The Tailor of McLeod Ganj

I hadn’t expected to need the services of a tailor here in India. But in the event, mildly embarrassing circumstances decided otherwise – the zip of my flies broke. The trousers were a favourite pair, with lots of pockets (useful when travelling), including a secret one sewn inside the left thigh section, for carrying money when on planes, trains or buses. So I was loath to declare them henceforth unwearable. Enter the local tailor. Or rather, time to locate the fellow. So down I went to Mcleod Ganj, enquired where I could find one such person, and was directed up a street off Temple Road, with instructions to look for a second-floor shop on the right. Now, Mcleod Ganj is built on a mountainside, so not surprisingly, many of the streets are steep. Along these, buildings are not so much neatly aligned as practically stacked. I scanned the upper sections of the facades as I walked, but found nothing enlightening among the jumble of signs. Back at street level, I noticed I was standing almost in the doorway of a shop selling tea, omelettes, and instant noodles. The apron-clad owner was talking to a youngish Indian of medium height, as clean shaven as they come, with large and slightly bulging eyes. They were chatting enthusiastically, but did not seem deeply engrossed in any meaningful conversation. Now, this is a funny thing about India. If you want to ask someone for directions, and approach to within a respectful distance, or even considerably closer, the chances are you will be magnificently ignored. While to you it may feel obvious you are waiting for their attention, quite often you might just as well not exist. You could be the invisible man, or a hologram, for all they seem to care. In contrast, when you bluntly interrupt (pretty much your only option if you want to get anywhere), nobody is in the slightest bit put out, and you will quite likely receive a polite and informative response.

So having positioned myself practically between the two parties, all to no avail, I announced fairly loudly (begining with, “Excuse me,” nevertheless) that I was looking for the tailor, “on the second floor of one of these buildings.”

The pair stopped talking, as naturally as if they were just taking their next breath, and looked at me with mild interest.

“I am a tailor,” the slender, smooth one said.

The coincidence was fortunate to be sure.

“Well, I don’t have a very big request,” I began, just to make it clear I wasn’t here to start negotiations on a large order.

“In fact, it’s just a repair job.”

“Do you want tea?” asked the tailor in response.

“Er, why not,” I answered, grasping that tea was going to be a prerequisite for furthering the proceedings.

” Come, I will show you my shop,” he said, leading the way up a flight of stairs with a cup in each hand. The steps opened onto a corridor running past his shop – a square space, fronted by a simple counter, with a window at the back, hand-made suits and rolls of fabric on each side, and a sewing machine in the middle. An older man was sitting at the machine. He had heavy, sagging cheeks, and slightly sad eyes, and was absorbed in sewing a pair of bright blue school trousers. He did not react to my appearance in any way. The tailor poured a little tea from each cup into a third – my tea – and directed me to the window sill.

There I sat, with my tea, and promptly ceased to exist once more. The older man worked on, his machine humming away, and the tailor stood idly at his counter. Now and again they exchanged a word or two, but mostly they were silent. And I waited for my cue, or perhaps some indication I could begin to explain the service I required. In India, transactions involving goods or services begin when the timing is right. I’m not sure how this is determined, but tea, waiting, and frequently an exchange of pleasantries, are an essential part of the process. Perhaps it’s a question of etiquette. Or the effect of that mild lethargy that induces the slow pace of much of Indian life. Or maybe a conscious intention to drag things out, so as to occupy a greater portion of an otherwise possibly fairly empty day. Or even simply because, in the words of Parkinson, “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. But time slows down in India, and having to wait ten minutes, or even two hours, ends up leaving one strangely indifferent. I watched the older tailor stitch on – the trouser seams, the hems, the loops for the belt, and the button. I drained my tea cup, and watched the few drops left in the bottom slowly dry. I glanced out of the window, and saw that I was looking down from a fair height at Temple Road. I sat some more, and stifled a yawn. And then I decided perhaps I’d get my trousers mended.

