Babu Market, Two Days Before the Wedding

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When I hold out my hand to the bracelet seller at Babu Market, I expect him to touch my wrist, but he doesn’t. Instead, his hand cradles the widest part of my fist, the breadth between my pinky and thumb knuckles.

An instant before, Mrs. Sahrawat dropped the sari across his table of bangles, a bright folded square of gauzy pink netting with an elaborate appliqué of silver beads and sequins. He ponders this for a moment, nodding. That’s when she gestures for me to show him my hand.

I have this panic about doing things wrong, mostly because I am always doing things wrong, and my heart sinks when I realize that I have given him my left hand – the only one not laden with shopping bags. Alas, a taboo instantly trod upon, and I’ve been in India less than 24 hours. He doesn’t seem to mind, though, because he reaches for me without a blink, takes a moment to make his determination, drops my first, and gently pushes the sari aside.

He works quickly, selecting from one section of his table. The bangles are arranged in long rows by color, threaded onto dowels. He finds a pink that is nearly identical to the color of the sari, pulls up the dowel, and chooses a thick handful. From another section, he chooses some with white crystals, and from another, a stack that’s inset with pearly little beads. Then he arranges them, flipping them over using both hands and they move as fluidly as a slinky, first a pink one, then a white one, then a silver one, so they form a regular pattern. He puts them in a box that looks like it’s been fashioned, by hand, from some other box, from a whole other generation of boxes. Like it’s descended from a long line of boxes. It’s covered in paper that says “S. R. Bangle Store” and has an illustration of a bird holding a bracelet in its beak.

He moves on to Tanya, and when he touches her hand, he ponders for a little longer and says something, barely audible and in just a few words, to Mrs. Sahrawat.

“This is harder,” she says to us.

We assume, for a moment, that we’re going to move on to another bangle stall. There must be others in Babu Market, just like there were more shoes, more dress shops with spangled frocks folded into bags upon bags, more stalls for menswear and rhinestone-studded purses and bindis. Mrs. Sahrawat drives a hard bargain and her strongest chip is the most elegant one – refusal. If she can’t get the price she wants, she shrugs, turns down the corners of her mouth, and goes to another stall, leaving the merchants shouting at her back.

But then, the man hollers up to someone standing above him, on the roof, it seems, of the stall across the aisle. There is a room up there with a jagged tin roof and a riot of boxes and packages inside. An instant later, there is a shopping bag on a pulley sliding across the aisle, down to the bangle seller. He pulls out a new set of bangles in Tanya’s size and does his sorting trick, one bracelet at a time, settles them into a different kind of box – also recycled from another box.

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We try to pay, but Mrs. Sahrawat refuses our money in the same way she rejects the sellers who won’t budge on their prices – coolly, and without question that negotiations are over. We add the boxes to our bags, to our growing stash of wedding stuff, and continue on to a wall of glittering sandals. We have been in India less than 24 hours. The course of action for the rest of the day is set: Hold out your hand and give it a moment to size you up.

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