This Indian Life: Learning life lessons at the local bazaar

How much is the price of bhindi (okra) in Delhi? And what about tomatoes in Mumbai? How much are you folks paying? Thanks to Covid-19, this is exactly what is happening in our building. Every other day, a vegetable truck appears at our gate. There we gather, standing one metre apart, to buy vegetables, fruits and bread.

“Have you ever bargained at a bazaar?” I asked little Natasha, all of 8, who stood fidgeting on one side as her mom bought capsicum and corn.

Natasha whose curly locks look straight out of a children’s colouring book, shook her head.

Shame, I thought. Some of my happiest childhood memories involve accompanying my grandmother to the market. We would spend hours haggling over the price of potatoes and carrots, until it got dark and we were forced to take an auto rickshaw home. It was no use pointing out to my grandmom that we were spending three times as much on auto fare as we were saving on vegetables. For her, it was the principle of the thing.

Most elder Indians grew up in a resource constrained economy. They tend to focus on small savings, which in their mind adds up. The notion of penny-wise pound-foolish, or paise-wise, rupee-foolish doesn’t convince them.

“Darling, you have to learn how to bargain,” I told Natasha.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because bargaining is like a dance,” I said. “It is about connection and compromise.”

Natasha stared at me in the manner of kids who lose interest around adult words.

I had to get her attention. “It is about making people laugh,”

I said.

Natasha smiled. Laughing she was interested in.

In Yale University’s most popular course ever (now available for free online), professor Laurie Santos talks about how to cultivate well-being. The old adage is true, she says. Money cannot buy happiness. Talking to people on the other hand makes us happy. We humans long for connection.

“Stay right here and watch what is happening at this bazaar,” I told Natasha.

There was my neighbour, Rinku Agarwal, haggling with Rukmini, the vegetable vendor over the price of pumpkin. Rinku spoke Hindi, Rukmini spoke Kannada. Neither understood each other’s words. But they did the dance, with eyes and gestures. Rinku gesticulated fiercely over a carved pumpkin and let loose a tirade in Hindi about its high price. Rukmini pointed to a pile of beans that were low priced. But Rinku wanted the pumpkin.

She pointed to Rukmani’s pregnant daughter-in-law, put her arms together in the universal baby-rocking gesture and pinched out what looked like a penis.

“Natasha, close your eyes,” I commanded.

Ladka,” Rinku pronounced with a thumbs-up.

Rukmini started laughing. “This madam will put me out of business,” she told me. “How will I save money for my grandson?”

Rinku got her pumpkin for a song. But she gave the pregnant daughter-in-law Rs 500 to buy the baby a blanket. Where was the logic in haggling for pumpkin and paying 10 times more for a blanket?

Had Natasha stuck around instead of running off, I would have told her that bargaining wasn’t about the money at all. It was about creating relationships out of transactions, adding spice to life, making people laugh and celebrating the connections that make us human.

In this cautious new world, where social distancing is no longer the oxymoron it once was, make interactions count.

Technology today has made it possible to buy everything without interacting with any human. But once in a while, more often than not, we all need to walk to the local bazaar and haggle with the vendors, just like our parents did. Stand six feet apart, wear gloves and a mask. Protect yourself of course. But don’t stop talking to people.

Being human is taking delight in the sparks of connection that interaction brings. Some may be mundane, while others are rich with unexpected surprises. So talk because you can. Oh, and to flex your bargaining muscles.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, May 10, 2020