Due to a recent trip to India, this blog has taken on a subcontinental flavour for the time being.
I’ve just returned from an afternoon of Christmas shopping in Guildford, but I’d rather do my shopping in Hyderabad. I was more pushed and jostled by other people in three hours in Surrey than in ten days in India.And I did shop in India, more than I usually do on vacation/holiday. I’m always more interested in seeing the museums and historical sites than in buying things, but everywhere I looked in India something amazing was on offer: hand-tied carpets, pearls and gemstones, glass bangles sold by the yard, slippers with curled-up toes. But what I particularly wanted was salwar kameez.
The ladies of India wear stunningly beautiful clothing in sumptuous colours, mainly saris or salwar kameez. A sari is one long flat piece of cloth, anything up to 30 feet long, worn over a cropped bodice. It’s pleated by hand and folded cleverly so that it stays where it’s meant to stay, falling in graceful folds from the waist, leaving the end of the cloth to wind around the body and fall over the shoulder.
You see them everywhere, from women working on construction sites or cutting cane in the fields to health workers at the airport screening new arrivals for swine flu, who accessorized theirs with medical masks. The customs officer wore a uniform sari, with epaulettes sewn onto the shoulders. The stewardesses on domestic flights wore them, and lest you think all that cloth might hamper them in an emergency, the cartoons on the safety card showed women jumping with complete composure onto evacuation slides, their saris demurely around their legs, not even ruffled.The idea of creating your clothing out of a single piece of fabric just by the way you fold and tuck it—there are various ways to do this, generally using a petticoat’s waistband as an anchor—is very appealing and the results are certainly elegant but, alas, saris aren’t for me. I can’t even keep a shirttail tucked in. Never mind that I don’t want to show as much midriff as saris usually leave bare, I’m sure the first time I tried to wear one it would fall around my feet and leave me utterly mortified. The salwar kameez is more my style: a tunic over loose trousers, with a long scarf called a dupatta. That’s what I set out to buy.
I wasn’t sure I would find one in my size. When I say I’m twice the woman I was in college, I’m talking gross tonnage, you understand. But I’d heard that tailors can run up something for you in a day and I planned to set out into Hyderabad, guidebook in hand, to find one.
But my husband’s colleagues said I must allow them to send one of the young ladies from their office along with me—in hindsight a very good thing, because I had no idea what I was getting into. Such a young lady was found, a graceful soft-spoken businesswoman of about 22, whom I’ll call “Meena”. The company put a car and driver at our disposal and off we went.
We had some false starts. The first shop wasn’t open yet, but the driver said he knew just the place, and took us way over into Secunderabad, Hyderabad’s twin city. There he led us directly into a department store and upstairs—to the men’s business suits. Er, no. Next a saleslady tried to sell me western style women’s business suits. Clearly they weren’t used to visitors wanting Indian-style clothes.
We finally got to the right department and the clerk said they had tailors available, so I chose material and Meena negotiated a price. That’s when we found out that they didn’t actually have a tailor after all. Meena was embarrassed, but I wasn’t complaining. I was on vacation/holiday, I had all day and it was an adventure; there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than inspecting beautiful embroidered fabrics in all the colours you can name and then some, and I enjoyed Meena’s company; she didn’t mind answering all the questions about Indian life and culture I could come up with.
A shop just across the street, it turned out, offered not only bolts of fabric, but salwar kameez in a sort of kit form: the fabric for the top and the trousers plus a finished, coordinating dupatta. It was all very convenient, except that everything was behind a counter and I couldn’t get the salesman to show me what I wanted. He insisted that Meena and I sit on the customer side of things and drink tea while he presented the merchandise.
“Blue,” I would say.
“Blue colour, blue colour,” he would say, scanning the shelves. Then he’d pick out something in yellow and unfurl it extravagantly onto the counter saying “Yellow colour.”
“Blue,” I would say again, “blue colour,” not that it did me much good.The other problem was that my idea of “something for everyday” was different from his, and also from Meena’s. I wanted something simple, in cotton, maybe a block print, and he wanted to show me the best silks. Meena advised me to go for beaded and sequined cloth suitable, she said, for every day or for the office. I do not have an office. I sit at my computer at one end of the living room. I can work in my completely sequin-free pajamas if I want to.
