INDIA: Shopping for Silk in Mumbai

This article originally appeared on October 14, 2006 in The Globe and Mail. Click here to see the original version


Indian Silks

MUMBAI — If there’s anything coherent about Mumbai, where poor shacks stand next to luxury high-rises and property values are higher than in Tokyo, it’s the constant buying and selling that pulses through this chaotic metropolis of 15 million souls. The city formerly known as Bombay is the marketplace of India — its jewelry, textiles, handicrafts, furniture and leather goods come from all over India and around the world.

What better way to experience the place, then, than to shop?

Besides, I had a mission: “Fabric wanted,” said the e-mail from my sister in New York. She needed silk for curtains, and her colour sense was both exacting and daring. “I want diaphanous iridescent orange or blue with yellow or orange tinges,” she wrote. “Should be high quality. For $50 or so you should be able to get almost 10 yards, which, if you mail it, won’t be a hassle.” In addition, she wanted a scarf: “a beautiful, long, floaty scarf with gold or silver threads — main colour should be in orange or green.”

Luckily for her, I was in the centre of the Indian silk universe. How hard could it be?

I avoided Mumbai’s sprawling suburbs, which include both Bollywood studios and wretched slums, as well as a multitude of malls. The real Bombay, as far as I was concerned, is the oldest part of this island city, the southern part, the business and media, academic, cultural and government centre. This is where the British built their still-towering public buildings. Take the neo-Gothic railway station, still called the Victoria Terminus, but officially renamed Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji (or CST). Here, you have it all: the politically correct name change, the continuing use of the old, and the propensity for acronyms. Completed in 1887, it is adorned with turrets and buttresses, domes and spires, and carvings of gargoyles and monkeys. The post office and the town hall are also fine symbols of 19th-century colonial grandiosity.

I headed to the Colaba Causeway, where vendors line the streets and bargaining is the name of the game. From Indian blouses, known as kurtas, to costume jewelry, belts and sunglasses, this is the place to get good stuff for cheap prices. For a few dollars, I bought a black-beaded evening bag and blouse for a friend. But no silk.

Indians Silk at Fabindia in Mumbai
Indians Silk at Fabindia in Mumbai

A short walk from the chic Ambassador Hotel, where I was staying, is the Oberoi Centre, a cluster of boutiques adjacent to the Oberoi Hotel. The shiny granite and hushed air-conditioned halls are the antithesis of the noisy Colaba scene.

Who could have guessed that bargaining is also the norm here? I found this out as I was leaving the Farheen Collection store, and was asked by the salesman what I’d really like to pay for the fringed brown and beige silk-and-cashmere shawl I had tried on. I bought it for half the original price, then went to the nearby boutique of noted Indian designer Ritu Kumar. There were jewelled T-shirts, embroidered skirts — a very local take on fashion.

But nowhere could I find the right silk. “What you want is just not here,” I e-mailed my sister. Still, I had to keep searching.

The government-run Central Cottage Industries Emporium was supposed to be a good bet. It’s a dimly lit place with rugs and carved wood, jewelry and brass — and fabrics. There is no bargaining, and it’s relatively expensive. But I was getting anxious. I bought my sister a scarf of buttery silk that I suspected was not quite right. It came with a lesson in public-sector bureaucracy. How many people does it take to sell you a scarf? Probably about four. One to help you choose it, one to write it up, one to take your cash, one to stamp the receipt and hand it over to you.

By this time, I needed a shot of culture. Mumbai has lots of bookstores and even more outdoor vendors, especially around the Flora Fountain. The most venerable store, the Strand Book Stall (“Where the reader comes first”), is more than 50 years old and is still run by its founder, T.N. Shanbhag. The cramped two floors were surprisingly well organized, with the books arranged by publisher. What impressed me most, though, were the prices — about half of what I’d pay at home.

My next stop was the Fabindia fabric store, middle-class and ecologically correct, with detailed sign boards explaining that Fabindia cotton is organic, while most cotton is grown with nasty pesticides. It was all very educational, and it was fun watching mothers and daughters examine the fine cottons and elegant silk saris and scarves. But for my quest, nothing was right.

My sister e-mailed me back — if it was going too be much trouble, I should forget about it. She followed this up by adding that lime green and saffron are some of her favourite colours, and $10 a yard is nothing compared with New York prices.

I was able to take her hints, thanks to a second-storey store, D. Popli & Sons, in the Readymoney building behind the Regal Cinema. Its cellophane-wrapped merchandise was behind the counter, and its many customers were serious about buying. First the silk — I bought five metres of orange and five of green for about $7 a yard. Then a patterned silk scarf for one friend, and a gossamer scarf with glitter for another.

Mailing it was like entering the 19th century. Across from the main post office, seated on a chair beneath a tree, a man wrapped my parcel in muslin, sewed it with string, put a wax seal on it and handed me a magic marker to address it. At the Dickensian post office, my parcel was weighed and I was charged about $12. After handing over those two kilos, I felt free. Free to shop without pressure or purchase.

Pack your bags

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