Impossible Hindi

August 9th, 2011

After four weeks in India–on my third trip here–I realize that I don’t have time in this lifetime to master Hindi. Which saddens me, but it’s a fact of life.

I’ll keep working on it, keep learning and improving. I’m not too bad at figuring out what’s being said through listening, but this may be because of the shared vocabulary, English words that have made their way to Hindi, or personal or place names that are the same in both languages. But it’s such a rich, dense language, and so tied with culture, that often I hear a conversation and I think, “I can tell they’re talking about whether the window should be open or not. I just can’t figure out how there’s that much to talk about.”

Consider the difference in bargaining. Not the difference in scope of bargaining–in America, we generally only haggle over the prices of major items like cars and houses. But the practice is so different. I generally think of it happening with a note pad or calculator. The seller proposes a price by writing the number on the paper, or entering it on the calculator, and passes it to the buyer. The buyer then writes down a counter-offer and passes it back. Aside from any practical terms that may influence the negotiation, the motivations are left as unsaid and self-evident. Obviously, the seller wants as high a price as possible, and the buyer wants a low price. There’s no need to explain why.

So when I hear haggling in Hindi, I hear a lot of words on top of this. And I have to presume the meaning is something like this.

SELLER: I will sell you this for 400 rupees.
BUYER: Allow me to explain the complicated and mostly irrelevant reasons that I will only pay 100 for it.
S: Look at the quality of this item, and know that my wholesale cost is much greater, and that I would be quite foolish to part with it for 100. You should pay 400.
B: Now let me tell you the name of six other markets where I am certain I could get it for 50. And explain to me why you charge more than those markets.
S: Certainly, I’d be happy to explain to you the complicated and mostly irrelevant reasons I want to sell it for 400. My family needs money so badly.
B: And my family needs to hold on to our money more badly. But we also need to buy this from you, which is why I will give you 100.

Then after they run out of steam,

S: So, 250 it is?
B: 250 it is.

I can’t compete with that. I’ll never speak Hindi well enough to haggle the hell out of it. But I guess I’ll keep trying.

4 Responses to “Impossible Hindi”

  1. NellaLou says:

    I find the drama involved can add to the understanding and the transaction. For example facial expression, body posture and hand gestures all work with the language to emphasize the point. When I’m given a price I look astonished raise my hands and say “Kya?” as in “What are you kidding me?” (the gestures convey the emotion) Then the price tends to come down rapidly. My neighbors, who own shops have taught me this (and a lot of other stuff that is quite useful).

    I am not good with the language but when one catches on to the performance aspect of it there seems to be fewer misunderstandings.

    I greatly enjoy your reports BTW.

  2. SueZ says:

    HaHa, have to totally agree – not knowing the language well enough is a big detriment in haggling successfully. For me, it’s also the acceptance that something can be SO cheap. “REALLY? This set of Ginza knives/pair of flood pants is ONLY US$5?!” is usually a clear indicator for the seller to ask a higher price.

  3. Piyush says:


  4. Piyush says:

    aaj subha maine floor par kuch kursio ko dekha jo apne stahan par sahi se nhi rakhi hui thi.

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