The Scarves from Candolim
by Ewa Mazierska
From my holiday in Candolim in India I brought home fifteen scarves. They were sold to me by Lisa, a beach vendor, working on a strip of beach belonging to our hotel. Her other job was to help a guy running a fast food shack, which doubled up as the deckchairs’ rental. In exchange for working for him, she was allowed to trade on his patch and receive a ‘free’ lunch, typically what was not sold that day. Every day Lisa started her job at 8.30 a.m. and finished at 6.30-7.00 p.m.
Some time ago I discovered that holidaymakers have three approaches to beach vendors. The first type regard them as pests, which one has to endure on holidays, like mosquitoes or sand in one’s bed. These people ask the vendors to go away and in extreme cases complain to the authorities about being harassed by them. The second type enjoys their presence and keeps buying stuff from them, seeing it as a bargain or a distraction from long unadventurous hours spent on the deckchairs. The third type regards buying their fare as a form of charity. These types are not exclusive and during the course of two weeks a holidaymaker can make the journey from one type to another and back. For example, too many vendors coming to one’s deckchair offering a foot massage or an ankle chain would eventually annoy the most charitable or bargain-oriented holidaymaker. And conversely, spotting something interesting in the hand of a vendor or on the deckchair of a neighbor might change the most aloof holidaymaker into a magpie, suddenly browsing through the pile of scarves, jewelry or colorful bags with sparkling eyes.
On this holiday the first type overshadowed the two remaining ones. It consisted mostly of Russians, who never bought anything on the beach and rarely rented the deckchairs, on the account of being stingy beyond repair. At least, this is what the locals said about them. Some British people were also in this category, although, unlike the Russians, they were typically very polite. Then there were Indians. They also didn’t buy anything, as they knew the true value of the stuff peddled to tourists, yet they were better than the Russians as occasionally they paid for massages or pedicures.
A plump middle-aged couple from Halifax fitted best the second category. They were adamant not to leave the beach between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., because their hotel was too far away to walk to and from more than once a day. They also admitted that wherever they went, they did not venture outside the resort – the sun and the sea was everything they desired and were prepared to pay for. These beach lovers, inevitably, took all their meals, typically fish and chips and macaroni and cheese, in the shack, and made all their shopping on the beach. By the time their holiday was coming to the end, the husband had six pairs of shorts and two shirts, and the wife eight dresses and three scarves. Each also got about ten massages. From the perspective of the beach vendors, they were the perfect customers, because everything they bought on the beach seemed like a bargain for them, as they compared it only with the British prices. They were also a decent folk, as on top of giving the beach vendors much needed custom, they left them all their remaining cosmetics and everything which they didn’t need in their luggage, also feeding a stray dog who throughout their stay slept under their deckchair.
The third category was represented by a woman from London called Ann, who’d been coming to Candolim with her husband every year for the last four years, always staying in the same hotel. She was in her early fifties, but had a slim and athletic body, the most beautiful swimming costume on the beach and make-up which didn’t melt in the sun. None of this, however, impressed her husband who was always sleeping with his back turned to her. After being in Cadolim four times already, Ann didn’t need more stuff from there and she looked too posh to wear cheap scarves from the beach. Yet, she kept buying them and tipping Lisa 200 or 300 Rupees per day for small favours, such as bringing drinks from the shack.
I came somewhere between these two types. I kept buying Lisa’s scarves because I liked them, but also because I wanted her to earn something every day. The price we agreed on the first day was 500 Rupees. It was significantly below 750 which she asked for at the beginning, but above 300-400 Rupees, which was her average price. In the end she revealed to me that she bought them for 100 Rupees or less per item. Her profit was thus very high, yet her earnings were small. One problem was that Lisa did not sell many of them. This was because on any given day there were at maximum forty people on her patch of the beach, of whom twenty or more were Indians and Russians. Half of the remaining people didn’t want to buy anything either, and half of the rest had already bought scarves from Lisa and therefore had to be pressed hard to buy something else from her. This meant that on an average day there were at maximum five potential customers, whom she had a realistic chance to woo to her fare. Sometimes she succeeded with three or four customers, selling them as many as ten scarves – that was a very good day. But there were also days when she only sold one scarf or nothing. Her profit was reduced also because she had to pay two types of ‘taxes’ – to the police, who cruised the beach in their jeep, threatening the beach vendors with confiscating their merchandise, and the tax collector, who kept them for himself. On average, one third of Lisa’s profit went on bribes or tributes, and at the peak of the tourist season, in January and February, there were weeks when she had to pay these men as much as half of her earnings.
