The yokels, who giggled on cue, were my teenaged Pune-bred children, and we were on our quarterly pilgrimage to Fashion Street, Mumbai, to stock up on some essentials. We had stopped now at stall No. 61 A, owned by Bobby Roy, entrepreneur and entertainer.
When Bobby confided, in an early encounter, that he is also a dancer and sought-after dance teacher, I couldn’t help gazing with fascination at the long line of men – young and old, crude and sophisticated, friendly and surly – each positioned in front of a ramshackle wooden stall hung higgledy piggledy from top to bottom and side to side with garments of every size and description. Here they stood, remote in time and space from the villages of their birth, calling out with great guile and persuasion, “Madam, Baby, see this side, no!” and “Lovely shorts, come here Madam!” “Best price, for you only!” “Sir, shirt for you, you son?” (and so on) to the ardent bargain hunters. I wondered how many more gems of purest ray serene the dark unfathom’d stalls of Fashion Street bore.
The goods are largely unremarkable, but with some patience, and a bit of luck, you can take home garments of excellent quality, at a fraction of the dollar price quoted on the labels they invariably sport. For those who frequent Fashion Street, treasure hunt is an exciting hobby. Each piece must be checked carefully for fraying, uneven warp, crooked necklines, and other minor defects; deep colours that might bleed to death in the wash are regretfully rejected.
Bargaining, naturally, is an institution. Some Fashion Street familiars go by a fixed formula: offer half, or a quarter, or a tenth, of the price initially quoted, and work up to a mutually acceptable mean via the age-old courting dance in which feigning shocked disbelief, and outraged demands that the other party come to their senses forthwith, play an important role.
The other, more sophisticated, method is to take a good, hard look at the garment under consideration, and make an offer based on what it’s worth to you. Pre-requisites to this free-market act are a strong sense of micro-economics, and stable self esteem. These will ensure that you close the deal at your price – with the Fashion Street ace of “okay, fine, but just add five rupees to that. Five rupees is nothing to you, right?” Which is fair enough.
At Bobby Roy’s, where my kids outfit themselves with jeans, ‘cargo pants’ and an astonishing range of trousers, whipped with a flourish out of wooden crates like rabbits from a hat – we pay what Bobby recommends. It’s invariably a bit above the market, but a reasonable margin for his jokes and enthusiastic personalized service (Bobby even remembers our myriad waist sizes!) when we visit the frantic, unfriendly city.
By contrast Mahadev, another long-time supplier, is sober and professional. His stall is the single major contributor to my own wardrobe, and we operate on a flat price established years ago. I now enjoy the facility of one who slips in discreetly, selects independently, offers a secret bundle of freshly counted notes (thereby confounding other shoppers still engaged in price debate) – and quietly departs with a large white polythene bag suspended from two fingers.
The other day, Sara, an American friend, admired a flower-embroidered t-shirt I had bought at Mahadev’s, remarking how beautiful it was. “That would be the height of fashion in the US!” she exclaimed.
I glowed inwardly, and wondered if I should be shameless enough to say aloud what I was thinking: “Naturally it’s the height of fashion. I bought it at Fashion Street, didn’t I!”
first appeared in Times of India, Mumbai 24 May 2001