The narrow gold bands jingled gaily as my mother in law kneaded the atta for the evening’s roti. They glinted in the sunshine when she reached skywards to peg the washing and tinkled when she raised a hand to adjust the duputta covering her hair.
I heard them when we prayed hip-to-hip, shoulder-to-shoulder – collapsing onto one another with a soft golden sigh whenever her arms rested on the floor as though prostrating with us.
Like the colourful shalwar qameez worn by the women of the families I came to know, churian (Urdu for bangles, pronounced with a nasal ‘n’) came in many styles and varieties: some thick and solid, others a filigree of golden threads, bejeweled or intricately engraved, worn singly or in groups of four, six, eight or ten. Some women split them evenly between both wrists, others loaded up a single arm – there was no set way of wearing, but all were alike in their possession of them.
Highly symbolic, they are the sign of a married woman. Not only do they enhance her beauty and femininity, but they are confirmation she is loved, valued, part of a whole. Sometime, somewhere a father, family or husband treasured her enough to bestow a golden insurance policy on her; if ever fate rendered her alone, unprotected, unsupported those bands could buy her time, food, shelter. If a man was prepared to take that last rung from a woman’s ladder of dignity it spoke more about his character deficits than any faults of hers.
Mummyji’s churian fit snugly around her warm, smooth arm and I thought they must have been in place since she was very young, but she showed me how she could inch them over her knuckles, fingers stretched straight, tips peaked together. The bangles were solid gold and the softness of that precious metal meant they were pliable and ‘gave’ a little.
As a ‘bahu’, or new bride, I yearned for churian of my own, but our union lacked the blessing of my father in law and his wizened, toothless sire. In their eyes, their eldest son’s marriage to a white girl was a stamp of public shame, a personal failure, a blow to their family izzat (honour) and a lost opportunity to engineer a union financially beneficial to them personally. We learnt to rub along with a self-conscious stiffness, uncomfortable in shared space, like afflicted bodies in a doctor’s waiting room.
K bought me two beautiful hinged kara’s with tiny gold screws that locked them around my wrists, but they couldn’t carry the same significance. I know that sounds ungrateful but I wasn’t; naive to perceive my worth in material things, yes, but they healed the stinging memory of my mother’s advice to a previous boyfriend: ‘Don’t waste your money on her.’
Twenty-two-carat gold, breathtakingly beautiful with intricate filigreed designs, they seemed too showy for everyday wear. I worried they might become misshapen and their delicate mechanism compromised by the labours of housework and childrearing.
I still coveted the simplicity of slim gold bands I could wear and forget as easily as a hairstyle or a smile. And deep down, in my heart of hearts, churian had taken on the significance of acceptance into a family. The painful ejection from my own left a gaping abyss I wouldn’t come to acknowledge until history had repeated the lesson.
In 2006 I was three years married. It was the year I laid my vulnerability at the feet of the world and entered motherhood, and that icy December I moved into my in-laws Edinburgh home to care for the scornful, bedridden grandfather and my husband’s youngest brother and two sisters – one scatty, one schizophrenic – while his parents married their second son to ‘a good Pakistani girl’ back home and got the daughter-in-law they deserved.
K stayed for a few days but had to return to work in England. Phone and photo were my strength for the next few weeks, and I couldn’t have foreseen the might required to maintain peace in my little empire.
Babaji repeatedly left the hot tap running in the only bathroom, filling the flat with clammy moisture and our minds with questions about the authenticity of his selective senility. Waiting until it was occupied, he’d shuffle arthritically down the hall from his bedroom to bang impatiently on the door. In the early evening, he’d leave his bed to perch stiffly in the sitting room, rheumy eyes surveying each of us, one by one, with a cold resentful stare.
His gimlet gaze on his eight-month-old great-granddaughter chilled my heart and brought to mind snippets K had told me about nuzar/nigah (the ‘evil eye’) and the ‘Black Qur’an’, a would-be sorcerer’s cookbook of evil spells and curses. I forced myself to see him as nothing more than a harmless old goat-herd and gave thanks I couldn’t understand a word he said.
His sport was to start arguments; set like bear-traps and triggered by terse, garbled Punjabi tongue lashes I hadn’t a hope of deciphering but the hot-headed youngsters took the bait every time. Revelling in an absence of parental restraint they let fly, venting dammed resentment with a furious energy, later relaying their version during the nightly phone calls from Pakistan.
I cooked and cleaned and refereed, making soft roti’s and soupy dhal for the toothless troublemaker and taking them to him in his bed, and ensuring the younger two completed homework and honoured commitments. I reminded K’s sister to take her medication and weaned my baby.
After a month of discord and drudgery and the slow excavation of characters from the rigid sarcophagi of family roles, my solitary watch ended when Mummyji returned to reclaim leadership of her blood and bone. I now had a deeper understanding of my new family and, as we sat together on the floor, enveloped in the unfamiliar scent of the dust of the motherland that clung to clothes and cases like the vestiges of a fast-fading dream, I was gifted again.
While her daughters rifled through beaded pashminas and boxed glass bangles, Mummyji handed me my own set of slim gold churian, eyes searching my face. I wasn’t the least bothered that I was the second choice for their receipt, that the set was incomplete because her eldest daughter had broken one and thrown them all in the bin in a schizophrenic fury. I had earned my place.
But Life is an alchemist and can change the substance of things so that what was once cherished becomes repugnant. Like rotting fruit it spreads a stain, its sweetness now cloying and sickly.
When K left to start his new job in Canada and the filial façade crumbled within hours of his departure, those hard-won symbols of my position and value became agents of hypocrisy and ridicule. When my mother in law stood over me, oblivious to her eight-week old grandchild I was soothing to sleep, and angrily shouted that I wasn’t a Pakistani girl, I realized they could no longer be mine.
Before I left to follow my husband I returned the tokens of my bhabhi (daughter-in-law) privilege: the gold wedding set passed from mother to daughter – tikka, ornate necklace, ring, earrings – the matching necklace and earrings given as a birthday present, and hardest of all, my churian whose gentle song had whispered in the ears of all three of my children signaling the reassuring nearness of their mother. They were for a daughter I could never be, no matter what I did, but the lesson they imparted told me I was enough as I was, and always had been. You can’t put a carat value on that.