I have just discovered the best book I have ever read about a Westerner coming to India (not that I’m a scholar of the genre): Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, an autobiographical novel about the narrator’s escape from a prison and landing in Mumbai on a false passport. Like me, he immediately feels that India is home.
In the first chapter, on the way to town from the airport, he hooks up with two Canadians, who have been to India many times, and he shares a hotel room with them. The Canadians are staying for the night and then going on to Osho’s ashram in Pune. When the narrator returns from getting dinner and the three of them are in their beds, one of the Canadians has this to say about their arrangements for their hotel room, about how to do business in India.
“’We could’a beat him down, you know,’ the tall Canadian said from his dark corner on the far side of the room, his sudden voice in the whirring silence sounding like stones thrown on a metal roof. ‘We could’a beat that manager down on the price of this room. It’s costin’ us six bucks for the day. We could’a beat him down to four. It’s not a lotta money, but it’s the way they do things here. You gotta beat these guys down, and barter for everything. We’re leaven’ tomorrow for Delhi, but you’re stayin’ here. We talked about it before, when you were out, and we’re kinda worried about you. You gotta beat ‘em down, man. If you don’t learn that, if you don’t start thinking’ like that, they’re gonna fuck you over, these people. The Indians in the cities are real mercenary, man. It’s a great country, don’t get me wrong. That’s why we come back here. But they’re different than us. They’re . . . hell, they just expect it, that’s all. You gotta beat ‘em down.’
“He was right about the price of the room, of course. We could’ve saved a dollar or two per day. And haggling is the economical thing to do. Most of the time, it’s the shrewd and amiable way to conduct your business in India.
“But he was wrong, too. The manager, Anand, and I became good friends, in the years that followed. The fact that I trusted him on sight and didn’t haggle, on that first day, that I didn’t try to make a buck out of him, that I worked on an instinct that respected him and was prepared to like him, endeared me to him. He told me so, more than once. He knew, as we did, that six of our dollars wasn’t an extravagant price for three foreign men to pay. The owners of the hotel received four dollars per day per room. That was their base line. The dollar or two above that minimum was all Anand and his staff of three room boys shared as their daily wage. The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists cost Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.
“The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There’s nowhere else in the world where that’s quite so true.
“I didn’t’ know that then, as I closed my eyes in the dark and breathing silence on that first night in Bombay. I was running on instinct, and pushing my luck. I didn’t know that I’d already given my heart to the woman, and the city. And knowing none of it, I fell, before the smile faded from my lips, into a dreamless, gentle sleep.”