Many years ago, Max and I were driving downtown. We got to the corner of Sheridan Rd. and Hollywood, waiting at the stoplight. A man was selling newspapers. Max wanted to buy one. I protested, being married to a paper magnet. He said he wanted to buy one to support the vendor. “Look at him,” he said “Would you like to have that job? Don’t be cheap, buy a paper.” Max had just returned from Senegal, and his sense of justice was quite acute. I smiled, proud of my son – we had brought him up well.
The vendor noticed our interest and immediately came over. “How much for the paper?” I say. “Two dollars.” He says. I hand him the money, he walks away. I look at the paper and I see $1.75 marked at the top. “I just got cheated!” I say, indignant. “Geez, it’s only 25 cents.” Says Max. “That’s not the point, he should have given me the correct price, and by charging me $2 he was being dishonest,” I say.
We then proceed into a long conversation along Lake Shore Drive, discussing the ethics of the transaction. Max claimed that the vendor had a right to ask for the $2, after all I was much better off. My counter argument was that his economic status had no bearing on the matter and that he should have been honest and told me the correct price. Of course I would have given him the $2, but it was my decision to do so, not his. Max countered by saying that the vendor wouldn’t know that, and didn’t want to take a chance – he needed the money. We never came to an agreement. I still think I’m right.
So what does this have to do with India?
A lot – every time I go shopping I am put in a situation where I have to assess whether I’m being overcharged, by how much and whether I’m OK with that.
I’ve been buying plastic everything – containers for food and spices, clothespins, hangers, laundry buckets, floor-cleaning buckets, washbasins, water jars, stools, self-stick hooks…. I think I’m finally done now. Alan is incensed at the enormity of plastic in India and my eagerness to fall prey. I agree, but we need to keep the spices fresh and the bugs out, and we don’t have a dishwasher or a washing machine, plus I’m a bit OCD regarding organization. All of these were purchased from street vendors, of which there are thousands. I bargain, because I know that I’m being overcharged – I’m a foreigner therefore I’m rich. Which I kind of am, relative to their situation. Sometimes I’m only able to get it down 10-20 Rupees – pennies, but it makes me feel better, and I feel in control.
Last week, I was talking to Salim, the man from Lake Bluff. We were discussing the purchase power of Westerners, the guilt of bargaining someone down for a few cents, just to make us feel better. Should I let the plastic vendor have the 10 Rupees, like the 25cent guy from years ago, just because I happened to be born into a more privileged societal situation? I think I reconciled the question by saying that the 10 Rupees savings made me feel better, and the plastic vendor still made more money off of me than from an Indian, and I am OK with that. And, bargaining at a street stall is expected; it’s a game that’s constantly being played.
A couple of days ago however, I was really taken. We were just coming back from the doctor’s office – I was terribly nauseous and apples were one of the few things I could eat. We passed a vendor that had several varieties – they looked wonderful, neatly stacked in circular pyramids. I bought a ½ kilo, plus a beautiful pomegranate. “210 Rupees ($3+)” he said – “Too expensive” I said, but my spinning head was not interested in bargaining or to seek out another vendor, so I simply handed over the money. As we walked away, I knew I had been way overcharged and started to grumble. Today I bought 1 kilo of apples and paid 100 Rupees ($1.50) from a great fruit vendor I found. Yesterday I was charged 3x what I should have. I’m really angry and can’t really let go of it. He saw me coming and I fell right in. I don’t like that sense of vulnerability, stupidity, of being the gullible foreigner, the targeted victim – I feel like I can’t control the situation, which always is a bad thing. My vegetable guy gave me a carrot today, “I’ll be back,” I said. Last week, the egg man returned 2 Rupees from my correct payment. I looked at him questioning. He said that’s so I’ll come back to him. I was so taken by his gesture, that I wanted to return it. I decided to keep the 2 Rupees, as this was his token to me. I smiled with a Bengali nod. I’m a faithful shopper – respect and honesty mean a lot to me, which is why the disrespect by the apple vendor is so upsetting.
Whether it’s a quarter by the Chicago paper vendor, or the tripled overcharged apples in a Kolkata market, it all comes down to a matter of ethics.