If all else fails, Mom plays her trump card—she invokes ancestors. “My grandfather will turn in his grave if I pay that much, and yours will curse you for cheating an old woman,” she will say. Ancestral curses are serious business in the Far East. Naturally, my mother gets the object of her desire.
India is a challenge for Mom mostly because of the competition. There are thousands of hard-nosed negotiators just like her—some of them even better. In India, she uses many of the techniques that have been written about ad nauseam in guidebooks: “Aim to pay about half what the shopkeeper is asking. Always ask for extras—free packing and shipping, or a free gift thrown in with your purchase.”
If all else fails, she flirts with the poor sap until he is hypnotized like a snake under a spell.
As for me, I seem to have shed my skin. Although I look Indian and am from India, I find myself instantly pegged as a firangi, a foreigner. My stance is defensive. I protect my space, rather than aggressively hogging it like my compatriots. My tone is polite and matter-of-fact rather than outraged. My attitude indicates my willingness to compromise. In other words, I am reasonable.
Reason has no place in Indian bazaars. People don’t say what they mean, and nothing is what it seems. The gem-studded necklace displayed in the air-conditioned jewelry shop in Jaipur may be an inferior rough-hewn sample. The real stuff is in the back or upstairs and will only be brought out after a couple of rounds of soda, when the jeweler has decided that you are a bona fide customer worth his while. Or you can skip the pleasantries and do what my mother does—run an eye over the sparkling offer- ings behind the glass counter, pronounce them to be “rubbish,” and demand to be taken upstairs.
In the end, it is not any one thing that she does. It is who she is. When my mother enters a shop, her goal isn’t to walk out with something; rather, it is to spend a pleasant hour taking stock, talking shop, “gup-shupping,” as she calls it. If she walks out with a purchase, it is merely a fringe benefit of what was essentially a good time. The reason she is so good at bargaining, I realized, is because she has so much fun doing it.
So I ate crow. I told my mother that after years of scornfully dismissing her tactics as a mere waste of time, I needed her help with furnishing my apartment. I wanted her to fly to New York and suss out some deals. To my alarm, she readily accepted.
We all say and do things that we later—or in my case, instantly—regret. For me, shopping with my mother fell in that category. I had done it hundreds of times all over the globe and hated it each time. It typically takes about four hours longer than I anticipated and usually ends with our being unceremoniously evicted from the premises and told never to return. Besides, New York was virgin territory for Mom but is my adopted hometown. I didn’t want her to embarrass me or, worse, get me blacklisted at all the high-end boutiques I admire.
So I imposed a set of rules. Mom couldn’t claim to be related to the mayor or Michael Jackson, as she frequently and indiscriminately does. This is America, not Japan, I told her: Being related to Michael Jackson could land her in jail. Second, she had to open negotiations at 50 percent of the asking price, not 5 percent, as is her wont. Third, she had to stop cursing in Tamil. Offended shopkeepers would not curse her back, as she was used to; they would sue her for slander. After all, I said again, this is America.
Our first stop was a carpet shop on Park Avenue South. As soon as Mom saw the shopkeeper, she concluded that he was a Pakistani from Peshawar and that I could and should bargain.
Egged on by Mom, I took a deep breath and simulated the light-headed feeling that steals over me after a couple of vodka martinis.
“So,” I drawled, flicking a dismissive finger at the carpet I coveted. “How much is this thing worth?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” he said without blinking.
I laughed derisively. It was forced and came out more like a cough, but at least I tried.
“You are joking with me, my friend,” I said, assuming a familiarity where none existed.
“Would I lie to you, sister?” The man took it a step farther. “This is a family heirloom. I would happily give it to you for free, but my mother will kill me if I part with it for anything less than ninety-five hundred dollars.”
The dance had begun. He had lowered the price. But he had also brought in his mother. I had no choice but to bring in mine. Next stop—ancestors.
“And my mother will kill me if I buy it for anything more than forty-five hundred dollars,” I said.
I ended up paying $7,000 for the room-sized carpet. Mom insisted that I had overpaid by about $5,000, but I was jubilant. In my mind, I had found a bargain.
To celebrate, Mom and I went to the 26th Street flea market. We quoted Pushkin and bought a small walnut side table from a soulful Russian for $40—a quarter of his asking price. Mom amused a Dominican vendor with her outrageous renditions of Spanish love songs; he sold us a pair of mahogany nightstands for a mere $200. Following her cue, I effusively complimented some Senegalese drummers and picked up a number of African masks for next to nothing. We claimed kinship with the Tibetans (“You hate the Chinese. We hate them too”) and bought a red Tibetan chest for $400. At the St. George’s furniture thrift shop, near Gramercy Park, I haggled half-heartedly with the shopkeeper before buying a large china cabinet—at the asking price, but with free delivery thrown in. Uptown, at the Spence-Chapin thrift shop, Mom harassed the coiffed woman behind the counter to the point where she thrust a brand-new bookcase at us for $20, provided we would “just leave.”
My apartment was beginning to fill up. New York, it seemed, had more bargains than I’d thought. But the true test of Mom’s métier had to be my favorite SoHo boutique—let’s call it Foss. Nobody haggles at Foss; they whisper.
Statuesque salespeople in black Armani-esque clothes raised their eyebrows as my sari-clad mother and I walked through the sprawling minimalist space. I wanted everything—black bowls, clever china, silver and pewter accessories, purple suede sofas, chairs shaped like letters of the alphabet, and sumptuous throws. I wanted to move in.
“May I help you?” asked the slim, blond, disapproving saleswoman.
Where I saw sarcasm, Mom saw solicitousness. She sailed in, took the saleswoman’s arm, and asked for advice on sofas. She listened carefully, nodded and smiled, and tested various models by sitting down and bouncing. She confided her fears. “My daughter, poor thing, is trying to get pregnant. So we need a sofa that is baby-proof, you see, just in case the stork delivers something next month.”
Mom giggled; the saleswoman giggled. I hung back, feeling awkward as always.
That’s the thing with bargaining. It is ultimately a people sport. Personable individuals such as my mother have a better shot at it. Even in places like Foss.
Mom picked out a sturdy purple sofa, which they both decided would hide spit-up stains and baby poo. The saleswoman gave her a 20 percent discount without our even having to ask. Seeing my mother’s crestfallen face, she immediately raised it to 30. “I can only give you thirty percent,” she said. “Even we employees are only allowed forty percent.”
She shouldn’t have said that. Mom pounced on it. Pretty soon, the saleswoman was calling her boss to ask if she could buy a sofa on behalf of “a lovely old lady from India” so that they could offer her 40 percent off. Mom spoke with the boss on the phone. She got 40 percent off—with Scotchgard, delivery, and an extra year’s guarantee thrown in for free.