Scented Stuff

The slightest scent of business can get the best smile out and smoothest talk of the average Egyptian shopkeeper in Khan el khalili. He is glib, smooth and actually very nice. Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan, Rajiv Gandhi all figure in teaser lines as he befriends and then hold you down with options, smiles and a variety of ever decreasing prices and value. So much so that you wonder what hit you when you walk out with a painting you had no intention to buy in the first place. 

This is the average Egyptian trader at Khan el khalili for you. But then, the ones selling perfume are a different breed. Or so I think. 

One of them smelt ‘business’ when my friend and bought these nice little containers  of ‘scented oil’ that refracted a brilliant array of light into the ceiling. The artistic glass containers looked so beautiful that that my camera stood trained on them for a while. 

“Would you want to see the original? The best. No charge for looking my friend. Blah-blah and some more blah…” a voice asked from behind. 

In couple of nano seconds were walking into labyrinthine maze of dim alleys and dull doorless buildings. As one dark alley lead to another, we were following the man who was wafting stories of the revolution, of Mubarak and ofcourse of the ‘best original perfumes’. In one dark alley I asked myself if we should be doing this at all.  For a fleeting second the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats flashed before my eyes. 

In a seamless transition, fear began gripping me at every turn. We seemed to be taking too many turns. I feared a gun totting revolutionary or a burglar or some man who didn’t like my looks show up and demand something that I didn’t have or didn’t want to part with. 

But my fears weren’t even remotely justified. For now.  For, In a short while, we were lead us into a room. We had arrived. The room was filled with ubiquitous white plastic jars like the ones that you would find in a secondary school chemistry lab, a truck load of papyrus paintings and sundry trinkets.

And then the show began. 

He went on to show us papyrus paintings that would glow when he switched off the lights. Proceeding to switch off the lights. His booming Egyptian voice served as the background to the wonderful patterns in the painting that continued to glow. My fears of burglars, thugs and the general gent who didn’t like my looks returned. I didn’t even know who to call in an emergency.” What was the equivalent of the ‘100’ Police Helpline?” This and similar such assortment of thoughts caused every conceivable pore to pour beads of sweat. 

Every time he would switch off the lights, the company of darkness, the green illumination on the face of the Pharoh or some strange creature on the painting and his booming voice caused my heart to jump like monkey who was going through a behavioral scientist’s experiment on fear or motivation. 

He must have seen in me the epitome of a stoical face and a somber look. Seeing that he wasn’t making much of a headway with his paintings, he shifted to perfumes. 

His hands reached out and caressed one of those large white chemistry lab type jars. He opened one of them, dabbed some paper into it and announced, “Lotus Scented”.  

“Lotus scented”, he said. Again. Lowering his voice. As though it was the last  remains of a bottle the Pharoh dabbed on his favourite queen. To be honest, the aroma was exquisite. To say the least. As much as the aroma wafted through my nostrils, the fact that it came from a white plastic jar that could have well formed a classical part of paan shop paraphernalia, blew me. 

I was beginning to get impatient. Notwithstanding the aroma. All the sound and light show and the dim alleys had sucked out the explorers’ courage in me.  What if the next bottle he opened had chloroform in it, asked a cuckoo in my mind. I sweated more. 

At that exact moment he looked at me, and our eyes met.  And he said, “For this gentleman who doesn’t believe me, I have something special”.

By now, I was sure, he had chloroform. Or maybe cyanide. My thoughts were only getting worse.
He opened another plastic jar. Steely opaque white. And dabbed some on his wrist, inhaled it, savoured it, “the best I’ve got”. He truly seemed to relish it. 

He grabbed my hand in an ever so friendly manner and dabbed a few generous drops, and announced with a flourish “Hugo Boss”.  My eyes darted out and landed on the white plastic jar which was three fourths full. 

He repeated ‘Hugo Boss”. And like a mafia don, said “original”. 

My nostrils inhaled generous quantities’ of the air around and it indeed seemed like Hugo Boss.  But I was sweating and pulling Hugo Boss out of a white plastic jar seemed too surreal to be true. I said thank you and we began walking out. He was gracious in his disappointment and escorted us back to the main alley selling us stuff till the last moment. 

