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Eiffel view of India: A tale of two cultures

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS | A street in Paharganj, New Delhi.
A street in Paharganj, New Delhi.

You can look, but never see.

The smiling Marie Eiffel who greets customers at Reddings and her clothing store and home decor shop on Shelter Island learned that piece of wisdom five years ago soon after arriving in New Delhi, India.

She had gone to the subcontinent to help a friend who was manufacturing clothing and jewelry, some of which Ms. Eiffel thought could be marketed in the United States. When she arrived, her friend was gone due to a medical emergency and Ms. Eiffel was at a loss about what to do, feeling like a waif on her own in a strange land. She returned to her hotel in Paharganj, one of the city’s poorest areas, and sat in the lobby, a lump in her throat, tears welling in her eyes.

“But I couldn’t cry — I was so tense,” she said recently over lunch at Reddings.

The hotel owner, a man named China, approached her to see what the matter was and she told him her plight. China offered some wisdom, advising her to take a walk around and come back and tell him what she saw. She did this for a couple of days, returning each time to say she had seen nothing.

But the hotel owner was persistent, asking her to go back, One day she returned, her head finally clear of worries over her own situation. She had seen the poor residents of Paharganj managing to find their way, surviving against long odds.

That was when she determined not to leave, but to stay and find a way to learn about a manufacturing process that was entirely new to her.

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Owner Marie Eiffel at Redding’s fielded calls last week during an interview about her annual travel to India for two months each year, from which she brings back merchandise, but also peace of mind.
Owner Marie Eiffel at Redding’s fielded calls last week during an interview about her annual travel to India for two months each year, from which she brings back merchandise, but also peace of mind.

At the outset, she lost money, but her persistence has since paid off. Now her annual sojourn to India has become as much a spiritual respite as a business trip.

She described the neighborhood that took her time to understand as “not a slum, but really poor.” She got used to people grabbing at her to come into their shops and accustomed to the wretched poverty she observed on the streets.

To Americans who avoid India, concerned that it’s “dirty,” she has two pieces of advice: Yes, parts of the country are dirty, but “it’s a marvelous country to visit.” As for the second piece of advice: “Carry toilet paper with you.”

Although she can afford to stay in a more affluent part of New Delhi, she still returns to the same hotel in Paharganj and has become close to China and his family, who recently invited her to a family wedding.

“It was like home,” she said.

Ms. Eiffel is grateful to China, helping her to come to know the Indian people as spiritual and generous.

They are also a people who live without envy of one another, she said.

“The generosity of the Indians is quite amazing,” Ms. Eiffel said. “They don’t say ‘no’ ever.”

That can be disturbing at times, she admitted, because they would “rather tell you a lie than upset you or disagree with you.” That can sometimes result in a business deal gone bad. “That’s the hard part to learn,” she said. “You can get very upset.”

Ms. Eiffel won’t shut her eyes to the level of corruption, bribery and even slavery she sees in India, but is quick to caution that such horrors also take place in the United States, as near as New York City.

Still, India needs to escape the abuse of its caste system, and she believes it will take a long time, perhaps generations, to move more people out of crushing poverty.

The country has finally moved toward free education for its youth, she said, but too many of them don’t know about the educational opportunities available to lift themselves into a better life.

Through the years, Ms. Eiffel has developed relationships with four manufacturers, but acknowledges that not everything they produce is merchandise she can sell in her own shops or wholesale to other store owners in the U.S.

The sense of taste between Indians and Americans is different, Ms. Eiffel said, with Indians drawn to yellow, ochre, oranges and bright greens together and the material is very fine. But she knows much of it wouldn’t be purchased by Americans.

Still, she’s able to identify some clothing and jewelry that sells well here and has developed a network of 40 stores in the United States that count on her to select Indian-made clothing and jewelry for their shops.

“I’m finally making a profit,” she said.

American money, of course, goes a long way in India.

“I feel like a billionaire over there,” Ms. Eiffel said. “I’m not, but I feel like one.”

When in India, she has a chauffeur who earns $20 a day and jokingly calls her “Your Highness.” She tips him well so he won’t complain about the times she asks him to work overtime because she’s working late.

She loves her two-country life, but can’t see herself leaving either for the other full time. In India, she feels less pressure, while here she’s operating several businesses. Thanks to the friends she has made in India, she’s learning to let go of pressures in her life.

“Every year, I let go of something,” she said. “It’s ingrained in me now” not to hold on to bothersome experiences as she once did.

Speaking of her travels between two cultures, Ms. Eiffel said, “We both have to learn from each other,”

And clear our heads now and then and see instead of just looking.