Bargain may be just a skill in most part of the world, but in India is an art form. It takes years of practice under the supervision of skillful masters, such as your experienced grandfather, your fast talking aunt, or your street smart uncle. What separates a mere skill from an art is the passion. Indians bargain with passion. While the rest of the world may be happy with simple financial advantage, we seek a deeper joy in a good bargain. Bargain in India is a battle of wits: it tests our cunning, our verbal skill, our ability to think on our feet, and our desire to win. The battled is waged everyday, at every street corner, in every store with every hawkers and shop keepers. We even bargain when we bribe. Most of the times, it has little to do with financial gain. Rather, most of the times it has to do with little financial gain. Yet, for the believers of the art it is a matter of principle.
In our childhood, it was traditional for grandfathers to take their young grandsons to the market as soon as possible to start the training. Market was the fertile ground: it was teeming with people ready to cheat you. “There is not a single honest man left,” my grandfather would remind me every time on the way to market. “It is the high noon of Kali Yuga.” He revealed the great secrets of the art called bargain: Never show interest while buying grocery. Never buy the vegetables on the first go, come back to later to buy them. Always ask for the price of a Kilo of meat even if you going to get only hundred grams. Always ask for the extras when you buy a dozen of fruits. He knew it all.
Despite his vigorous training and relentless effort, the art of bargain always eluded me. “You should watch out,” I heard him say to my father repeatedly. “Your son is going to grow up to be dumb boy.” He said that more with disappointment rather than criticism. He was right. I grew up lacking the skill or passion for bargaining. Shopping remains a nightmare for me.
I was a slow learner, but the importance of bargaining was imparted on the innocent minds at much earlier stage. Once I overhear my younger brother playing one of those games of pretense toddlers play. The group consisted of children in the age group between two to four, and not all of them really understood all the words they learned. In this particular story, it seemed two of them went to market for some candies.
“How much is this candy?” one child asked pointing to the pile of small rocks.
“I will give it for free,” my brother replied.
“I don’t have that kind of money, I have only half of that,” the child said. “Can I have the candy for half free?”
“No, I cannot give you,” my brother said. “I am going to lose my profit then.”
The second kid was losing interest in the process.
“Give me two.” She extended her hand with a piece of torn paper. “Here is two free-paisa.”
I remember one time I was sent to marker for some yogurt with one my cousins. She was in her early teen, and I was younger. So on the way to the market she told me to keep my mouth shut and let her talk – everyone knew my skill when it came to bargaining and no one had any trust. I gladly obliged.
“How much is yogurt?” she asked when we reached the shop.
“My little sister,” the cheerful man said, “yogurt is five rupees a kilo.”
“Do you think I was born yesterday?” She was not going to play the sweet little girl he thought she was. “I buy yogurt every day. I come here regularly. You cannot cheat me.”
“Listen sister, this is the regular price.”
“No. I know half-kilo only costs three rupees. You cannot fool me.”
“But sister, five rupees a kilo is less.”
It took a while for the shop keeper to convince her. On the way home she kept repeating: “See that is how you bargain. See that is how you get it cheaper.”
As I grew older and had to shop by myself – there were no grandfather to help you, there were no cousins to bargain for you. I took my refuge in a special kind of shops. These days they are a dying breed, but a generation ago there were a lot of them. They would advertise themselves with a placard outside the store: fixed price. They were mostly government run stores, and would charge everyone the same price, no bargaining skill required. I would look for the sign before I would enter the store for a shirt or a handkerchief. When someone told me I got a rotten deal, I would defend myself: I got it in a fixed price store. But like those fixed price store, I was in the insignificant minority.Bargain is a two player game, and it is equally enjoyed by both parties. When you cannot participate, you rob the other side the pleasure of a good bargaining session. Once while on a trip to a different city I had to stop by for some gifts. After selecting a few items, I went to the shopkeeper sitting in the front. It was little past noon, and the store was mostly empty. I asked him for the price. He carefully went over the few items and started describing the greatness of each item all the while complimenting my taste.
“You have great eyes for gifts,” he said. “I am doing this for thirty years, and rarely come across people who have such refined taste.”