That night I slept fistfully.  The wide array of sensory experiences had left me both tired and soaked with ideas. 

In my sleep, the trader had complained to the Pharaoh that I had stolen his jar of Hugo Boss.  The Pharoh came after me, riding his bright green dog, and as he neared, his dog pinned me down and sniffed my wrist. 

I woke up in a fit.  

Shivering from fright, I reached for the jar of water on the sidetable. And as water soaked a parched throat, I realised that the wrist was smelling good. 

Quickly realising that it was Hugo Boss at work! I pulled the blanket over. Hoping that the blanket would keep the Pharoh and his dog away, I shut my eyes tight. 

Market. A real one at that!

I have a perfunctory snort of dismissal when anybody mentions shopping.  It usually feels like a ‘waste of time’ to travel, hoist all the body weight around go to a place and then choose.  That statement usually brings a howl of protests and a stern look of dismissal from the missus and her bevy of supporters which quickly cause my feelings to change!  

With that kind of disposition, the chances that I would go shopping in Cairo were as remote as remote can get. But throw in some history. Throw in some pieces of stories of culture and discovering a ‘way of living’ and am already in the car waiting for the drive to the market place. 

Khan el khalili in Cairo, is a market place that dates back to the 13 century.  And for that sheer reason, I went armed with a camera, open ears and a curious mind. 

Imagine an age old marketplace where you could practically get some of the most pristine stuff under the Sun. Stuff like Paintings, trinkets, spices, jewellery, perfume and the like. Narrow lanes that erupt from intersections and shoot into another maze of crowd, colour and cacophony to soak the senses. 

“It is crowded”, I say.  Only to be corrected that after the revolution and all the political instability the number of tourists have fallen starkly. “By as much as 75%”. Normal is when “there is no place to place your feet on the ground” I am told. 

The next I know it was a couple of hours later. It was such a feast for the eyes and ears. For one, it is home to some of the smoothest talking salesmen the world can ever see. Whatever they were selling. 

There is a lane for Jewellery. For clothing. For spices etc. And all of them have ever inviting people who do it with such ease and flourish that you could swear that they had come to your marriage! Or at least, bought you a drink. Or something close. 

The first look at me, got most of them to say, “Indian?” and upon hearing the affirmative “Namaste”.  Then followed the sweetest of talk laced with a countless “My friend” to sell you a perfume that was scented for the Pharaoh or the outstanding painting that you had no idea to buy. Or clothes. Or spices. Trinkets. Whatever. 

We were sufficiently warned of the need to ‘negotiate’ by almost every single person except perhaps the officer at the Immigration counter who had a rather businesslike approach and just stamped our passports. Practically everybody else asked us to negotiate. Such kind people they are. 

Here is a description of a deal, just to labour that point. 

The friend that I am with, is interested in Papyrus paintings.  “A thousand Egyptian Pounds for this wonderful painting” says a young man displaying a large painting which looks beautiful to me. He has deep eyes and a sing song accent that is adorned with love and decked with concern for the whole world.  They negotiate. The young man reels of stories of why he must sell at that price. Features. Benefits.  (If ever you need to the learn how to negotiate with charm, you must take lessons from here) 

Time and my friend’s patience wilt the price down from the 1000 he started with. At 600 Egyptian pounds, the young man lowers his volume and says, “Ok 550. But don’t tell anyone. I will lose all my respect amongst the traders here. They think I don’t sell for anything less than a thousand pounds”. 

“You called me ‘friend’ and quoted a 1000 pounds when we started”. My friend almost wails. “Ah, that,” the young man replies. “That is the ‘Enemy price’.  The price I am quoting is a ‘friends price’” and they go on.  

The persistence, and more than anything else, what catches my imagination the smoothness with which the soldiering on takes place with no forceful argumentative stuff that is so typical in similar markets!

My friend soldiered on.  It reminded me of an intricate chess game ever as I was clicking away at this chess board with Egyptian characters on display at the same store. Finally the deal was done. 550 Egyptian Pounds. For TWO paintings!! The money exchanged hands and we walked out happy. My friend was sufficiently chuffed and suitably thrilled. 

