Shoba Narayan relates how she finally rolled up her sleeves and decided to wade into that murky territory usually ruled by the ubiquitous Indian grandmother—bargaining

The thought occurred as I eyed a stunning silver dinner set in a jewellery store on Commercial Street in Central Bangalore. Plates, tumblers, katoris, the works.

The slight smile on the wizened shopkeeper’s face suggested that he was willing to bargain. But where to begin?

Middle age brings many challenges: home, job, mortgage and the realization that you can actually learn something from your parents. So I walked out of the store and called my mother.

“Ma, teach me how to bargain,” I said plaintively.

“My dearest child,” cooed my mother.  “I knew you would see sense.” 

When she heard I was contemplating buying silver, she promptly passed the baton to a specialist in this area.  “Call Lily Aunty,” she commanded.

I come from a long line of bargaining women, who can, with one eye, take apart an object and drive the shopkeeper to tears with the other. In spite of this, or perhaps because I have watched them haggle down the price of everything from a teak dining table to a tamatar (tomato), I have been an awkward and sniffy bargainer– scolding my mother and aunts for being cheapskates. 

All of last year, thanks to Covid, I took refuge online, buying Jai Hind pens, Agra dal moth, Amritsari achar, Hyderabadi lac bangles, beta-blockers, stinky cheese, equally stinky ayurvedic oils and neti pots without speaking to a single human being. Bargaining was so last century, I thought.  Then I saw the silver dinner set.  

Bangalore these days, behaves like Covid was a dream, or at least a mirage.  People still wear the requisite mask like it is a beard.  But walk down Commercial Street, Brigade Road, Avenue Road or any of the thoroughfares that dot and christen this city, and you will feel like you are in a mela.  

Commercial Street is no different.  As the saying goes in Bangalore, “You can buy everything except your parents here.” 

At this large jewellery store that shall remain nameless, people were crowding around the counters, buying gold and silver for the 2000-people weddings that were beginning to happen in Palace Grounds.  Lily Aunty with her penchant for precious metals would fit right in.

Lily Aunty is from the Konkan coast.  She has light green eyes, brown hair and light skin. For decades, the family gossip was that Lily Aunty was half-French. But Lily Aunty had one trait that endeared herself to all her jealous sisters-in-law: she was a killer bargainer. It wasn’t any one thing she did. It was who she was. 

Bargaining, like flirtation, is more attitude than technique, more style than skill. There are no set steps that you can follow. Instead it is about being playful, irreverent, even sexy– channeling your inner Helen or Rekha– in Khoobsurat, not Umrao Jaan. You have to flatter and charm, tease and cajole– all the qualities that had been drummed out of me by a year of Covid sheltering in place.

So we went, Lily Aunty and I, to hobnob with the wedding shoppers.  Fortified by a Maddur vada from Woody’s and some hot jilebis from Santhanam Sweets down the road, we arrived at one of the most famous names in jewellery in Bangalore.

“Remember, just because he says the silver plate costs Rs. 10,000 doesn’t make it so,” said Lily Aunty with perverse but compelling logic.  “To you, the silver plate may be worth Rs. 100.  To you, a single scoop of badam halwa from Asha Sweets in Malleshwaram may be worth more than all the silver in his shop.”

“Or a benne dosai from CTR (Central Tiffin Rooms) in Malleshwaram,” I added, feeling more hungry by the minute.

“In other words, it is all a question of perceived value,” chimed in her husband, Rao-uncle, the economics professor, who was the designated driver, or in this case, given how crowded the area was, the designated “parker” of the car.

Lily Aunty looked at him like he had sprouted two heads.  “What do men know about these matters?” she said dismissively. 

Most men are famously bad bargainers. They don’t have the sense of entitlement of a Gujarati grandmother or the swagger of a Punjabi matron, both of whom can– without wincing– ask for something at a price that will put the merchant out of business. South 

Indians like Lily Aunty and my Mom fake ferocity and have a flair for insults– all delivered with a saccharine sweet smile– what I call the sexy rowdy approach– like Rajinikanth. But really, there is no rule book.  I know Mathur women who flirt their way to a good deal. Their Lucknowi counterparts submerge a salesman under an ocean of polite flattery.  Uninformed, unformed novices like me on the other hand, gloat when we get a car salesman to knock Rs. 1000 off the Rs 3,49,999 sticker price—instead of offering Rs. 1000 for the car, as any self-respecting Indian grandmother would.

“Lily-Aunty, go easy,” I said as we entered the store. “I live in this area.  I don’t want to be thrown out of the store, or worse, blacklisted by all the shopkeepers of Commercial Street.” 

“First rule of bargaining: keep an open mind,” said Aunty sagely.  “The world, my dear, is full of possibilities.”

With that cryptic statement, she sailed into the store in a cloud of imitation Dior perfume, jangling bangles, French chiffon and a homemade pink potli-bag.

I bent my head from side to side like wrestlers do before a fight.  And then I walked in to the arena.  You won’t believe what happened.  

Read on in my next column.