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Dip Tea in India

‘The whole of Nairobi is ours.’

The hairy-toed man with orange hennaed floppy hair declares. He stands on a round platform on top of the shop counter.

I am having difficulty taking him seriously right now, because his left hip is thrust out and he has an exquisite brushed gold Parisian lace sari wrapped around his skinny waist. With his silver ringed fingers, he expertly folds the pleats, tucks them into the waistband of his trousers, and then gives me a self satisfied Paan stained smile. At his feet are piles and piles of saris glittering at me from a ceiling mirror that’s been installed to help customers see the 6 metre long sari in all its glory.

We are in one of the multi storeyed sari shops in Mumbai and I am irritated. It is hot. We have been there for hours. I feel like if I see one more sequin, I might throw up all over his hairy toes. He senses this, and immediately orders for tea. Maybe he figures all this lace has lowered my blood sugar levels. This is a common tactic in sari shops. The moment they see you fidgeting, they order tea. If they notice your stamina is wavering, they order little chilly vegetable sandwiches. If they sense you are getting bored, they order airtime bundles. They basically do everything in their power to make you comfortable so that you have no excuse to leave their premises before making a purchase.

I have always thought, Kenyan businesses could learn a thing or two from sari shops in Mumbai. Often, the most I can look forward to here, is a shrug of the shoulders and a stifled ‘shauri yako.’

When the young boy returns, he places the tray on the counter, and announces,

‘Dip Tea Ma’am. Just for you.’

Hmmm. The cup has a string hanging out. I give this young boy the side eye. This does not look like chai, but its weaker cousin from the Kingdom masquerading as tea. I had been looking forward to the sweet, dark, hot, cardamom infused velvety cup of comfort to make this whole ordeal bearable. Instead my foreign accent must have made him think my palette needed the ‘exotic’ tea bag tea. Ironically, the ‘Dip Tea’ was a big deal, reserved only for special customers.

By this time, without us noticing, the prices of the saris he is showing us has gradually inched up. In between pulling out yards of brocade and cutwork and net and satin, he boasts about how all of Nairobi buys from his shop, which has several branches, each with several floors. Of course, this isn’t his shop. He is merely the opener.

There appears to be a strict hierarchy when it comes to the salesman at sari shops. There are the openers; sweet-talking flamboyant charmers whose job it is to shock and awe, pulling out sari after sari from the shelves and unfolding them so you can see ‘the work.’ All I can think of is, who is going to fold all those saris? But of course, there is a person whose job it is to do specifically this. ‘Beta’ which means son, has this delightful job, and Beta is normally a youngish boy probably at apprentice level. There seems to be a real culture of mentorship within these structures. Beta is basically their bitch. But their job is to teach Beta all the dubious tricks of the trade that is selling saris to every possible kind of woman. Beta also functions as a model. You see, if you really can’t be bothered to try the sari on, you just sit there, sipping your tea with your pinkie pointing out, as they drape the sari on this young boy, Beta who then swishes down a fake runway until you are satisfied. Then there is the closer; this one is deadly. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and by then you have been so worn down by the openers, Beta and endless cups of sweet tea, that even the sari that looks like a mosquito net from a house in Kabuchai seems like a worthy one of a kind investment. It is odd that in a city where the male gaze is so strong, every salesperson I have encountered in a sari shop is a man, and as rows of women crane at mirrors to see if their backsides look too big, they do so oblivious to the obvious male gaze.

We leave that shop and head to another, grabbing a samosa sandwich with a side of pickled cabbage from a street vendor, whose questionable hygiene I will pay a very dear price for in the coming days.

The next shop is slicker. It doesn’t have the aged patina of the last family owned chain. This one has smooth white surfaces, tall sexy mirrors and long leather sofas arranged in cubicles around your very own stage. On the sofa to my left, a young woman is asked what her budget is. She says,

‘One thousand.’

I feel sorry for her. There is no sari she is getting for one thousand rupees. The salesman asks,

‘Pounds yes?’

She replies,

‘that is the starting point, but I need to buy my whole trousseau.’

I do the math. Say ten outfits in a trousseau, each at a thousand pounds, makes it 10,000 pounds or 1.3 million shillings! Bloody brits ruining the prices for us Kenyans! She is quickly whisked away to the High Rollers room, and I try to catch glimpses of what a thousand pound sari looks like. The door opens only to let in tray after tray of delicious smelling food. I stop myself from yelling, ‘She’s a bride damnit. Don’t you know that species do not eat. Bring the food this way!’

Our opener is watching my flabbergastion (I am making up this a word, because that is precisely what it was) with amusement. He tells me that 90% of their business is from Non Resident Indians (NRIs) or diaspora, and that would be the same for most of the shops in the area. And they spend a lot of money in a very short period of time, so this goings-on in the VIP room that has my jaw affixed to the ground, is as common a scene as traffic jams are in Nairobi. Of course it makes sense. Indian weddings are a big deal, and amplified by Bollywood and a booming fashion scene, the industry has extended its French manicured claws all over the world.

Kenyans. Kenyans. Kenyans. Surely. Imagine! I am speechless. Look at how cleverly India has crafted this industry to seduce their diasporans to return and part with huge chunks of cash. Yaani. What can we come up with here in Kenya to lure our diasporans to come back home to bolster the economy, spend their cash and leave with a little piece of something precious from home. And land is the most unimaginative answer you can give here. What else can we create? I am leaving this one here.

As my brain whirrs at the magnitude of the figures he has tossed out at me, on the sofa to my right, an elderly woman is skyping from her phone, showing her sister in Chicago the sari she wants to buy. It is really ugly. Baby poop coloured net with garish gold flowers. I want to whisper in her ear, ‘honey, it is horrific,’ but her sister ooooohs across the phone, and I leave them to their bad taste.

As for me. I couldn’t resist the brushed gold Parisian lace silk sari.

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