It was not just the pretty scarves which drew my attention to Lisa. Another reason was her appearance and manners – she came across as very different to those haggard Indian women who were pacing the beach with a solemn expression, as if posing for a photographer from National Geographic or Oxfam. Lisa was much shorter, younger and more energetic than them and she wore a baseball cap, which gave her a boyish and mischievous look, although for her it was just protection against the sun. Her jewelry was very modest, as for Indian standards: gold earrings, one gold necklace and one gold stud in her nose. There was a certain elegant simplicity to her saris. Almost every day she wore one in a different color – peach, dark red, sea green, blue, purple, yellow, with matching trousers. Lisa’s face didn’t look completely Indian to me, but maybe it was because I studied it more carefully than any other face I saw in India. Her skin was of two colors: a dark shade covered her nose and higher parts of her checks; a paler shade the rest of her face, which gave an impression that the foreground and background changed their places. Later she showed me her pictures taken during the Monsoon season, when her skin was almost pale. Her nose was also adorned with freckles, which added to her mischievous appearance. When she took off her cap, one could see black hair tied up into a neat bun. Unlike the other vendors, Lisa spoke good English, and one which was easier to understand than those of the educated Indians, because she learned it mostly on the beach, talking to her customers. She wasn’t humble when dealing with them and, after a transaction, would shake their hand, something which normally only the male sellers and those who had their own shops did. Her handshake was firm, almost masculine.
We started talking properly when Lisa asked me where I was from. I knew it was only a professional question, whose purpose was to assess my willingness to buy her merchandise and my spending power, but I felt obliged to reciprocate by asking her the same question. She replied that she was from a village in the state of Maharashtra, not far from Mumbai. Some hours after I bought three scarves from her, she returned to occupy the deckchair freed by my son, saying: “Don’t worry, I will not sell you more, just wanted to lie down here for a while, as my back is hurting.” She fell asleep immediately and the bundle of scarves fell on the sand. I collected them and tried to fold them on my deckchair, putting my bag on them so that the wind would not blow them away. If that didn’t happen, she probably would have remained another anonymous passenger in my life.
The next day we continued talking and doing business. Every scarf meant buying a piece of the story of Lisa’s life. She shared it gladly because most of the day there wasn’t much to do – boredom was her worst job hazard; to the heat she was accustomed. Sometimes I couldn’t fully understand what she said; sometimes it was obvious that she exaggerated for stronger effect, but I didn’t mind, knowing that lies are often more truthful than facts. On occasion Lisa gave me two versions of the same story; the second being a marker of intimacy.
During our first conversation I learned that Lisa was almost twenty-eight and she was the oldest of five siblings. She had two sisters and two brothers. Her father died of stroke; her mother, who was fifty, lived with Lisa. Although she was the oldest of the girls from her family, she was the only one who wasn’t married. Each of her sisters had already two sons. During the holiday season in Goa, which lasted nine months, she lived with her two brothers and her mother in a village a fifteen minute bus ride away from Candolim. They rented a room with a small kitchen. Her brothers were also working in Candolim, each helping in a shop, earning meagre wages; six and seven thousand Rupees respectively per month. Lisa was the main breadwinner in her family; she earned more per day by selling one scarf than any of her brothers. She was also the trailblazer; she was the first from her family to go to Goa, coming ten years previously. She was followed by her older brother, who came to Candolim five years after her and her younger brother, who came for the first time two years previously, bringing their mother with him. Neither of them spoke English, therefore they couldn’t sell anything to tourists and Lisa’s mother wasn’t able to find any paid employment, even sweeping the roads or collecting plastic; there was too much competition in Candolim even for the worst of jobs. Moreover, she wasn’t really fit to work; her hip was bad, so she couldn’t walk or stand for long.
It took Lisa over a week to confess that in fact she was also already married. It happened when she was sixteen. Her husband was thirty-five and he was already married twice, and mistreated his previous spouses. Asked why she married him, she responded that she had no choice. Her mother wanted to marry her as early as possible and with such a “weak background”, as she kept repeating, she had no chance of getting a better husband, because better husbands demand big dowries and her family couldn’t afford it. Lisa knew that her husband was no good, so she ran away from him. For that, she was beaten by her mother so badly that she couldn’t get up from bed for days. Was it difficult to forgive her mother for such a brutality? “No,” she replied. Her mother wasn’t guilty. It was tradition and politics which were guilty. The government could ensure that the poor families didn’t have to pay dowries and make certain things free for the poor. Instead, the poor had to pay disproportionately more for everything.
Luckily, Lisa’s marriage was only a village marriage, without registration, so officially she was not married. But in her village she had no future. Even with the husband she had no prospects, because there was little work there – the only work available was on the fields, and it was poorly paid – 50 Rupees per day to children, 100 Rupees to the adults. It had improved since then and presently the adults were paid up to 150 Rupees per day, but this was not money one could live on – it was barely enough to buy food. But one had to work on the fields and send children to work, because without work there was no food and the poor were dying of hunger. Therefore Lisa headed to Goa: the land of opportunities, the West of the East. Once there, first she babysat for a wealthy family, being paid by free food and lodging. It was there that for the first time in her life she got enough food. The result was that she gained ten kilos in one year and became fat. “Poor people are not used to handling food or money,” she said. ‘They don’t know how to save it; they gobble everything on the spot.” Later she explained that this might also be the reason Indians eat everything with their hands; the use of a spoon or fork prolongs the distance to quenching one’s appetite and frustrates them. From babysitting Lisa moved to a tourist shop. There she picked up the first English words. I asked her what they were and she said, “Thank you, please come again.” From the shop, she moved to the beach, which was seven years ago. There she adopted her English name – “my stage name”, as she put it half-jokingly; her real name was Rishna.
