Bangalore Talkies: Of hostage negotiators in city markets

Shoba Narayan on taking a crash course in bargaining from Lily Aunty and crashing, but not quite burning, at the actual task

Hostage negotiators would have a hard time in Bangalore, because folks here upend the whole logic of negotiation with their bargaining. In any negotiation, goes the business saying, you have to create a win-win situation for everyone.  That is anathema to the folks on Avenue Road in Bangalore, whose idea of bargaining is more like a sumo wrestler bringing his opponent to heel. The goal is to pummel the opponent, who in this case, happens to be a hapless shopkeeper.

Do you know how to bargain? For vegetables, clothes, jewels or electronics? If you are under 20, I would wager not.

Some of the reason why this generation is entirely without bargaining skills has to do with the speed of transactions and the way the shopping experience is set up.  Either you shop exclusively online as we all have done last year.  Or you go to the mall, zip through several stores, and pay what they ask. It’s fast, efficient, and it works. So why waste time haggling?

This particular argument holds no merit for compulsive bargainers like my aunt, Lily. To them, bargaining is not a transaction, a means to an end. It is like drinking Horlicks after doing your homework.  It is a way to add sweetness to a chore. The actual money involved is almost beside the point. This was what I found out at a jewellery shop on Commercial Street. 

There is a cost, of course.  Shopping with Lily Aunty takes four hours longer than usual and usually ends up in a cloud of insults combined with an ingestion of antacid upon return to the house.

So when I called Lily Aunty to help me buy a beautiful silver dinner set, I imposed a set of rules. She couldn’t feign heart attacks.  This was the time of Covid and it wasn’t fair to do this to people.  Second, she claim to be related to Shilpa Shetty, Aishwarya Rai, or Deepika Padukone.  She was a Bunt from Mangalore but that didn’t make her a movie star. Third, she had to open negotiations at 50 percent of the asking price, not 5 percent, as is her wont. Fourth, she had to stop cursing in Konkani. This was the best jewellery store in Bangalore, I said, not some Mangalore fish market where she had cut her bargaining teeth.

Lily Aunty looked wounded at the last phrase.  “What do you know about buying fish, you vegetarian?” she ground out from between clenched teeth.  “It is harder to buy quality fish in Mangalore than it is to buy silver in Bangalore.”

“Aunty, I mean it this time,” I warned just before we entered. “This shop is not some cottage emporium, okay. I don’t want them to blacklist me because of your behavior.”

“Look how you are standing,” Aunty scolded. “Like some foreigner.”

It was true. My stance was defensive. I protected my space, rather than aggressively hogging it. My tone was matter-of-fact rather than truculent, outraged, or ideally, a combination of both. My attitude indicated my willingness to negotiate.

“Negotiation has no place in shopping,” pronounced Aunty. “Negotiation means compromise.  We want to bend them to our will.”

I had unleashed the serpent, I realised.  What now?

“Understand one thing,” said Lily Aunty.  “Words are cheap.  Particularly in India. People don’t say what they mean, and nothing is what it seems.”

This I knew from previous experience. When we were wedding shopping for a cousin, Lily aunty entered a saree store in Chikpete. She ran a practiced eye over the silk sarees behind the glass counter, pronounced them to be “rubbish” and demanded to be taken to the back room where the “real stuff” was. The weird thing was that the salesmen gave her more respect after her rudeness, brought her soda and kolbada and fussed over her like she was Saroja Devi or Bharati Vishnuvardhan. 

When I attempted such assertiveness, my statements came out like a croak and I was asked to take my business elsewhere.

So we walked in. And there was the silver dinner set that I had kept on hold. The shopkeeper took one look at Aunty, squared his shoulders, and smiled wanly. He had met a worthy match.

Egged on by her hot breath on my shoulder, I took a deep breath and simulated the light-headed feeling that comes at the tail end of a 16-hour long intermittent fast.

“Eshtu?” I drawled, flicking a dismissive finger at the sparkling offerings I coveted. “How much is this set worth?”

“One lakh,” said the shopkeeper without blinking.

Lily Aunty snorted.  I glared at her and pretended to laugh derisively, like Kannada superstar, Yash does in the movie, “Mr. and Mrs. Ramachari.” 

“Ree (which is the Kannada equivalent of Ji), Don’t joke, Ree,” I said.

“Would I lie to you, Akka?” He had called me his sister.  Game on. 

“This is an heirloom set. Custom piece.  Only one in entire Bangalore.   I would happily give it to you for free, but my boss will kill me.”

“And my mother will kill me if I buy it for anything more than Rs. 30,000,” I said.

“Nanjudeshwara!” he said, throwing up his arms prayerfully.  “How you joke, sister. Do you know what this is? Silver.  Not stainless steel.”

I ended up paying Rs. 70,000 for the set. Lily Aunty insisted that I had overpaid by Rs.50,000, but I was jubilant. In my mind, I had found a bargain.

“Go back to Ulsoor market,” said Lily Aunty witheringly. “Start with vegetables. That is nursery school for bargaining.  Then work your way up to silver.”

As we paid, Lily Aunty delivered the final verdict.  She stared scornfully at the shopkeeper.  “You made a mistake, my friend,” she said.  “If you had given a good price, this silly girl would have bought a set for 12 people.  Instead, now you are only selling her one set.”

With one sentence, Lily Aunty had managed to make both the shopkeeper and me feel bad.  Which I guess, was the point of it all.

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