Until about half an hour later, when we were offered two painting for three hundred pounds. 

I didn’t know who was having the last laugh between them, but all the trade, commerce and  bright lights brought the smiles out in me. Markets indeed were in conversation!

My friend, for some reason, was in a deeply contemplative mood. Perhaps it was something that we ate during lunch.  

A humvee ride !

Here i am. At what they call a ‘hyper market’. I like this place. * And no, this post is not sponsored. I like this place because it is here they give me this big, sturdy shopping cart. A cart that i can push around.

Now, pushing around isn’t something that comes naturally to me. But, it is some fantasy that i have, that i will be able to push people around at home, as well. And this shopping cart is as close i have get to. So, you see, i look forward to the trip to this place.

This cart is ‘beefy’. That’s an adjective, i am told of recent origin, to describe a muscular object. So, John Abraham in Dostana is said to appear ‘beefy’. Coming back to this cart, there are other things that i like.

The combination and mix is neat. There is just about enough steel, and there is a muscular plastic. With some real sturdy wheels. Wheels that carry consumerist India’s weight for the well heeled. Or perhaps, the well wheeled !

And then there is this smooth flow of the cart on the tiled floor. Just as you push your choices around ! The noise, the smooth screech when you deftly navigate the stacks of brands is so invigorating !

But the ‘icing on the cake’…or ‘cherry on the pie’ or ‘lubricant in the engine’, are these: There are no doors to open. No keys to insert. No belts to wear. And no permissions to seek. No lights to stop at. No honks to listen to. No ‘one ways’. No potholes. No police man. If this is not freedom, what is ?!

With this happiness coursing my veins, i look at my fresh set of wheels today. With a heady rush, i start off. I push around with gay abandon. Taking sharp turns and making screeching halts. Throwing in an odd packet or two into the cart. (Lewis Hamilton may like it, but i particularly don’t like undue attention you see).

The only squeal i hear occasionally, is of the missus. With a look of disdain and disapproving disappointment, she seems to have disowned me. And stands afar, like another shopper. And when nobody looks, makes these sweeping gestures imploring, requesting, ordering, threatening etc, asking me to stop right there. Today, a rare, new found courage keeps me going.

Suddenly, an empty stretch. There are stacks of cookies on either side. And a 20 meter freeway straight ahead. I mentally rev and go for it. At the end of the ‘freeway’ i take a blind turn. Suddenly, right before me, appears a beautiful lady. With her cart. We almost collide into each other. With instincts that would qualify me to compete with a Video game specialist, we stop. Our carts, separated by fifty percent of a quarter of an inch.

She smiles an impish smile. I smile too. There are a thousand butterflies that fly. In all these decades of driving on the road, no woman, has smiled at me when i was at the wheel. Not one. (From the outside that is. For purposes of calculation, a smile from the seat beside, is …well..disqualified).

My love for my cart and this hyper market shoots through the roof.

She is panting as well. I realise. Before your imagination goes haywire, i must hasten to add that the panting is because she has been wheeling around. Just like me. And then, with a smile, she says, ‘ I have to entertain my son you see. He likes these rides’.

Ah. Explanation..but where is the son ? She points to the cart. And in a jiffy i see him. Seated right inside that beefy cart. My smile has a greater impish quotient. She has a ‘son-in-the- trolley’ as a reason. And i have three packets of potato wafers. I rankle my brain for a smart one liner. Or two liner. Or whatever. And the boy starts crying. Off she goes.

Some time later, i am billing those small quantities. The cashier seems to give me an odd look. Perhaps he is thinking, ‘so much of wheeling for this scrap’ ! I couldn’t care. And then, i spot the lady. Billing in the next lane.

And right behind me, i hear a voice. A gruff beefy voice. “Why do people think of these shopping carts as military armoured cars ? Is this a Humvee, huh ?!” I don’t turn my head. With a innocence plastered arrogance, i assume that that comment was for that lovely lady. And anybody who heard. Not me.

I look at the lady from corner of my eye. And i see her looking ( glaring) in my direction. And then discover, that glare is not at me. I think that the glare was reserved for the gruff voice. That proved it. That comment was for the lady.