In step with learning about Lisa’s life, my taste in her scarves was changing. During the first days of our acquaintance I was buying some “traditional” scarves, usually with pictures of elephants against a shiny background, assuming that I wouldn’t wear them myself, but they would be good as “traditional presents from” to all my female friends who also give me “traditional presents from” in the knowledge that they would most likely be discarded or put aside. But after four or five days of trading, I started to look more closely at her merchandise and when I had trouble finding something I liked, she promised to bring a scarf more to my taste the following day. Those I always liked, maybe because they had a specific address or because I never saw similar ones at the stalls of the street vendors. One, with large owls in yellow, pink, blue and red with a dark-blue background, reminded me of the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s”. Another one, with patches of color against a black background, according to Lisa, showed what one sees when one closes one’s eyes. “Your scarves are about dreams,” she said, perhaps to flatter me. “And they cannot be Indian or Polish English. They have to be,” – she lacked words, so I added
Truth be told, Lisa had more to offer to her customers than scarves. She also had small bags and pieces of jewelry. They, however, didn’t sell well, so she mostly kept them buried under the pile of old mattresses near the beach shack and rarely showed to the customers. She also offered tourists small cosmetic jobs, such as massages, pedicures and henna tattoos. But, apart from the first day, she didn’t offer theses services to me. There was a tacit agreement between us that she wouldn’t increase my white guilt and I wouldn’t diminish her postcolonial suffering, and most of the time we observed this rule.
Lisa often said that her life had no future, because in India one is condemned to misery without a husband, or capital, or education. The beach was her trap and her doom. On one side, she was entrapped by the sea; on the other side, by the hotel. She could not venture into its territory, because there was always a uniformed man guarding it and people there would see her more as a pest than those on the beach. Nature and culture were equally powerful in keeping her in her place.
“hat about your mobile phone? Doesn’t it take you to different worlds?” I asked.
“What worlds? There are no worlds in mobile phones,” she said, somewhat angry. as if I tried to undermine her suffering, so I left it there.
However, one day she herself returned to this topic, telling me that in fact there is a slight chance to improve her lot. The obvious way was by earning more money. This could be achieved either by moving to a better profession or by finding a more attractive merchandise. If she was able to save twice as much as now, in two or three years she would be able to buy a little plot of land to build her own house. It would be a miniature house, with one room or two, but her own. She could have a place to put her clothes, have her own crockery and cutlery, decorate it in her own style. Things might be better if she was able to read and write fluently in English. In this way maybe she would be able to sell things online or at least respond to adverts. Presently, she could write and read, but very little. I suggested that we use the remaining time for reading together and we did so over two days, but after that Lisa asked me to stop teaching her. This was because she had more work in the shack as one of the helpers left and the other got ill and her boss didn’t look kindly on her extra activities.
As the holiday season was approaching its end, there were fewer and fewer people on the beach and Lisa’s business got worse, while the police jeep kept appearing more often. This affected Lisa’s mood. “You see, my life is hopeless,” she kept saying. “How can I do business, if everything conspires against me?” I decided to help her by tapping into the last available resource which came to my mind, namely people occupying the hotel’s pool area. In terms of fitness and mobility, these poolside holidaymakers are much worse that the beach ones, as upon reaching their loungers and getting their fill of mojitos and pina coladas, they get a demented look, which might put off the toughest of merchants. Still, I decided to try by approaching two groups of females, one British, one American, showing them the best of my scarves. I pointed out to the first group that buying scarves from Lisa means getting two goods for the price of one: buying cheaply beautiful local creations, produced by blind women (this was most likely a lie, but I noticed that several shops in Candolim promoted themselves in this way) and atoning for the colonial sins of their ancestors. For a stronger effect, I also reminded them of the recent scandals in the British charity sectors, which showed that it was better to help people directly on the ground than to pay the NGOs “middle men”. The other group I targeted by drawing their attention to the fact that women are squeezed from the best jobs in the tourist sector in Cadolim, with all jewelry and tailor shops run by men, with women reduced to selling cheap souvenirs. They thanked me for opening their eyes to the extent of patriarchy in India, a position with which they sympathized, knowing it well from American university campuses. I didn’t see these women again, either at the beach or the pool, so I couldn’t check if they bought anything from Lisa, but she claimed that some new women came from our hotel and bought several scarves from her. One of them also paid her for a henna tattoo, which was bringing Lisa more money than selling scarves at this point of the season.
Eventually came the last day of my holiday. I had my last swim in the sea, bought my last scarf from Lisa and had the last conversation with her. She asked me if I would come to Candolim next year and I said that possibly, although it was unlikely I would return, as we couldn’t afford such holidays more than once in two or three years and every time we traveled, we wanted to show more of the world to our children.
About the author:
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. Several of them were published or accepted for publication in literary magazines: The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool and Literally Stories. Some are reflection of her travels.