Delhi and the Sun were the best of friends in the summer. The Sun would hang around all day, scorching everyone, staying until very late in the evening, and even when he finally left for the night, he would leave a warm,tangible reminder that he would be back the next morning, only to torment more.
And we had chosen one of these unfortunate days, where the camaraderie was particularly blooming in all its glory, to tour Delhi. After having visited the Lotus temple, and the Qutub Minar, we finally reached the Red Fort in the evening. The day was scorching, and obviously, I did not have a cap or a hat or a scarf or goggles or a water bottle.
I prayed to the gods asking them for a little kindness. With every step I took, I cursed myself for not being equipped to battle the onslaught.
“Mercy!” I cried to the skies, as I trudged forward mournfully.
And there it was. Finally! Mercy. Mercy was walking in front of me in the form of a cap seller.
“Amma!” I shrieked as I bounded to my saviour. A new energy had flooded me. The cap seller turned around, and smiled widely. “Yes, madam?” he asked, energetically.
I looked at the row of caps, and finally pointed to a sturdy straw hat. “Oh, that? That will be fifty rupees only”, he said, brightly. “Okay!” I replied, happy with the whole world now.
Still smiling, I turned to my mother to ask her to pay. One look at her, and I slowly deflated. She stood beside me,surveying the hat, distaste and unwillingness written all over her face.
“Not here, not today, please!”, I prayed feverishly. I knew what was to come, and I was right.
“Fifty rupees!”she exclaimed, finally. “This is outrageous!” she cried, as though the man had asked for my hand in marriage. “I will give only thirty.”
“Maydaamm, maydaamm, what madam? Fifty madam, I have not asked for anything more, madam”, the man beseeched. I was almost inclined to nod my head along with him, but I knew my mother too well, and thought the better of it.
“No, Sruthi. Let’s go”, she said, pulling my hand, as she prepared to walk away briskly. “Amma!”, I shrieked again. “It is very, very hot. I will die in this heat. Please buy me that hat!”
The man tried to call her back too. “Madam, madam, forty final, Madam. Forty.”
“No forty, only thirty”, my mother persisted. They argued for another couple of minutes, while I got very insecure, and to nobody’s surprise, she won. I was happy to get the hat, but I felt sorry for the man too.
After Delhi, we went to Agra. After visiting the Taj Mahal, as we made our way to the car,we came across a display cart with marble handicrafts. As always, my mother and aunt stayed behind as we walked ahead.
Women find a secret and insane satisfaction in just knowing the prices of things even though they know for a fact that they will never, ever use that thing. And if they hear a price higher than what they expect, it is a personal insult to their dignity.
My aunt spotted a jewellery box, made of marble. It was a beautiful box, with an intricate design. Being curious, she asked for the price.
“850”, the man at the cart said importantly , drawing himself up.
My aunt and my mother gave the man the dirtiest looks possible. If looks could hurt, the man would have been writhing on the ground, screaming in pain.
“I will give a hundred”, my aunt declared. I was stunned. “No, madam”, he replied.
“Keep it with yourself”, my aunt said, coldly, walking away, tagging my mother along with her.
“Madam, madam! Wait! 700 !” he cried, as he jogged behind, with the box in his hand, his cart left to the dump, as he tried to reason with her.
The women paid no attention to the man as they got into the car, where we were already sitting. By that time, he had already come down to a bare 450.
“I said HUNDRED”, my aunt emphasised again, loudly. The car engine had started.
“300 ma’am”, he cried fervently. “Let’s go”, my aunt called out to the driver, indifferent to the man outside.
“Ma’am, ma’am, 250! 200 ma’am, final”, he said, literally running beside the car to keep pace.
“No, go, go, we don’t want it”, my aunt replied. “Madam, 150! Madam, please!” he panted, trying to push the box into the window.
“Will you give it for a hundred?” my aunt asked again.
“Madammm, 150”, he almost wept. My aunt whipped out a hundred from her purse and gave it to the man. “Take it or leave it”, she said. I couldn’t believe she was still haggling with the poor man. And beside her, my mother was backing her up, like an enthusiastic cheer leader.
To my intense amazement, the man finally took the hundred and placed the box in my aunt’s hand, sullenly. My aunt turned to my mother smugly, and they almost high fived each other at the triumph.
Dignity restored. I just looked on in amazement.
The next stop was Manali. The two incidents troubled me deeply. It left me thinking how people can be influenced so subtly, without almost doing anything, to sell their wares at a price so low. They were not just selling things, they were also buying their lives.
But as a girl, I wanted to try it out too. Could I achieve that, I asked myself. Where better to do that than in a tourist destination?
As I roamed about the picturesque streets of Manali, my eyes fell on a beautiful woollen blouse outside a small shop. “Bingo!” I thought to myself.
I walked in pompously, determined to show off my newly acquired skill. Pride comes before a fall, they said. How true they were.
The man at the counter glanced up from his phone as I walked in. He looked at me enquiringly, as I pointed to the blouse outside. “How much?”, I asked.
“200 rupees”, he said. I nodded.
I exhaled deeply. “You can do this”, I told myself. It was as if I was gearing up for an interview.
I closed my eyes for a brief moment and opened them again. “150”, I said, with as much attitude I could muster.
“No”, he said shortly, his face passive. I was stumped. I tried again.
“Uncle, 150”,I said again.
“No”, he replied, a little louder this time.
“Okay then, keep it with yourself”, I said haughtily, and pretended to walk out.
I hoped the man would come behind and beg me to buy the blouse. In the least, I expected him to stop me or atleast negotiate for a little more than a hundred and fifty rupees.
“Okay, leave then”, he said, coolly, going back to his phone. I looked back as I walked out , but he showed no signs of budging. I tried for a last time. “Uncle, 150”, I repeated, feeling extremely foolish. This time, he didn’t even look up from his phone. He shook his head.
I lumbered out ruefully, dignity thrown right out of the window.
I still didn’t give up though. Maybe I didn’t succeed because it was my first time. Or maybe the shop keeper was an imbecile. I gave myself these reasons and resolved to try again.
Another time, back in Hyderabad, long after the trip, my friend and I were returning home, walking. Up to a point, we walked together, but after that, we had to part directions. She decided she would go in an auto, as it was getting dark, and her house was a little too far away to go walking.
I offered to wait for her until she got into an auto, and we waited there, chatting. Finally, an auto came and stopped a little ahead, and my friend walked up to him to give him the address. I was left a little behind, and I waited to see if the man would come.
He agreed to it, and said he would come for fifty rupees(or so I thought). Instead of letting my friend do the talking, like a faithful friend,(more like a jerk of a friend),I asked him to take her for a forty rupees.
“Uncle, no. Forty rupees. Only she is going”, I demanded, obstinately.
At that moment, I didn’t know why, but both my friend’s and the driver’s faces whipped around to look at mine. The driver looked amused, but surprised at the same time. But my friend’s face, I can never forget the look she gave me. Disgust mingled with shock mingled with scorn mingled with anger was written on every single line of her face. That look completely caught me off guard.
She looked at me like that, her eyes pronounced like daggers, piercing through me despite the darkness. After a few moments, she opened her mouth.
“He said thirty”, she said in a cold, hollow voice.
My head could have been under ground, deep inside the earth. I blushed so bad, she could have felt the heat emanating from my face.
“Oh”, was all I could manage. She left in the auto, without even saying a bye.
And after that day, I never tried again. It was an art, and it was not for me.