Coming home, i look up Humvee and discover that it stands for “High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle”.

Of course. Of course. Of course. It is high mobility. And serves many many purposes. I want to confront this dude with the gruff voice.

I sure will return to this store. And to my Humvee ! Only to give that gruff voice the right perspective. Nothing else.


( Disclaimer : I hold no shares, share no interest, and the only place that i visit every week is my in-laws and the local temple. Not this place. So.)

Weekend Trial

Some parts of the weekend was in the malls and other sundry stores. With the better halfs birthday coming up, this was well..inevitable ! Every single store that we went to was teeming with people. Each carrying bags and bags and more bags.
The consumerist Indian has arrived and is here to stay too. He and she has money in his wallet. Ok substitute money with credit cards. And the bags on display proved that and more !

This post is dedicated to my experience outside a trial room (Room for trying out clothes.Not a court room) at Bangalore’s ‘Brand Factory’ outlet. S went in with two sets in her hands. We reached the trial room corner for women and there were four partitions to make rooms in a line.

And as we waited for her time, i looked at the motley crowd that was present outside the trial rooms. Well, as their wives, daughters, sisters were inside the rooms, the support group held all belongings (handbags, children, footwear etc) besides a few more new clothes to try.

Once in five minutes, a door would open, and someone in the crowd would step upto the room, give comments on the new stuff that the lady was trying and help her choose. And in one particular case, give her water, and other refreshments.

It almost resembled a pit stop for a formula one driver. Well, the speed at which credit cards were swiped it would have any which way given serious competition to a F 1 driver! After sometime, my time came too. And i took my exalted place among a few other ‘gentlemen’ & a young girl, carrying the usual stuff. They were there for some time. It showed.

S finished trying and i made the standard routine of offering comments on the clothes and we chose quickly. We too used our credit card !

And after about 30 minutes after we were there at the trail room, we were walking out. Which is when i looked at the trial rooms, for some reason. And there they were. All of them.

The gentlemen and the young girl ! This time, the young girl had squatted on the floor ! Awaiting the next turn to give expert comments. Bags, baggage et al. While the other trial went on inside !

There is no end to how much you can buy ! Or Try !

Today i go back to Dylan.
” People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed..”

The New Shopping Times !

The weekend saw us visit Garuda Mall. The agenda, besides adding a few elements to my wife’s wardrobe, was to park the car on any of the 13 odd floors available for parking. Without much of hassles.

The Ground Floor on Garuda Mall has space enough for promotions to happen. And usually it is one or the other marketer exhorting the general public to buy that life insurance, try that make up, ride that car, eat that snack and so on. This week there was considerable excitement. As ‘Pioneer’ was promoting its audio players, speakers etc.

As we meandered, there was enough noise and four floors of packed audience with balcony view, shouting, hooting and having a great time. We followed our ‘natural instincts’ to see what was happening.

It was a contest for couples. The rule was that couples needed to dance “on & within” a strip of paper. The size of paper keeps getting halved. So you found rather inventive couples, trying hard to fit into a small sheet of paper which later became a strip of paper. Some atop each other’s legs. Feet. Backs. What not.

The prize : A Pioneer DVD player worth Rs.5000/-.

The size of the paper was inversely proportional to the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd (and the participants too). It was an interesting experience to me. Just to see the crowds cheer and the participants glow. And the range of energy that was created.

The participants seemed to care two hoots to any possible ‘protect-my-culture’ activist as they hugged, carried, danced etc in the middle of a shopping mall. And had a great time doing it all. So did the crowds.
On the one one side, we have a judge arresting somebody for a peck on the cheek. Ok, a slightly longish one at that. But, on the other side we have a society which is moving beyond to a new realm. Looking at. Learning from. Yearning for. Something that is far different. A new pattern is indeed emerging.

What was inconceivable a few years back is common place now. The choices that the marketed nation is making, is more of “doing my own thing”.

Well, well, well, it was indeed a Pioneering evening for me. One that brought me face to face with a new mindset, that i always knew existed.

In the shopping mall ? Well that was a surprise !

Todays song Ironic by Alanis Morisette represents my thoughts !