“So,” I began tentatively, “as I said, I have a small repair job.”

“Yes, show me,” said the tailor, as though all along he had been expecting my statement at that exact moment.

I rose, taking my garment from my bag, and showed him the problem. He took the item and sat down on a tall stool. Then he reached into a drawer under the counter, from which he extracted a razor blade, and began to unstitch the offending zip.

“You want we do it now?” he asked.

“Er, well, why not,” I answered, meaninglessly, since his nimble fingers were already on the job – perhaps he meant I could either wait, or return the following day. Soon, he pulled the broken zip from the fabric, produced a new one, and placed it with my garment by the sewing machine. I returned to my window ledge.

The older man put aside his finished piece, and switched to my task. He worked quickly, and well. It took him only a few minutes to almost complete the job. And then, just as he was stitching across the base of the zip, the needle hit a metal part, and snapped cleanly in two. The man showed not the slightest emotion. Indians have an uncanny knack of instantaneously becoming one with a situation. Faced with a fait accompli, they take it on board at once – it is as it is, they skip the “oh dear,” part, and go straight to complete acceptance of the new state of affairs. And I have seen them do it with more serious mishaps than a broken needle (a truck skidding off the road and down a bank, losing it’s entire load of sand, and wedging itself behind a tree, so that the driver has to crawl out of the broken windscreen, for example). He reached for a small screwdriver, which he grabbed by the remains of its plastic handle. He tried to turn the screw holding the needle in place, but the tip of the screwdriver only bent like spaghetti. He banged the end flat again with the hilt of his heavy scissors, and optimistically tried again. With the same, predictable result. Then he simply sat back, and stared, expressionless, at the machine. As though the problem was no longer his concern. Or as though it would somehow solve itself, provided he didn’t interfere.
I reached for the pocket knife I always carry with me – it’s useful for peeling fruit or cucumbers, and serves as a keyring for my tiny door key. It is an imitation Swiss army knife, no doubt made in China, and cost me one hundred and eighty rupees at the Dharamkot grocery store. But the blades are stainless steel, and it has a flat-headed screwdriver. Which I duly produced, and handed to the sewing master. I managed to elicit a smile, and in an instant we were rolling again. Well, not quite an instant in fact, because he insisted on unfolding every single blade the knife has, and examining each one closely. But we got there in the end, and soon the new needle had done its job, and my once more functional trousers we returned to me, neatly folded.

I thanked the craftsman for his work, and turned to the one with the eyes.

“Great work,” I said, “thank you very much.” Now came the part when I’d have to ascertain the cost of the operation, but I knew it would be polite not to seem in a rush.

“So, er, how much can I give you?” I asked, reaching slowly for my wallet, as though I had all the time in the world.

The tailor wobbled his head, still perched on his high stool.

“How much you want, you give,” he responded casually.

I suspect this option is given to foreigners more than Indians, the idea being, perhaps, that not knowing the going rates, we are liable to pay more. Which is why this is not my preferred response. It is true, though, that many things do not have a fixed price, and are negotiable. The zip cost fifty rupees. The man had worked barely ten minutes, needle replacement time included.

“How about two hundred rupees for the zip and your work?” I asked. I was fairly sure the man’s sewing time would be amply rewarded by local standards with this offer. The tailor acquiesced, surprisingly docilely, and while pocketing the cash, wrote his email address on the back of his card. “Prince(name)Prince,” it began. I looked around the shop once more – a shoddy room in a rundown building – and at the tailor, in his crisp trousers and impeccable shirt, his appearance belying the humble premises. The business certainly wouldn’t be making a fortune from the likes of me. No doubt it was even a somewhat precarious livelihood. I thanked both men, and walked back down into the street, once more reminded of how lucky I am to enjoy the privilege of wealth. Yes, I thought to myself, why not be a prince in your own domain? Whatever one’s circumstances, why not feel princely within?

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