It started innocuously enough. I was bicycling through Bangalore’s crowded Ulsoor market in search of tomatoes, a bright pink Pucci scarf tied around my hair a la Grace Kelly. I had visions of returning home with a baguette, some cheese and a few vine-ripened tomatoes. What actually happened was that I turned my head for a minute and ran right into an elderly man who appeared out of nowhere. I swear I wasn’t riding too fast but the man fell. You know what’s coming, right?
I got down from my bike, apologizing profusely. A crowd quickly gathered and demanded that I take the old man to the hospital. Right there, right then. A woman started wailing in Tamil. “Ayyo! He has just recovered from a heart operation and now you’ve gone and hurt him again,” she cried. “This is going to cost us at least Rs 1 lakh.”
Keep calm: Denzel Washington (left) negotiates a hostage crisis in Inside Man.
I cursed myself. Mistake No.1: You don’t bike through Ulsoor market wearing tight cargo pants, a sleeveless tank top and a scarf. What was I thinking? All my apologies in fluent Tamil (Ulsoor is predominantly Tamil) didn’t assuage the crowd. As far as they were concerned, I looked like one of those vamp villainesses who appeared in Rajinikanth’s early films (such as Padayappa, one of my favourites), wearing what is called a “Western get-up”. Had I been dressed in a sari or salwar-kameez, with a bright red bindi, I would have been treated differently. I was convinced of it. Too late. The crowd wasn’t backing off and I stood there, waving my Pucci scarf, feeling faintly ridiculous.
Also Read Shoba Narayan’s earlier Lounge columns
“Why don’t I take the old man to my doctor?” I began.
“No, no, that will mess him up further. We have our own doctors who practise naatu-vaidhyam (native medicine),” said one.
“How much are you prepared to give?” asked another.
“It will cost at least Rs 50,000 to get him all right.”
The number had dropped from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 50,000, thanks to my Chennai Tamil. I am not religious but have a fairly transactional relationship with God. In that moment, as I stood surrounded by an angry crowd, I muttered a prayer to Lord Shiva, whose temple was round the corner. If anyone wants to see a truly ancient temple in the heart of Bangalore, you should visit the sprawling Someshwara temple in Ulsoor market. But that’s an aside. For good measure, I also thought of the Infant Jesus Shrine and the Benson Town mosque. Base fully covered, I got back to the bargaining.
Have you been in a situation where you essentially have to bargain your way out of a tight spot? I find myself in such situations all the time. And I am a lousy negotiator.
Once in Thailand, a tuk-tuk driver who I had hired because he was cheap took us to a silk shop in the middle of Bangkok and refused to take us back to the hotel till we bought something. My parents were with me and we had a flight to catch. My mother had to plead with the guy, saying that he was like her son and promising to pray to the Grand Hyatt Erawan Shrine, before the man took us back. Since then, my father (to my intense irritation) cautions me not to take local taxis when I am abroad, particularly on the day of the flight out.
“Remember what happened in Bangkok when we tried to save a few rupees?” he says.
I know, Appa. I nod and grit my teeth. I am a mature, functioning adult; not a dysfunctional ditz.
To be a good negotiator, you have to be quick-witted. I am not. I have watched every Hollywood movie there is where a hostage negotiator goes to bargain with a terrorist. After years of watching these films, I know enough to stay calm in a crisis situation. But bargaining is as much about style as about substance. It is about staying silent when necessary and dropping the right threat—casually, of course. It is as much about tone as it is about content.
“Come on,” I said, allowing a mildly disparaging tone to creep into my voice. “You know it doesn’t cost Rs 50,000 to treat a fall. Do you think I have flowers wrapped around my ears? (Tamil colloquialism for being a gullible idiot).”
We went back and forth like this for a while. The figure dropped to Rs 15,000 but stayed stuck there. It was time to bring out the big guns; it was time to threaten.
“I know the Ulsoor ward president,” I said daintily. “Maybe I can give him a call. He can probably sort out this situation.”
I saw the smiles before I heard the voices. “Dai Saravana! This lady says she knows you,” someone said mockingly. Turns out that the mousy-looking man at the back of the crowd was the Ulsoor ward president. Mistake No. 2: Don’t lie, especially when threatening.
Finally, I did something right. I took the advice of an aunt of mine who is an expert bargainer. Her rule is very simple. Parry with a number that will make jaws drop and take it from there. If the Jaipur jeweller says Rs 5 lakh, start with Rs 5,000. If the vegetable vendor says that a cauliflower costs Rs 50, start with Rs 5. Her approach takes a lot of time and frequently results in shouting matches along with a good doze of name-calling and insults. But she handles it all sanguinely.
I took a deep breath. “I’ll give you Rs 5,000,” I said. “No more, no less.”
It didn’t end there, of course. I ended up paying Rs 10,000. But since we had started with Rs 1 lakh, I felt like Rs 10,000 was a bargain. And I got to meet Saravanan, our ward’s president. He didn’t do much.
Shoba Narayan used her Pucci scarf to tie the old man’s wound. He didn’t appreciate it—not the gesture and certainly not the scarf which, he said, looked like a kaleidoscope. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org