Even my mother never praised my taste. My sister on the other hand was vocal. In her opinion god had wasted eyes on me; a blind man had better eyes for picking up gifts.
With a smile I repeated, “How much?”
He gave me a big smile. “You are such a nice guy. I would give you a special price.”
His quoted an exorbitant price. Even I knew.
“That seems a bit high…”
“Am I going to lie to you? I am losing money here. I won’t make a single paisa on this. My kids will go hungry if I reduce the price -”
No matter what size shop they had, they always had starving kids at home. I had to stop him. “Okay, fine. I would buy it.” I reached for my wallet.
He was surprised. “You are not going to bargain?”
“No. It is all right.”
“What you mean. You are no fun.”
Well, he did not sale the items to me. The joy of bargaining can be at times more than mere profit.
You can always tell an amateur from a true bargain lover. Amateurs pride themselves when they with hesitation make a counter offer that is ten or twenty percent less then the original. A true master would make a counter offer one tenth or one twentieth of the original price without blinking. The shopkeepers know it all too well.
The bargaining skill does not end in the price. In our collage days while riding a train with a few of friends we encountered an orange seller. It was early winter, and oranges were still mostly sour. At least the ones you get on those local trains. However, the orange-wallah insisted that his orange were sweeter than sugar. We just shook our head and laughed.
“If you don’t find them sweeter than sugar, you don’t have to pay,” he offered.
We could not resist. We took him up on his challenge and bought half a dozen of oranges. He gave us the oranges and moved on to the next compartment. That was the normal process: they go around selling one direction, and then come back to collect money later. I was always amazed by their memory.
After distributing the oranges amongst us, we started to peel them. As soon as we bit into the first slice, we realized it was sour as lemon. We looked at each other and all of us had the same expression. It was not just a few, we tried all of them. We sat there with half eaten oranges for him to return.
When he got back to collect his money, we did not hide our disappointment.
“They are not sweet at all,” we said in unison. “They are as sour as lemon.”
He did not look at all surprised.
“It is early winter, what did you expect,” he said with a broad smile.
“But you said they were sweet, you said -”
“Well, my brothers,” he said with the simplest of smile. “They are my oranges. If I don’t say they are sweet, who will?”
You cannot argue with that logic.
Of course, it is hard to beat the system. There was a story about a man in need for a new shirt. He went to a tailor, and asked how much cloth was needed for a shirt. The tailor took the measurements, and replied, “One meter should be enough.”
Remembering how tailors were known for their deceits and always stole cloth, he said, “Is it possible to make a hat with the left over cloth?”
The tailor without looking at him said, “Sure, but you have to pay the making charge for the hat.”
This was all the proof he need. He was certain that one meter was a lot more then what was needed for a shirt. How can he make a hat if it was just enough? Confident in his discovery, he continued.
“I have a three year old son, is it possible to make a hat for him too?”
“Yes, but it will cost you making charge for another hat.”
“What about my nephew, he is only five?”
“Sure, but the making charge is extra.”
This continued for a while until he was done with all the nephews and cousins. He finally stopped at more than half a dozen hats when he ran out money paying for the extra making charges.
He left the shop happy with the bargain. He got more than half a dozen hats out of the extra cloth. The extra making charge was worth.
The day of delivery he came to the shop with great excitement. His shirt was great fit and it looked nice on him. Then he asked for the hats. The tailor handed him a bag.
“They are all in there.”
He opened the bag and pulled out more than half a dozen tiny hats strung together like a garland. He was shocked.
“These are too small. How we are going to ware them?”
“Well, you tie the ends of the strings high above the ground and let the hats hang, and all of you walk under it in a queue.”
“No one has ever heard to ware hats like that before.”
“No one has heard making more than a dozen of hats from the left over cloth before either,” the shop keeper said with a hint of smile.
Shopping malls of today scare me less. The art of bargaining is not the essential skill anymore. Today the teens are bargain hunters. Bargain hunting is a different skill: it needs energy and search, not art. It does not require the verbal skill, the metal game, or the wit required for art of bargaining. They are completely different. They belong to different generations.