of my own foolishness, whether it be returning it, selling it to another volunteer, or just giving it away. I went on Sunday armed with Padma to return the piece, only to find the shop was closed. On Monday I went alone, walking the entire way to Kalighat, psyching myself up the whole way. I had literally lost sleep over the guilt of this purchase, the anger of my stupidity and their deception, and the anticipation of this confrontation. I went to the shop and faced the man politely at first, kindly asking for my money back. "Excuse me, no return." He solidly refused to give me money back, and noted the sari wasn't folded properly. I spent about 20 minutes trying to fold the thing painstakingly in front of him, to the entertainment of the crowd that had gathered amused by my request. I could not get the folds correct, and he eventually shoved the cotton back in the bag. "Take it please." I wasn't leaving so easily. "Why can't I return this? In my country, you can always return. People are honest. I need the money back. I don't want this sari." He was as stubborn as I was, and insisted it was not possible. He offered me to exchange it for a different sari, showing me ones that were in fact worse quality. I revealed the reason for my coming. "You charged me 200 Rs and my friend said it is only worth 50 Rs." Accusing him of cheating me made him even more defensive. "Quality difference." Istarted talking about how much of a liar he was to the surrounding shopkeepers and customers. Why do you cheat foreingers? How can you lie to people like this? What would you charge a local person? You ripped me off. This is a low quality sari." But it wasn't so much the price or quality that I was fighting about, but the concept of being repeatedly cheated by these people day after day. He told me to go, he was going to the market. I was strategically in the way of his door, making it impossible for him to shut it. I was making a scene and attracting a curious crowd, to which I revealed the shopkeeper's dishonesty. Soon, it became a bit awkward, I had no more to say, so just stood in his was silently, sulking in obstinance. I would only go if I could either get my money back or exchange for a better sari. He began showing me other saris, conceding at last to allow the return. I found one I finally liked, a silk red one with a pretty gold border. It was the type my host mom had showed me that is easy to wear and appropriate for me. That was the one I would take. He asked for 150 more Rs, this one cost 350. I knew it wasn't true, so I said no, 200 Rs for this. I stood without speaking, continuing to protest and prevent him from leaving, while spectators sympathized with either me or the shopkeeper. After about 10 more minutes of this, he said I could take it for 50 more Rs. No. 200 only—I had already paid him. "How much did you pay for this? This isn't fair. How much would you charge an Indian woman for this" I eventually realized I could get my way  by only offering slightly more, I said 20 more Rs and I would leave. He agreed out of desperation to be rid of me, though I knew he was still making a fair profit from the sale (I saw the same saris for 230 Rs when I paid a total of 220). I left delightfully with a much better sari and more importantly my dignity, as I at least attempted to teach the Indian thieves a lesson through the night of needless embarassment. Not that I expect them to change their crooked habits, but it is the principle of being honest with your fellow human beings that I stand by, even more than my diehard thriftiness. Indeed, I was arguing over the equivalent of only $4.00. I look back at this feeling silly, but when I recall the bystander's comment about bargaining as sometimes "winning and sometimes losing," and I am proud to have won my first game.


  1. Never agree to their price and never reveal your price. Let them lower their price until you think it is reasonable. Then cut that in half and that is your price. Walk away if they laugh at you. They will lower price further to get you back. If you really want the stuff, say you'll meet them in the middle. Where I came from, bargaining was indeed a sport. The desirable outcome is to make both you and them feel victorious.

  2. OMG! Don't give in to them. JYJY!

  3. Never give up and have more patience! Don't give in to those ppl who does not have values at all! :)