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          Home     India

    The Bangle Code

      By: Sultana Raza (author's page)  print this article        email this article  
      Date Posted: 2005-10-16   Comments: 1

    The white minaret of a neighbouring mosque pierced the lazy blue sky. Warmth caressed my skin. Unbelievably though, it did not come from a radiator, heater or sunlamp, but the sun itself. The cords of the string bed made their presence felt by imprinting themselves on my back. If proof were needed, there it was: I was finally back in India, where time had a tendency to flow at its own leisurely rhythm.

    Sounds and smells of the street came wafting up on a warm breeze and if I was still not convinced, then India had conjured up a pair of inquisitive black eyes to confirm the fact that this was indeed an Indian kotha - the flat top of the roof which most Indian homes are endowed with, in order to make the most of the cool breeze during summer evenings, and the sun during winter.

    I was lazing around, half-reading a book, avoiding the moment when I would have to put on my uniform. It would be accurate to say that no other uniform in the world was shinier than mine, for it was not brass, but real gold. Like all good, even mildly prosperous Indian housewives, I had to adorn myself with jewellery everyday.

    Most women slept with the armour on, so they didn't have to go through the daily ritual of putting it on and taking it off. I had lost the habit, due to time spent away from barracks. In any case, I had never been a good recruit because I used to quietly take off the metal, heavy or otherwise, every night, even as a new bride.

    My husband didn't mind, for he was not in charge of this particular army. I doubt he was even aware of its existence. Every household had its own general, usually the mother-in-law, with all the other elder females even vaguely connected to the family making up the senior ranks. They had their spies everywhere, from servants to other younger females, married or not, who were only too eager to report about the lack of glitter in one's attire.

    I surreptitiously eyed the unblinking, openly curious pair of black eyes. Was there a spy behind them? Even though she was just a corporal, you couldn't be too careful. The eager eyes were now focused on my cosmetic bag, patiently waiting for me to open it.

    What makes her think there is anything worth looking at in my cosmetic bag? The answer was so simple that I felt foolish for not seeing it before. She knew that I didn't dare go downstairs without putting on my uniform, so she was just waiting to see what I would put on, no doubt to pass the news on to other servants.

    'Don't you wear anything?' she asked, her voice soft, yet firm in its right to ask this universal question. Surprised I looked down at my perfectly respectable nightgown, which covered everything from the neck down.

    'I mean that your ears, throat, nose... even your wrists are naked...' giggling, she lowered her head. I shook myself. I was back in the land of naked ears, noses and throats and I must remember that. Would this be reported back to my mother-in-law, 'the general', Amma Jaan,?

    'What's your name?'

    'Ayesha', she responded shyly, as if afraid to pronounce her own name. Yet, this was not a shy girl... could be a dangerous spy here. Without delay, I opened my cosmetic bag. Immediately, her eyes lit up and she crept closer. She was craning to see what was inside, without losing too much of her dignity.

    'How old is your baby?'? I asked, hoping to distract her.

    'These are beautiful....' was her only reply.

    'These old things...?' I asked, but her eyes stayed glued to the assortment of ugly rings, earrings and pendants on chains that various relatives, only ever seen at my wedding, had given as a token of their affection. Ayesha did not find them ugly at all. Her eyes were still glued to them.

    'Six months.... eight months maybe?' I used the baby to distract Ayesha again.

    'Fourteen months,' was the grudging reply. She had sidled up even closer, annoying me with her curiosity.

    'Shouldn't you put your baby somewhere else?' I asked, pointing to the line of ants marching just a few feet away from the sleeping baby, laid casually on some folded rugs on the floor. Ayesha was too mesmerised by the glitter to care. She just shook her head vaguely.

    'Don't you have work to do?'

    'She is already doing it'.

    'She...?'

    'Bua... my mother-in-law.'

    'Oh, so you're the sergeant's... I mean Bua's new daughter-in-law? She was telling me about you last night...' The English word 'sergeant' had gone unnoticed by Ayesha. Bua had been in the family long before my marriage. She was in charge of the cooking, among other things.

