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After devoting fifteen minutes of our first morning in India to being completely on-trend medical tourists at “India’s Health Capital” (see removal of my finger-penis: here), we were ready to shop see Chennai.

Chennai (formerly Madras): located on the Bay of Bengal on India’s south-east coast, this ancient city is the capital of Tamil Nadu. As the fourth-largest metropolitan area in India, Chennai has been an administrative, military, and economic centre for many centuries. While evidence dating back to the stone age shows Chennai’s history as a settlement, the city was officially founded in 1639, and is currently both an economic powerhouse and famous center for arts and music.

We had time before heading to the evening’s dance festival, so we took the advice of Doctor Shobana S, the serene dermatologist responsible for my painless finger-penis-ectomy. She told us about a textile exhibition, and said it was not to be missed.

A quick Ola (India’s version of Uber) later, we were at the government sponsored CoOptix Exhibition Center’s Dastkar Bazaar. It had been three pandemic years since we shopped in India, but Jaya had trained us on our first India trip all those years ago.

Rules for Shopping in India

  1. Like everything in India, there are no rules. Only guidelines.
  2. The “price”, “final price”, and “final, final price” are just points on an infinite spectrum of possibilities. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as the last two; there is just a point where buyer and seller get tired of bargaining.
  3. Don’t sit down. Once you’ve accepted the politely proffered seat which even the tiniest booth will magically produce, they own you—body, and wallet. (And if you let them give you tea, they might own your soul too.)
  4. Beware the Special Suitcase. Because the vendor recognizes your innate taste, discernment—and disposable income—he will pull out a suitcase of extra special items. Just to show you, Madam. No need to buy, but no cost for looking, right Madam? Obviously, you’ll already be sitting down (see #3), so you’ll find yourself helplessly admiring the miracles pulled from the special suitcase. Every item in the case is made, if not by his own family, then by his relatives. The price? Normally, you are assured, these would be double his price anywhere else. But because you’re the first sale of the day/last day he’ll be there/it’s a day of the week ending in the letter Y, he has a special price for you, a tragic level of loss for him and his family, but tribute to your unique status. Or maybe you’d like two of them for even less?

But the problem wasn’t that we didn’t know how to shop in India… It was that we didn’t know how to NOT shop. We stayed strong as we went through the permanent exhibition hall set up to showcase textiles and crafts from across India. Then we went to the booths set up outside and bought everything that couldn’t get away first

Not only do I have this teensy little addiction to block printed textiles, but I’d brought an empty suitcase to fill. When the gentleman in the booth piled with stunning embroidered tapestries offered me a one-of-a-kind masterpiece (available in my choice of colors), I bought one. (By amazing coincidence, every piece in his booth was a ‘masterpiece’. What are the odds?) When the next booth had block-printed silk sets for stitching traditional salwar and kameez outfits, I bought one. And the booth with a large hand-embroidered tablecloth and dozen matching napkins? Absolutely.

I tried to follow Jaya’s rules and bargain. Really. When I got to the booth with the block-printed cottons, I suggested the fact that I was buying multiple sets might inspire a discount, as I’d seen Jaya do on many occasions. Indians are exceptionally polite, so the ladies in the booth didn’t exactly laugh out loud. But they did convey that they would love to honor my request if only that didn’t mean they would lose so much money that their children would starve. I paid their asking price, and threw in a bit extra for those kids.

It’s important to maintain your energy levels when you’re doing industrial-strength shopping. We stopped for chai and sweet, freshly made gelabi.


Don’t judge me. Gorgeous Indian textiles are my kryptonite.

Somehow the entire day had disappeared and we still had half the exhibition to go. We could see the rows of pottery booths, the hand painted leather lampshades, and shadow puppets. There were artisan shoemakers and… And Jaya pointed out that even if we raced through them for the exit, we wouldn’t have time to go back to the hotel and change for the (very posh) dance program for which she had scored sold-out tickets. It was the last night of the arts festival, and she had gotten tickets to two performances.

Remember those nightmares about arriving for your final exam and not having your sharpened #2 pencils? Or your clothes? This was like that, only not so much fun. We stood waiting for the doors to open, amidst people dressed in the most gorgeous outfits and jewelry you can imagine. Even the two young men guarding the doors had on nicer outfits. I was still wearing my finger-surgery outfit, and we’d all added a day of outdoor shopping grime to that.

The doors opened, we found seats, and the magic started.

We’d been away for three years, and we believed the signs, warnings, and pleas not to take photos of the performance. So (even though everyone else in the audience was recording) this is an online photo of a performance of Bharatnatvam [image credit: LakshuPix from Pixabay].

When my daughters were tiny, they fell under the spell of Cinderella as a ballet. It happened again with my granddaughters. With no words, they understood every movement as if it had been dialog spoken through the precise, practiced movements of the dancers’ bodies. That’s how I felt when I saw Lavanya Ananth perform the exquisitely meticulous movements of the Bharatnatyam, South India’s famous classical dance tradition which celebrates Shiva and his consort, the goddess Parvati. This was followed by the Kathak, Northern India’s exuberant, flowing classical dance tradition as performed by the Sanjukta Sinha group with Nirant Pravah.

After the performance, while the rest of the audience waited for their drivers to collect them in their fancy cars, the three of us stumbled out to the street to hire an auto rickshaw. But… somehow, in the last three years, those autos have shrunk significantly. We were headed back to the hotel —three old ladies defying the laws of physics to turn into a single liquid form poured into the backset of that auto— when Janine yelled that she wanted to stop and take a photo. We let her live, but there’s a reason this point is illustrated with a cartoon.

Once back at our hotel and practically in a coma from jetlag and our long day, we fell into bed. And that’s when the noise started. Apparently, our little hotel corridor was party central. Jaya, who could sleep through armageddon, snoozed peacefully on. Janine and I stared in shock as the noise went from ‘celebrate’ to ‘riot on a middle school playground’ decibels. Finally, well past midnight, I pulled on my mom-jeans and headed out to the hall. Drunk men were milling around, happily yelling and smoking. One man came out of the room next door wearing only a towel around his waist. I told him, “That’s NOT a good look for you.” When he started to say something, I held up the mom-hand and headed back to our room. We called the front desk receptionist, who sounded horrified.

Now, see, here’s the difference between India and the US. There are a lot of places in the US where I would not dare to complain, let alone step into the corridor. But in India, within one minute of my call, there was complete and utter silence on our floor. I don’t know what the hotel security did or said, but I would really like them to come to Glasgow next Saturday when the bars close, and do it there.

During the remaining days of our hotel stay, we only saw one other person on our floor, and he immediately went straight back into his room. I think he held his breath.

This was only our first full day in India. Please join me again when I tell you about the temple bloodbath, the world’s loudest phone store, technical surgery in the middle of a massive sari palace, and the death bus. And that’s just the beginning.