Some people were born to shop. I, on the other hand, shudder every time Christmas comes round, not to mention the January sales, the Easter sales, the summer sales and the autumn price drops. The only reason I still haven't run screaming from the building is the Internet, without which I would still be wearing the same pair of socks I went to school in. I hate shopping and shopping hates me, and frankly we're both stubborn enough not to want to rock the status quo.
But you try buying hot weather clothes in London in February. Jumpers, no problem; thick jeans, come this way, sir; thermal underwear, here, there and everywhere. But super-lightweight cotton trousers and breezy short-sleeved tops are understandably in short supply as the wind howls down Oxford Street, and the outdoor shops of South Kensington and Covent Garden are only useful if you want your trousers to have more zips and pockets than a fetishist's weekend outfit. The solution? Buy your holiday clothes in the summer, which unfortunately requires the kind of planning that is rather at odds with the cold sweat that falls over me as I wander into clothes shops. I buy my clothes either when the last batch has reached the point of no return, or when my girlfriend starts dropping hints. No prizes for guessing which comes first. ('Men,' I can hear her sigh, and she is, of course, totally right, except she's as allergic to shopping as I am, so I can't even play the 'hopeless male' card.)
Luckily for the visitor to India, there is a solution that is not only guaranteed to save you money, but opens up a whole new world, that of shopping in the developing world. With my finely honed and pathological fear of shopping, I've managed to travel the world quite successfully without filling my home with trinkets from abroad; I justify this to myself with the mantra 'take only photographs, leave only footprints,' but I know that the main reason I don't flock to markets or haggle in carpet shops is because it scares the hell out of me. I might be able to climb volcanoes and sail oceans, but I can't shop. Happily I've just had my hand forced by the complete lack of suitably tropical attire in my backpack, and I am now the proud owner of a set of Indian clothes of dubious sartorial qualities, but high quality stitching. Oh, and they're thin and airy, not unlike their new owner.
It's hard to travel through India without spotting Indian tailors hard at work, sitting in the fronts of their shops, pedalling their cast-iron sewing machines into a frenzy among piles of colourful material. If you're at all clothes-minded, this must be like heaven, but for those of us whose travelling clothes have long sleeves purely to keep the mosquitoes from biting, and whose trousers are dirt-coloured so they don't show the dirt, those precious weaves of cream, ochre and crimson look less like an Aladdin's cave and more like the warning colours on the belly of a particularly poisonous frog. So it was with some trepidation that Peta and I set out to scout out the tailors of Varkala, in search of trousers, shirts and, above all, a painless shopping experience.
As with most things in India, it would have been a breeze with hindsight, but even with a level of ignorance matching that of a modern-day celebrity, we managed to buy what we wanted, and without feeling too used. The first tailor we popped into was run by a very softly spoken chap, who asked us how he could help.
'Well, I'm looking for a pair of trousers and a shirt,' I said. 'Collarless, like this one over here.'
'Certainly, sir,' said the shopkeeper, 'let us look at the material. How about this one, it is good in the heat. You know it is getting very hot now, today it is, I am thinking, 37 degrees, but in April it gets to... oh, let me see, 45, I am reading in the newspaper. You want a good, thin material, like this one.'
'Yeah, that's not bad,' I ventured. 'I quite like this pattern here, on the cream one.'
'That is good, sir,' said the shopkeeper, pulling down a shirt from the rack above his head. 'Let me show you the stitching we do, it is very high quality indeed, very important for keeping clothes a long time. Here, look at this seam, this is very good double-stitching, and here we make sure we make this part very strong to avoid wear. Is this the kind of thing you are looking for?'
'Yes, it does look good,' I said, drawing on my long experience of tailoring standards and stitching methods.
'Then we measure you,' he said, beckoning over an old man from the back of the shop, who had been busily cutting lengths of cloth with a huge pair of scissors. Out came the measuring tape, and the old man called out numbers in Malayalam as he measured me in places I'd never been measured before.
'Do you want a tighter fit than this shirt?' said the shopkeeper. 'Or loose might be better for hot weather? And do you want three buttons at the top here? It will look good.'
'Um, yeah, sounds good,' I thought, feeling that helpless ache in the pit of the stomach that the big fish gets when he feels the first tug on the line. And before I'd had time to breathe the old man had also measured me up for a pair of trousers, I'd picked out a particularly fetching shade of dark green cotton to make them from, and that seemed to be that. Now, I assumed, we'd start haggling.
