This is now my sixth trip to Rajasthan and still I can’t quite figure this country out. India is like Christmas: gaudy yet beautiful and rife with contradictions. There is crushing poverty set against a backdrop of incredible riches. There’s hair-pulling inefficiencies, coupled with mind-blowing bureaucracy, yet most Indians I’ve met posses a tenacity of spirit found in very few Westerners I know. The scenery is visually stunning but strewn with garbage, and chocked with diesel fumes. It’s considered fair play to lie and take advantage of tourists to every extent they will allow it, yet Indians can be more gracious and giving than any culture I’ve encountered. I could go on and on.
Take our friend Raja for instance. We first met him on our first trip to India the way most tourists do, taken by a rickshaw driver to his shop (for a commission of course) on a day we were too exhausted by India to say ‘no’. We are now welcomed every year to Jaipur as honored guests with flower garlands, picked up every morning, taken out or to his home every evening for dinner and we truly look forward to seeing him every year. This despite the fact that after three years of doing business with him, he admitted that the ‘silk’ bedcovers we were buying from him were not 100% silk as he claimed the first year, nor 60% silk as he claimed the second year, but in fact they were 100% polyester. Raja is now apparently 100% honest with us and to his credit we have learned A LOT about the inner workings of various things we had no clue about when we started out, as well as how to tell the difference between silk and polyester. Needless to say, though we still buy some beautiful one of a kind hand-work cotton bedcovers from him each year, we have moved the majority of our business elsewhere to small companies engaged primarily in export rather than the tourist racket.
On the one hand we accept that in the tourist markets rickshaw driver commissions are simply a cost of doing business in India, kind of similar to low cost social media advertising at home, i.e. if you use it effectively it can provide a lot of business for little cost. On the other hand, we can’t respect the practice of duping tourists as to the quality and fabric content of items, which Raja does without hesitation every day. It’s one thing to get the highest price possible for a given item, it’s entirely another to get that price based on false information.
Raja says he can’t be wholly honest as it gives him more problems since everyone else is dishonest (and truth be told, I’ve actually witnessed tourists getting mad when told something they’d already purchased as silk elsewhere wasn’t silk). I say Raja could make more money with less hassle selling quality over quantity with integrity. Either way, despite all the contradictions, I’m always happy to sip chai in Raja’s textile shop.