Truthfully, it wasn’t going well. It hadn’t been going very well at all for the last ten minutes at least and, if I was really an truly honest, I would even have said that it was rapidly disintegrating as a negotiation. If I’d had the temerity to still refer to it as that. So I tried to change the mood and give myself a) more of an image of power and b) some time to think about how to improve the sorry position I was in. I did this by stopping my half-assed arguments, which were resembling nothing more than incoherent whinging anyway, and simply turning my head, so that he couldn’t see my eyes for a while.
Looking meaningfully away, in what I hoped was also seen as a disinterested and preoccupied fashion, I squinted across at the billowing dust from the dried fields below. The sun was really high in the sky above at that time of day but, high as it was, it was still bright and massive enough to hit me full in the face and make me squint more than I really wanted to. So it made me look away again, which was annoying, as I felt it ruined the effect I was going for. As a quick alternative I went for looking down at the road instead, which I was standing fairly moodily in the middle of anyway I realised, so it was already reasonably dramatic, if seen from a certain angle. Not that the drama was created through any danger of standing in the road which, it could be easily estimated, was at least 300 miles from any kind of motorised vehicle, and had been so, for a considerable amount of time.
The description of it as a ‘road’ was itself a bit of an exaggeration, as it was more a collection of ditches, squashed together and filled with stones and black and orange dust and sticks, and Christ knows what else, and went rolling over humps and hills in the middle of the village, that could surely have been levelled out at some point, if they really wanted there to be a road here, and off across the baked hard land below until it disappeared into the landscape itself, where it was good riddance, if you follow me.
I couldn’t fathom where the road would actually be going to. Behind me the village that it ran out of was glowering out from its dank hole at the deforested clearing I was standing in, and I could understand that feeling. Even on this literal road to nowhere, a person would want to leave that place and try their luck elsewhere.
It sat, the village, like a lumpy and miserably dried old frog. It sat angrily in it’s shadowy squatted position next to impenetrable trees and scratchy brush on one side, and a thick outcropping of cliff on the other, which itself seemed more like a pile of rocks that had been dumped on the side of the road, giving the impression that they would sooner or later roll off of each other and finish their interrupted job of crashing about the place and finally flatten the crappy collection of leaning huts and houses that the villagers somehow managed to live in. If you could call it living, that is. The children were thin and spidery, wearing old t-shirts (that somehow display logos and brands from countries they can’t even conceive of existing, let alone visit, or know someone who has) and great tunnel-like shorts billowing around their wispy brown limbs, and their pointy-chinned blocky heads, uniformly covered with shaggy jet-black hair. Like Chinese children they all have the same haircut but, unlike their easter Asian counterparts, these Indian urchins have thick, dusted and wild hair, as though they’ve all recently finished a drum solo whilst sitting on bag of flour.
He made an ‘Ehermmn.’ noise at me, which I heard and knew couldn’t be ignored. But I didn’t turn straight away. I’d bought myself a little composure time, by acting all European and other-worldy, and had my back to him and was staring into the far distance. It was shithole over there too I’d concluded. I also hadn’t actually thought of anything new to say, which was a bore.
I turned and looked back at him, putting on my best and most serious face, to show that I was no longer to be trifled with and was now ready to negotiate hard. As was proving typical though, in this hot, dry and cantankerously tedious country, I was to be scuppered again and without warning. A wind from literally nowhere at all whirled the dust up around my face, and into my eyes and nose for like the four-hundredth time that hour. It made me blink twice, cough pathetically against the back of my hand, because I had no spit to cough properly with, and totally lose my new cool composure.
The breeze passed and I looked back at him. He hadn’t moved.
‘Four of 100 rupees’ he said, looking at me from out of under his thick, singular eyebrow. He meant ‘Four for 100 rupees’ of course, which was pathetic. I turned away again.
He was very small, and whippery, just like the scattered group of children, but with an inexplicable pot-belly, much like the African children on those fundraising televisual appeals. But, although these people here were hardly living in the lap of luxury, in their dust-bowl village with the look of madness about them, they weren’t starving. Maybe that was why he wanted more money though, for food. For more food for him and his skinny children, which did not have the round belly he sported, and which could potentially be mostly his, considering the strange social and numerical dynamics that affect the average size of the poorest families in the world.
He could be desperate to keep these kids alive. These cricket-legged imps that stood around the periphery of the clay walls and corrugated iron doors. Or, that could be just what he wants me to think. They do know how to reel out a sob story, these Hindu swines. That said though, he hasn’t looked in any way pathetic or needy thus far, at least not in the sense that one would feel sorry for him. I have to turn back to him.
‘You have to be joking. I can get 5 for 800 rupees in Patna’. I exclaim back, attempting to sound outraged and knowledgable at the same time, whilst trying to rapidly convert the Rupees into Dollars in my head. Other people can do this really fast, but I can’t. I actually have a chart in my pocket to work it out really quickly, but there’s no way that I’m going to put my hand in my pocket or move my head away from this gaze-locked conflict which I’ve now committed to.
‘Four of 100 rupees!’ he repeats, ‘Four of 100! Who you get 5 of 80 from, eh? Who you know? You not get four of 100 from not anyone here, nor not from anyone anywhere. You don’t know anyone!’
He knows I don’t know anyone, and he’s looking straight at me now. The balance of power in this exchange is shifting and I’m not enjoying the feeling. In the middle of the night in this part of India I realised some time ago that it’s not wise to be alone and annoying a man like this. He’s still holding his knife, not actually threatening me with it, but he’s still holding it and I know he can use it, so I decide that compromise is probably best here. It’s not your typical purchase, but he’s just after a good deal and, like any vendor, this is normal to him. He’s got a family and all. I imagine he’d be doing something else if he had a choice in the matter.
‘Four for 80 rupees’ I try.
‘Four of 100! Four of 100!’ he continues, picking one up and showing me what I’m buying, as if to reinforce the value.
‘You no get lesser’ He now says. I think he means cheaper. I’d forgotten that his English probably isn’t good enough to enter into any sort of sophisticated bartering, so the impasse we’ve arrived at isn’t one that either of us are in any real position to sweet-talk our way to a successful conclusion from. He’s not exactly a trader after all, he knows that and so do I.
He’s passing it from hand to hand, turning it to himself then to me, holding it up and making me look at it, showing me that it’s worth what he’s asking for. I still honestly doubt it, but the situation doesn’t look like it’s going to turn into a mutual appreciation society anytime soon and, as I’ve actually stupidly got over 1000 rupees on me right now, with another 18000 in my hotel room across the jungle, wherever that was. I’m rapidly deciding to just pay up and get out of there before this goes on for too long.
‘Four for 90’ I say and produce 90 rupees in notes from my pocket. He takes them and calls me a ‘Chodu’. I don’t know what this means, but I am fairly sure that we’ve not formed a bond in our short time together, so I’ll just file that one away for use later, probably for the porter at Phulwari Sharif station who, the last time I was there, refused to stop the train and made me jump off at about 10mph instead, with my bags, ending with me scuffing my shoes and getting stones lodged in my hand when I stumbled forward to support my fall. The little fucker.
He holds one out to me, the one he’s been fiddling with, and I take it whilst he puts the others into a bag that looks like a pillow case. The one in my hand had most of its teeth and the eye sockets are level and without chips. I have to confess that they are pretty good quality, but I try to look annoyed at a crappy purchase. It’s hard to do with a well-balanced and smooth skull in your hand, but I’m pretty good at this by now.