Unfortunately, I'd ignored the first rule of bargaining, which is first to try to work out what a fair price is, so you know vaguely where to aim. I had absolutely no idea at all how much shirts and trousers might cost, and not only that, I was starting to reach that point I reach in every shop where I'd rather gnaw my fingers off than extend the experience any further. Luckily, shopkeepers know how to deal with this particular ailment: they go in for the kill.
'Let me see,' he said. 'They will be ready at 8pm tonight, and the cost for one pair of trousers and one shirt will be... 750 for the shirt and 950 for the trousers, which comes to 1700 rupees.'
'Ah,' I said, trying desperately to remember how this bargaining lark works. 'I'm looking to pay about 1000 rupees,' and with that I realised I'd got things slightly wrong, because you're supposed to offer about one-third of the original asking price, rather than two-thirds, and now I was going to pay the price. 'I should have said 600, I should have said 600,' I thought, as the shopkeeper sucked in his breath at my price, presumably to make me feel better, as I'm sure he already knew he'd make a killing.
'I can do a special discount for you,' he said. 'I can do 1500.'
'1200,' I said, wondering where this was going to end.
'1450,' he said. 'It is a fair price.'
'1300,' I said. 'It is the end of the season for you, and it's a good price.'
'OK, 1300,' he said, and we shook on it, both of us smiling, but only one of us with a glint in his eye. I'd walked into the shop simply to try to find out what sort of price clothes might cost, and I'd already done a deal. 'What a muppet,' I thought, but a little voice in my head reminded me that yes, this might not be the best price, but I could afford it, and it meant I'd have some clothes to wear, so perhaps I shouldn't feel glum. And hey, perhaps it was a fair price after all? Who knows...
A Second Attempt
I could probably have relaxed a bit more if we still hadn't got Peta's clothes to buy. She hadn't seen any suitable fabrics in the first shop, so we wandered down the road, popping into a couple of shops that sold clothes, but they didn't appear to have a tailor in tow and their clothes were completely the wrong size, so they were short visits. A little further on, though, we were accosted by a man who tried to gain our trust by putting on the worst imitation of an English accent that I've heard in a long time, and instead of warning us off, we found ourselves drawn in by, of all things, a man clad in a dhoti saying, 'Lovely jubbly,' in an utterly banal voice. What were we thinking?
Not very clearly, it seems, as although we were supposed to be shopping for Peta, it only took ten seconds before the man was measuring me up for another shirt and another pair of trousers, while Peta stood by, saying that, yes, that blue wasn't bad, but no, that brown was totally wrong. By the time we moved on to her wardrobe, I'd apparently agreed to buy another two shirts and a pair of trousers, all for an as-yet-undisclosed sum.
'So, that's two shirts for you and one trousers,' the shopkeeper said, after going through a number of fabrics with Peta and deciding on how she wanted her clothes to be cut. 'And for you, madam, two shirts and two trousers.'
'Actually, I think I'll only have one shirt,' I said, desperately trying to sound in control. 'In the white,' I ventured. 'Yes, the white.'
'OK,' said the shopkeeper, 'that is a total of two shirts and two trousers for you, and one shirt and one trousers for you, so six in total, so that is a price of 3800 rupees. Ready tomorrow evening.'
'I'll give you 2000,' I said, again failing to go for one-third of the asking price, but confident that I could at least get better value for money than in my last feeble attempt.
'3300,' said the man. 'It is a fair price.'
'2500,' I said, wondering if that was too much of a leap, and realising too late that if I thought it was, then it probably was.
'3000, my final offer,' he said.
'Let's make it 2700,' I said. 'We are buying a lot from you, after all.'
'OK, 2700,' he said, and we shook on it.
And was I ripped off? I have no idea, but the second man turned out to be 50% cheaper than the first, though the second man hadn't been quite so proud of his stitching. Only time will tell whether either of them is better than the other, and whether either of them represent value for money, but at least we now have some summer clothes, and right now I am absolutely delighted with them, if only because I won't have to buy any more for some time to come.
And hey, it's not as if I ever come out of a bargaining session feeling as if I was ever in control... which just shows that some people are born to shop, some people are born to sell, and some people don't know they're born at all.
That'll be me, then.