Bazaar behaviour

During the four months that she lived in India, Sophie James noticed something strange in her British visitors: a determination to buy as much of the country as possible
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The Independent Online

"I can't understand what's happening," said Al, descending from the elephant. "I never shop." For four months, I had rented a flat in Jaipur, and Al was the first of a succession of guests whose obsessive shopping began to resemble a supermarket sweep through the dusty bazaars of Rajasthan. His descent from the elephant ride to Amber Fort had followed a hawker-thronged shopping frenzy, the climax of which was a revolting brass peacock shoehorn, purchased for the equivalent of 50p with unmanly zest.

"I can't understand what's happening," said Al, descending from the elephant. "I never shop." For four months, I had rented a flat in Jaipur, and Al was the first of a succession of guests whose obsessive shopping began to resemble a supermarket sweep through the dusty bazaars of Rajasthan. His descent from the elephant ride to Amber Fort had followed a hawker-thronged shopping frenzy, the climax of which was a revolting brass peacock shoehorn, purchased for the equivalent of 50p with unmanly zest.

Al was a case study. By the third day away from the cool, rational interior of his local Waitrose, he had ordered two Jodhpuri suits (£22 each, since unworn), bought several tourist saris (£3 each but DO NOT WASH), and one pair of camp, gold, embroidered slippers (£11, since thrown out). He could count a dynasty of tailors in the Chandpol Bazaar as his new best friends, and any daughters that he might in the future produce will probably marry either Ajit, Amit or Sunjit of Anil Exports.

All of which made me wonder, was this retail extravagance that I was witnessing due just to the fact that tourism in Rajasthan is down 80 per cent, and Jaipur, practically empty of tourists since 11 September, and empty again now that the Kashmir situation is becoming ever more tense, is full of shopkeepers, poor and desperately bored, increasingly selling off tat with all the social energy of a top garden-party.

Or was it maybe something deeper in the British psyche?

My guests weren't only buying tat, either. Ken and Sue of Windsor, for example, elegant and terrifically friendly, were India novices, but they took to obsessive shopping with more maharajerial aplomb, speeding through Rajasthan on a grand cultural tour of pashmina emporia. They represented their country for the obsessed multi-buyer, and while Sue would conceal numbers with a true British vagueness – "Quite a lot of bedspreads and a fair few shawls" – Ken would relish his multi-bargain: "Fifty sandalwood prayer beads at just five rupees each!"

What is it about the British in India and shopping? Did they need those things? Would they use them? What were Ken and Sue really acting out? Even my dry-witted brother-in-law, a detective inspector who should know better, on arrival inexplicably developed a girlie passion for Jaipur gems, resulting in the spontaneous purchase of a massive sapphire closely followed by three pints of a local homebrew to combat the shock. The ring lost a stone on its first outing, and my brother-in-law's next holiday will probably be in Yorkshire.

But none of my guests was as bad as Dr Roger. A geologist, he arrived in Jaipur after leading a rock-collecting group into the interior of Madaya Pradesh in the sober search for dinosaur-egg fossils, only to go straight to the second floor of Sodhi's Emporium ("Textiles and Home Furnishing!"), and carry off a fine impersonation of baby Roo on speed in Harvey Nicks.

His quest for the perfect Paisley pattern took us all by surprise, amassing as he did more than 100m of traditional Jaipuri block-print cloth (60p a metre), as well as a marble Shivaling and 60 Ganesha bathroom tiles. This from a man who, I'm guessing, at home probably buys his underpants every leap year. Were we, I wondered every evening as Rog calculated his savings on the verandah, all desperately unhappy in India? Was this our way of coping with Indian poverty? Of assuaging a repressed colonial guilt through the purchase of gilded parcels?

Even I got into the retail groove, after Al pointed out to me the potential of my six-month-old boy in this baby-adoring nation. Like an in-store gold card, we took to casually carting my chubby white bundle around the malls of Jaipur, absorbing discounts along with maternal praise. I came a cropper, though, when I turned truly native and tried to work on commission, nonchalantly dropping my guests off for shop-stops, indulging in that unspoken rule, waiting for a chance to nod at a wall-hanging or loiter by a single silk cushion- cover. "I can't believe," said Roger, who caught me out, "you're on commission. It's not at all British." But Rog, neither is throwing a strop because nice Mr Agrawal at Sagar won't give you another 500 rupees off the pink sequined wall-hanging.

And now, all our retail karma is due. Now, we are back in England and under the sober light of the grey English high-street. Worse, in the garage at the bottom of my garden are 14 plywood crates, partly unpacked. They've taken two months to arrive from Bombay to Berkshire, and the treasures within have been a disaster.

I blame it on Roger. It was he who found the old curiosity arts-and-crafts shop on Amber Road with the slinky, smiling Rajeev, India's own Mr Benn, who popped up from nowhere and warmly invited us to visit his exclusive warehouse on the outskirts of Jaipur. We should have been warned by his business card, which gave as the address of the "Raja Arts" shop the following: "Behind 1st petrol Pump".

Blue glass lamps glistened in front of us. Tiger-painted toy chests, 6ft carved wooden Buddhas and ornate peacock throne-chairs. Like a pair of panicky bulemics faced with the fact that we might never come back to the sweetie shop again, we bought 14 crates of candy.

Back in England, the van man who delivered them looked doubtful. "What did these chairs look like, then, when you bought them?" He had to ask, as the crates were so badly packed that all their contents had arrived in pieces, Roger's Paisley cloth torn, the carved peacock chairs in splinters. Tiles smashed, exotic holiday memories evaporating fast.

I've kept the crates, stamped as they are with their ambitious address, "Miss Sophie, England", and we plan a reunion this autumn, probably around a bonfire, probably burning what remains of our excessive Jaipur loot. And though we are no long Raj, of course, maybe it's the vacancy we feel as bog-standard tourists in a land that we used to govern that makes the rupee our post-imperial weapon of choice. Bless us all, like rejected parents we are trying to buy back their affections, even their respect with our energetic acquisition of Indian tat.

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