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In the Bazaar

IMG_5194MUMBAI—At the risk of offending Edward Said, I will describe the famed Chor Bazaar. It is in a Muslim quarter of old Bombay, its narrow lanes caked with the accumulation of Bombay’s years and history, despite daily sweeping, one darkly glittering storefront after another, whose jumble of wares, all the amazing, exotic junk and treasure of the mysterious Orient, line shelves in passageways barely big enough for a grown man to pass turned sideways, shelves that reach up into shadowy, cobwebbed recesses and spill out onto the street. And again, all deference to the learned Mr. Said, but these things are exotic by any measure.

In a small store on Mutton Lane, are shelves and baskets and piles of sharpened iron and pointed steel, stacks and sheaves of old weapons: armored fists sprouting tiger-claw blades, steel Mughal bows, a breastplate in the female form, silver filagree work over steel breasts worn, says the man, “By the famous Muslim warrior women of Lucknow,” and up in a dark corner, hanging from the ceiling, another such breastplate but of plain iron and of massive size, “Worn by a Lucknow warrior woman who was 7 feet tall!”

Other shops have different specialties, furniture, architectural salvage, vintage Bollywoood posters or just a dense accumulation of antiques and curiosities. There is a coiled bronze cobra in front of one, near life size, and I ask my driver what it is for. My driver, a sober man of a certain age, a southern Indian who pilots the car through chaos with remarkable sangfroid, says sharply, “You do not want this, sir. You put this in your house and the real cobras will come.” I know good advice when I hear it.

We walk, waiting for all the shops to open. Bombay is a night city and wakes late. Most businesses are rolling up their shutters by about 10 a.m. We walk down one street and across a busy one to the butcher’s stalls. The air is heavy with the scent of dead flesh, the atmosphere a palpable miasma of blood and meat. There are mountains of ribs, racks of dismembered parts dotted with black flies. My gorge rises and I have to fight not to visibly gag. I see rows of hanging things I cannot at first identify. They slowly come into focus and my mind sorts out the anatomy. I am seeing an assemblage of the liver and lungs of a goat hanging from the stretched trachea, dangling over the goats’ severed heads. A man in a spotless white kurtah and skull cap sees my gaze and offered to make me a deal. I politely demur and indicate I am still looking. We spend a few minutes examining the piles of fish and about the time I stop retching I begin coughing, my lungs involuntarily spasming, trying to expel what they have taken in. We leave and cross the street back into the Chor Bazaar area and return to the arms and armor shop.

It is my second time here. A few weeks ago I bought a scimitar, somewhat crude, made by a village blacksmith, but nonetheless of fine curves and lines, well balanced for something so heavy. The shopkeeper begins to bring out the things I had shown interest in before, as well as pointing out some new acquisitions. The scimitar has a mate, a smaller blade obviously forged by the same smithy, there is the armored fist with the tiger claws and a matching long-sword for the other hand, some swords with fine, English blades set into Indian hilts, a sword cane with silver filagree work, and various pieces of armor.

He offers me a chair. I wave it away and sit crosslegged on the floor opposite him and we begin. I look over the things, some of which I intend to buy today if we can reach a deal, some I wish to bargain for at a later date and others I have no interest in. The rhythm of the bargaining is different here than in Guatemala, where I have a fair bit of practice in the art. Something of the overall dance is the same, but the pace is more courtly. Tea is offered and accepted. Word is sent and it comes from down the street carried on a tray by a boy. It is scalding hot, in a clear, straight glass, sweet and milky and redolent of cardamon. Often, in Central America, the initial number would be double or more the final price. Here, it seems that the margins are slimmer. To offer less than half, as I found in earlier forays, is insulting and will clearly not be accepted. I adapt my strategy and numbers. As well, my Hindi is rudimentary, whereas my Spanish was good. The seller speaks English, the numbers are always in English, but I know there are subtle cues I am missing.

Do not be in a hurry, my driver has counseled me. He is right, of course, and this is my second dance with this seller of antique arms and armor. This works in my favor. He knows that I come back, that a deal I am satisfied with will lead to more deals in the future. I have also shown I have knowledge of merchandise, of blades, of metal, of arms. I point out that the locking mechanism on the old sword cane has been replaced in modern times. The machine cut threads of the screw and the welds give it away. He agrees that this is true. Perhaps I am still interested, but not at that price. The cheap metal swords with flashy engraving were dismissed out of hand on my first visit and now he does the same. “Tourist junk,” he sniffs in distain as he sorts through his stock, looking for things I might like. The plainer, deadlier, more valuable blades start to emerge from the corners, from behind things.

I throw out a number for the two pieces I want. He counter-offers, but the pause tells me I am close. I add a plain, but solidly made khattar knife into the mix and offer him his last number for all three. He meets that number plus 500 rupees, but I need to stand firm, it is all the money I have. I get up, leaving the things on the floor, shrug my shoulders, go outside and discuss the warrior woman’s breast plate, a Mughal helmet with a chainmail coif, and an unadorned spear head.

My driver is an observant man. He is learning my tastes, my interests, my rhythms. He has a good eye and he spots an iron trunk from the days of the Raj under some junk. It is pitted, its black paint worn away, but it has good bones. The trunk too comes into play, ultimately adding another 1,000 rupees to the bottom line. I tell the shopkeeper that I don’t have that much and it is the truth.

“Pay me next time,” he says, smiling. We come to a deal and shake hands.

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