Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Calcutta Scarf-Seller

I was standing on College Street in Calcutta, looking up and down the street, when he approached me.  Dazed and glutted from a phenomenal Bengali meal at Aaheli, I probably looked even more confused than I was.

"Can I help madam?"

I alway steer clear of offers of help from men alone.  Always.

"I know there's a music store near here, but I can't quite remember where."  It was the food talking.

"I know the place.  It is this way," and he began walking in he direction I had started to take before he approached me. "Come, come."

Now I was in for it.  I had been in the tiny music shop, tucked back off the street and stuffed floor to  ceiling with CDs and cassette tapes, two years previously, but I really wasn't sure that I could find it again.  Bengali CDs of Srikanto Acharya singing bhajans (hymns) can't be had just anywhere.

The street was packed, as streets in Calcutta are, and I knew where to catch the Calcutta subway if I needed to get away, so I headed out, winding between shoppers and students and vendors and the odd pariah dog.

Even though it was December, Calcutta was 90 degrees and humid.  I love Calcutta and don't care about the weather, but it made keeping up with the fast-walking thirty-something a challenge.  Five minutes later, me panting, we got to the music store, tucked deep into a shopping area that I would probably not have found on my own.

"Thanks so much, " I said, waving what I hoped was a cheery goodbye.

I bought my CDs and returned to the street to head towards the closest subway station.
Shiny hats with whistles for sale, Calcutta

"Madam. Madam."

He was one of those guys you see all over the place, oiled hair and small moustache, skinny-hipped and white-shirted.  I had almost forgotten what he looked like in the time I was in the record store.

"Yes?"  I'm afraid I sounded a bit weary.

"Madam, you must come to my shop."

Figures.  I knew there was a catch.

"I'm sorry; I'm not buying today."

"But Madam, looking only.  Not to buy."

Does he think I'm stupid?

"Is it close by?"  It had to be the food talking.

"Next block only."

Gentle reader, I followed him.  One more block of students and workers and shoppers and dogs.  There are no cows in the streets of Calcutta.  I wonder why not?

He turned into another small shopping area, a long hall going into the ground floor of a building.

"New shop," he said.  "Opened last week only."

He stopped at a set of smudged sliding glass doors, unlocking them carefully.  The shop was, perhaps, three feet deep, a Formica counter with shelves behind it.  He flicked on lights, low-wattage bulbs, and went behind the counter.

He started pulling out silk scarves, one after another.

"I am not buying,"  I repeated.  "Looking only."

"Oh, but Madam, you must buy!"  he cried, looking truly tragic.  "You are first customer!"

It was true.  I had heard this belief before, that the first customer of the day determines the business fortune of the day.

Defeated, I picked out one small oblong silk.

He named a price, ridiculously high.  I named another, much lower, but still, I was sure, more than enough for him to make a profit.

"Oh no Madam."

"Fine," I said, really and truly irked.  "I don't want it then."

I turned to leave.

People can always tell when you really aren't going to bargain, you aren't faking it, you are going to walk away.

"Yes Madam," he accepted my offer.  "It is the first sale of day."

He didn't try to sell me more, just wrapped the scarf and I left.  I was burning, shaking mad, feeling manipulated and used.

I stuffed the scarf in my bag, wondering who I would give it to, since I didn't even want the thing.

I climbed on the subway, still steaming. I made the long ride to Tollygunge, where I was staying at the Tollygunge Club, a true throwback to the Raj.

I sat on the bed and pulled out the scarf I hadn't wanted.  It was stunning.  Salmon and teal and new leaf green, intricately hand-woven.

I'd give anything to find that shop again.

The wrong intersection, Calcutta


desa said...

Nice piece. Something which I have experience myself. Mainly I go to College Street in Kolkata for books. You can find amazing old books there. And of course, the coffee shop.

desa said...

Oops, I mean the famous College Street Coffee House!

PInky said...

Thanks for commenting! I have gotten the impression that single women still aren't too welcome in the College Street Coffee House. I'd love to hear that I'm wrong! It's one of those places that you dream about going!

desa said...

I did not notice anything like that. But then I did not go alone. It used to be a regular meeting place of people like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. It still fascinates me. I love places like this which has so much of history to it. If you ask any old patron about the place, they will amaze you with the stories. Give it another chance next time you go to Kolkata.

PInky said...

I'll do it! Thanks!