I have a recurring nightmare in which I’m yelling at someone–at you, maybe–about something that he or she has done terribly, terribly wrong. I’m yelling at the top of my lungs–and my anger is justified, always–when suddenly my voice just goes. Gone. Disappears. And I keep mouthing words, but, no. No. Nothing. Nothing comes out. Just silence and righteous indignation.
Which brings us to today. This is not at all what happens today.
Today I will be looking for a last-minute gift for my father, who I cannot for the life of me figure out how to shop for. I will be in Bombay. I will be, more specifically, in Colaba, the toursity part of Bombay. I will walk by a fancy looking tailors’ shop and I will be wooed inside by a jolly-looking old fat Indian who promises me that all of my dreams are contained within.
No. He says nothing of the sort. But I go inside anyway.
Long story short (long haggle short): I tell him that I can’t have a shirt tailored for my dad without knowing his measurements, he tries to convince me to have a shirt tailored for myself, and then–and this is important for later, so don’t you forget it–lowers his price (at his “fixed price” shop) repeatedly to sway me. But I ain’t being swayed. I start to walk out, notice that he’s got ties laying about, ask about those (thinking ‘Dads like ties…’).
The old fat man proceeds to break out several boxes of ties. I proceed to pick one out, 100% silk, a snazzy design for a father who doesn’t much wear ties anymore.
The old man lifts the tab to show me the price.
Now, in America, that’s like five bucks. Or no, like, five-fifty. But we’re not in America, and the fat man has already tipped his hand by lowering the price of the shirt he tried to make for me, and so I offer him a mild haggle. Like a mild salsa, you can barely tell it’s there:
(In the course of a haggle, the parties involved sometimes exchange information about one another’s personal lives. It’s space-filling banter, common in India. So I’ve told the fat man that I’m a house-painter at the moment, and he’s told me that he’s a widower. These are both disclosures that we will come to regret. Here’s how…)
The fat man scoffs at my offer of 200 for the tie, begins to explain that he only makes 50 rupees per tie he sells, that he only marks them up that much to stay moderately profitable.
This is a lie, and I treat it as such by laughing.
“That’s what everyone says,” I say.
But the fat man is insistent, and he enlists the services of his partner, the skinny man (who has hitherto been silent), to rally to his side.
They speak to one another in a foreign language, and the skinny man affirms with a nod and a frown that I am being unreasonable.
Understand this: I am still in “friendly haggle” mode. The haggle is always full of drama and theater from both parties involved, and even more drama and theater if there’s a supporting actor or actress. But it’s still, to me, and at this point in this particular haggle, a game to be played. I’m playing it the way I play it best, with a smile and a joke.
“How do I know you didn’t just tell him to harrumph and scoff at my offer?” I ask the fat man. “After all, I don’t speak Hindi.”
Here the fat man and the skinny man both begin telling me what an insult I am to their esteemed shop, which is, for the record, empty. I’m a little put off guard, but still thinking that it’s the rising action to the eventual catharsis of a sale. I’m still thinking that this is part of the act.
It isn’t. I misread the scene.
The skinny man begins to tell me to leave, as if I’ve insulted his dignity. “You don’t know India,” he starts. “Not everything is a haggle-this-haggle-that.” I counter by pointing out that I’ve haggled over MRP–the law of the land–many a time. He does not believe me, though it’s true.
“Leave,” he tells me.
“Okay,” I respond.
And right now–at this moment in time–I’m fine. Everything is fine. A haggle is a haggle is a haggle, and you don’t win them all. But the fat man is going to blow everything presently:
“What would a house-painter know about fine things?” he says to himself derisively–or perhaps to me–as I walk out the door.
And this is the part where I explode.
Or no: the fat man has pulled the pin out of a grenade which is going to explode in approximately fifteen seconds. First I must walk ten meters away from the shop. Then I must turn around and start visibly shaking.
Then I must walk back into the shop.
(Only then can I explode. And explode I do).
“What the fuck,” I am yelling as I walk back into the shop, “do you know about me, you fat fuck?” I don’t let him answer. “Everything in this fucking country is a fucking negotiation and you, you fat fuck, are telling me what I can and can’t say?” Oh, sweet Jesus, I am angry. “Fuck you–”
Here he gets a word in edgewise: “You and your fucks and fucks–”
I cut him off. “Yeah. My fucks. Fuck you. You’re fucking calling me a painter, as if that’s something to be ashamed–what the fuck are you? You’re some fat fuck old tailor. I’ve got a fucking education, you fat fuck. I went to one of the best fucking universities in the world, you fat piece of shit. I’m going to do something with my life, and you’re going to die alone, a fat fuck ignorant old tailor with a shit-little shop in Bombay. Good for fucking you.”
I turn around quickly and storm out, but not before I see that I’ve hurt him, viscerally. Not before I see him quake a little bit. Not before I’m forced to confront the fact that I have just spoken–or screamed–these words to a human being, a being made of bones and skin and blood and guts and brains… everything else.
Of feelings, in a word.
I go outside, walk halfway around the block to hide, sit on the curb, and shake some more.
It is not one of my best moments in India.
But it is one of my last.