This may sound petty to you — certainly it’s reading a little petty to me as I’m writing it — but being now of the age where folding oneself onto the floor for longer than an hour or two leads to creaky hips and aching backs (blame our sedentary lifestyles), I cannot, in all good conscience force my guests to discomfort. Once, we had about 10 people over and like a good hostess, I stayed standing while everyone got dining chairs and by the end of the night, my knees ached with the effort of holding me up for so long. And I do yoga regularly.
After many weeks scouring online websites and finding nothing exactly perfect — eg: great shape, but too-delicate fabric, which wouldn't last a week around our cats; nice colour, but a bit boxy looking; prohibitively expensive for all its style — we decided to go the Indian way and have the sofa commissioned and made from scratch. A craftsman came recommended from a friend, we bought the yards of plain black (apparently cat-proof) fabric, handed it over to him with an advance and picked a design from his coffee table book catalogue. It was a deceptively simple looking sofa, sleek and stylish with rounded arms and comfortable enough for two people to lie, feet facing each other at the end of a long day. We imagined narratives around it, eventually we will acquire a projector and this will be the sofa on which we watch movies. I imagined my stylish friends, in pretty shift dresses standing out against the black fabric. I imagined the winter to come, how the sun would hit it in just the right spot, me and a cat curled up for an afternoon nap.
There are things in our new home I’ve never owned before: a dining table that seats six and now a three-seater sofa, all indicating our couple-d lives, a “we” instead of an “I.” I put furniture into terms I can understand — like a set for a stage or a blank page of a Word document. What scene are we setting? This is a house that will be full of people we love. This is a house that will see us entertaining effortlessly. This is a house where there is a comfortable nook in each room for two readers to be alone together.
Unfortunately, the sofa maker didn’t see it that way. Proud as we were of supporting local businesses and not going online (plus saving some money), it seems to be an uphill task. His first photos (sent weeks after the commission, despite my urging) were of a boxy black sofa. Comfortable? Maybe. But not our original design. We edited, I wailed down the phone, he sent back draft two: still not what we were waiting for.
Finally, we sent him a drawing marking out exactly what needed fixing. He claimed to understand, but also told me categorically that he wasn’t a photographer. “Just come and sit on it, madam,” he said on the phone, “You’ll see how comfortable it is.” Unfortunately, my Hindi does not extend to the point where I can convey that comfort is all very well, but it’s not the original sofa that we chose from his catalogue, one he promised us he could make with no problems at all.
And that’s why small businesses in India seldom do very well to an outside audience. For me, it’s par for the course, having grown up in this country, I’m used to not having exactly what I want when I have something made, but for my European partner, it’s sacrilege to pay someone for a service he considers unrendered. And probably, if this sofa ever gets made and we use it and then in five or 10 years time, we consider replacing it, it’ll be the online route for us, just because this was such a time-consuming project, all the calls and all the photos and all the driving we have to do to his far away workshop, just to explain to a professional that the sofa he made for us was not the sofa he promised. (It’s not like his labour was cheap either.)
And therein lies the problem: he sees it as “good enough,” we see it as “not what we wanted.” Will there always be this culture clash? And will online and factory shopping eventually give the customers what they want, so all these enterprising men will someday be history?