The cloth kept coming: red, purple, pink. The salesman unrolled each length with a showman’s artistry, and as soon as I said ‘no’, whisked the offending fabric away and tossed it into a big wire basket. (A separate staff of women fished it out again and folded it up). Occasionally, in his enthusiasm, he would strike a feminine pose and hold the fabric across his body to show a length of gauzy green or yellow synthetic to full advantage while I protested I only wanted cotton, blue cotton. He clearly knew what I meant, but was determined I wouldn’t get it; if he wanted the sale, why he showed me everything except what I wanted remains a mystery. Maybe he thought if he could talk me into something in pink, I’d buy that and buy something in blue. Or maybe he was trying to save me from myself; maybe blue isn’t my colour and everyone else is too polite to tell me.
Somehow I chose a dark red embroidered and sequined in a mango leaf pattern (what we’d call paisley), which came with what Meena thought was a particularly fine dupatta. It seemed easier to take that set—at least it was cotton, and it came with blue trousers—than to keep struggling. Off, then, to the tailor.
We followed a young girl from the shop into an alley. She and Meena, both in nice sandals, stepped daintily and cleanly over construction rubble and refuse, while I stumbled after in my high-tech running shoes. Two skinny cats slunk by—the only cats I saw in India, but then, there are a lot of free-range dogs, which might account for the lack. We seemed to be in the Alley of the Tailors, with shop after shop, all tiny, some of them with windows open to show three or four men in their undershirts/vests, working steadily at sewing machines. We followed the girl into a shop about the size of my bathroom here in England, staffed by a man and a woman and stuffed with other customers. I didn’t have to speak the language to understand that people were specifying what they wanted and dickering over the price.
Then it was my turn. They showed me photos of different necklines, I picked one, and the woman took my measurements. Now, most Indians I’d seen were fairly small, so I knew that I wasn’t going to be a typical customer, but did she have to laugh? At every measurement, she would read the tape measure, double over with laughter, and then write the number down on her pad. Not a good start.
Meena opened negotiations, which soon turned into an argument, but I had no idea what it was about. Until then, all the transactions had been in English, but the tailors either didn’t speak English, weren’t willing to, or didn’t want me to know what they were saying.
“They insist it must be lined. You must buy a lining,” explained Meena.
“But I don’t want a lining.” It was 88°F. “A lining will just make it hotter.”
“I know,” she said, “but they say that this will hurt your skin.” She indicated the back of the fabric, full of threads holding the sequins onto the front.
“I don’t think it will hurt me.”
“I don’t, either,” said Meena, and she took up the argument again.
The tailors were clearly insulted, particularly the woman, but quiet, lovely Meena, it turned out, could be stubborn. Things heated up, and I began to be afraid we’d get thrown out of the shop.
Being illiterate is a humbling experience. Not being able to read signs leaves you always wondering whether you’re in the right place and how much hassle there’s going to be if you aren’t, but it’s worse when you can’t understand the spoken language. You feel like a child with adult conversation going on over your head, clearly about you, but incomprehensible.
Meena finally gave up. “It will cost 240 rupees,” she said doubtfully.
A quick mental calculation turned that into about 3 quid, or less than 5 bucks. I told her that would be fine, and we left, with the tailor’s promise to finish with the job by 6 o’clock.
And there’s my problem with bargaining. On the occasions when I did try to bargain I did a terrible job, in part because I don’t have the stomach to try to get somebody to let me buy the fruit of their labour for $1.00 instead of $1.25, when that extra twenty-five cents means virtually nothing to me, but a great deal to them. The shopkeepers and tailors and craftspeople of India are not stupid, and as my guidebook said, they know what a ticket to India costs. In India, I’m rich. I know that everything there looks like a bargain to me only because these people don’t get to enjoy the same standard of living I do. They know I can pay more, and as long as I’m not driving up the price for local buyers, I really don’t mind paying more.So I paid up, and picked up my clothes at 6. I won’t be seen in them any time soon, as they don’t particularly fit. I’ll alter them myself; I couldn’t face having the tailor giggling around me with her tape measure again. Besides, I was supposed to attend a banquet that evening, and getting from Secunderabad back to the other side of Hyderabad in the rush hour was going to take forever.
On the ride back I looked more carefully at the women we passed, to see what they were wearing. Having learned a thing or two about Indian clothing, I admired their saris and salwar kameez all the more. If I ever master the art of keeping a shirttail tucked in, I might try a sari, but it seems unlikely. I may someday wear curly-toed slippers and pearls as I walk on hand-tied carpets, but I think I’m destined to admire saris, like I admire India, from afar.