When Mom and I got to Commercial Street for some shopping Sampath dropped us at one end and we immediately headed into Mysore Silks which is an upper-end store for buying saris and other textiles. Large counters stood in front of shelves filled with every color and pattern of the most beautiful silk. Women sat on stools in front of counters so that the sales clerks (nearly all men) could pull a piece of fabric off the shelf and drape it over the counter for inspection. In other places the sales clerks would stand on platforms that looked like mini cat walks with women on stools in front of them to view each clerk as he would wrap the silk over his shoulder or hold it up to his face to give his customer an idea of what she might look like with the fabric on her own body.
Piles and piles of silk built up as the women would point to new pieces for examination until there was a mountain of fabric. An extra salesman stood by, his only job being to fold up all the silks when the customer was finished.
I’ve lived in all corners to the United States, in some places customer service is fine and in some places it’s atrocious (*ahem* east coast) but never have I seen a place with more people attentively waiting on you than in India. The salesclerks, hostesses and wait staff are often so helpful they run the risk of smothering you with care. When in Kabini at the Cicada Resort not only would the waiters pull out my chair at dinner but they’d place my napkin on my lap, pour my bottled water then hover by my side, ready to explain each dish and condiment to me as I went through the buffet.
In fact it’s almost too much. They’re all so nice and attentive that it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable at times. I’m not used to having personal servants whose sole purpose is to serve my every whim and at one point in our shopping experience when we wanted to go down a certain market street our chauffeur refused to let us go alone and insisted on walking ahead to clear the street to keep us safe and I felt awkwardly like some 18th century British memsahib out for a stroll with her servants and it didn’t suit me.
But all that customer service comes at a price. I asked if the caste system had really been abolished and was told that while it technically has been outlawed and things aren’t what they used to be it still functions at many levels. Not only do people marry almost exclusively within their castes but last names and skin tones are status indicators. The paradox is that while castes are illegal there are government affirmative action programs for lowest caste members and people of all stations will still give deference to those of higher castes. Europeans and westerners are typically considered outside the caste system and are given added consideration beyond what the Indians themselves could expect.
In fact, it’s quite disturbing to see but light skin tones are universally admired and given preference—every billboard, every television ad, every movie had light skinned models and every other commercial is an ad for skin lightening products. If you judged India by its media and advertisements you’d think that every one of her 1.3 billion people is merely a misplaced European who happens to speak Hindi or Tamil or Telagu.
I met hundreds of Indians during our two weeks. Wonderful, handsome people from all walks and social strata with beautiful features and skin and not once did I meet anyone who looked like the five-story faces I saw glaring at me from the billboards. What a pity that the beauty and culture of the real face of India is being ignored in favor of a westernized version held up as a false ideal. Neither India nor the west needs that kind of stereotype reinforcement.
But within the caste system is the added issue of gender. And strange as it may feel to those of us used to the west, while customer service is stellar, men in India are usually treated with more respect. Bell hops and porters are eager to take your bags but they will often take a man’s bag but not a woman’s, leaving her to trail behind with her own luggage. I noticed at restaurants that servants would rush to seat Andrew or to open his door but would ignore me. Not every time but often enough for me to notice and Andrew would end up compensating by telling staff to help me first. So there’s excellent service but with an asterisk. A big asterisk. There’s no reason or use to get upset about it, it’s just a fact of life in India and one that will probably change as culture shifts.
But meanwhile, back at the sari shop . . . after watching the women buy their silks we continued wandering down Commercial Street, seeing something new and unusual on every corner and in every alley. We stopped in at a little antique shop with dusty brass bells and marble elephants, clocks from Victoria Station and hand blown glass lamps which was so narrow and stuffed with curiosities that when the two other people in the shop wanted to get out we had to leave the shop ourselves to let them pass.
Then farther down the street we came upon an even odder site. Pardon my staring, but at one point I saw a “nine” or an Indian transvestite. A tall man in a coffee brown sparkling sari, earrings, gold bangles and heavy eye makeup, he passed just as I registered what I was seeing.
I’d heard about nines before so Mom gave me a dig in the ribs as we passed to clue me in. She says nines will often travel in groups, begging at intersections and Sampath says they’re not allowed to work so he gives them money. It was unclear why they weren’t allowed to work but they’ll live together in little communes around the city, coming out in groups of three to five for amazed tourists such as myself.
So about the time I was wishing that I were bold enough to pull out my camera and snap a picture of the Indian transvestite we walked past a shoe store. Many stores have basements with flights of stairs leading up to the street almost as if they are built in an underground parking garage that’s been turned into a store and we walked down a short flight of steps from the street into the store.
There, trying on gold high-heeled sandals with large faux gems sparkling on the toes, were two women in full burkas. They were lifting their skirts slightly and admiring their feet in the mirror and had several boxes of silver, gold and white jeweled shoes lying open around them and while I couldn’t see their faces I knew exactly what they were doing. Apparently shoe shopping is an activity that knows no cultural boundaries.
I smiled at them and pointed to the gold pair, indicating that that was the best choice and the one I would get and their eyes crinkled at the corners in reciprocal smiles. The shop was run by Muslims and as a little man in a white crocheted skull cap ran forward to sell me shoes I noticed a teenage Hindu boy limping toward me. He was carrying a stack of shoe boxes high enough that I could barely see his face and his left leg, which was twisted ninety degrees, he dragged behind him.
It took me about fifteen seconds to find out from the salesman that the largest size they had wasn’t big enough to fit me—no surprise there—and as we turned to leave I noticed yet another employee. A Muslim, but an older man who was also a dwarf.
Back on the street I asked Mom, “Did you see all that?”
“What?” she said.
“Two women in burkas trying on sparkling sandals, a Hindu with a bad leg and a Muslim dwarf.”
We looked at each other and shrugged because it was just one more of the many interesting things that you see in India every day and Mom said, “You know, it kind of sounds like the set up of a joke. ‘ Two Americans walk into a shoe store and there are two women in burkas, a crippled Hindu and a Muslim dwarf.’ Now all we need is the punch line.”
We started laughing at the strangeness of it all and chuckled half way down the alley way. I’d love to have the shop owner’s view of us—I’m sure we seemed just as strange and interesting to them as they did to us.
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