    'Do you all live here?' I asked, puzzled. She pointed unenthusiastically to the rundown rooms on the far end of the kotha.

    'We all live there.'

    'We?'

    'Bua, him, me and my brother-in-law...'

    'But how do you manage to...' burst out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

    'I mean you have no privacy...'

    'Privacy?' Ayesha blushed and giggled. Once again I was reminded that I had left cold Luxembourg far behind. This was another world. 'Invasion of privacy' had little meaning here.

    Corporal Ayesha was fascinated by the old and faded jewellery that only emerged from its hiding place when I came to India. It was almost as if she were adorning herself with it in her mind. I had chosen only small pieces with which to display the armour required by the unwritten social code, enforced with military strictness. This code permeated all ranks and religions of Indian society.

    While Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other in riots, their women were united by the same stringent social codes. Bangles on wrists guaranteed a husband a long life, and therefore the highest crime was to display naked wrists.

    I looked down at my own bare wrists furtively. Perhaps the corporal hadn't noticed. But those piercing black eyes had missed nothing.

    "Of course she won't tattle on me! She thinks my lack of jewellery is just one of my many idiosyncrasies..." I jerked up in surprise at my own thoughts. Yet it was true. I had lived for too many years outside India to be taken seriously. I now belonged to a species that was known to do and say strange things.

    Suddenly I was filled with a strange kind of anger. Why was I considered alien, when my views had not changed that drastically from the time when I still lived in India, before my marriage. Yet here I was, an eccentric figure, who was not taken seriously anymore by anyone, even the domestics.

    What would they do if I went downstairs with bare ears, nose, and throat? I started taking off the jewellery I had so painstakingly put on. Ayesha looked even more interested if that were possible. She was expecting more jewellery to come out of my magical bag

    "Let's not disappoint Ayesha, the general, or the major, or the whole blasted army for that matter..." whispered a small resentful voice inside my head, as I opened my bag with a vengeance.
    * * *

    I came downstairs casually, wired up inside about their reaction. However, they were masters at hiding their expressions when it suited them. Yet I could not detect the sign of any mask here. Had I really become a foreigner in my own country, or were my social skills getting rusty.

    'If you go shopping after lunch, you can pick up my shawl from the dry-cleaners...' Amma Jaan, the general, was going on about the usual stuff.

    Major Ameena was too busy with her baby and had barely glanced in my direction. No screams of surprise or laughter.

    '...and don't forget your Aunt Zahera has invited you to dinner....' went on the general, briefing me for the day.

    "She is not my aunt, she is my husband's aunt..." the tiny voice whispered inside my head. Furthermore, Aunt Zahera was the Commander-in-Chief of the family, feared by everyone and respected by the general. A dinner in the headquarters meant lots of stiff smiles, polite inanities and aching back muscles. One had to be careful about what one did or said at all times. The clothes had better be new and at least one part of the brass, sorry gold, had to be something she had never seen before. There was a kind of rivalry between the Commander-in-Chief and the general when it came to battalions under their command, especially daughter-in-laws. Yet here I was, deliberately going against regulations.

    For once, I listened attentively to the general. There was no trace of any surprise, shock or sarcasm on her face. I was deeply disappointed. My one-woman mutiny had been in vain. It had not provoked any reaction and created no disturbance in the ranks.

    'Er... should I go shopping like this... am I not too over-dressed'?

    'No, not at all... you should see what young girls wear these days...' answered the general.

    'Actually, that style has now become.... a little old-fashioned... you're not over-dressed at all...' this came more hesitantly from major Ameena.

    'Oh?'

    'Since you haven't gone shopping yet, how can you be expected to be dressed in the latest fashion?' continued major Ameena, laughing at her own logic.

    I clanked all my bangles to draw attention to them. They didn't seem to notice and kept on chatting, deploring the shameless way heroines dressed in films these days. Well, there was no doubt it now. My revolt had been in vain. I had wasted a lot of time putting a ring on every finger and jewellery on every available niche. It had been for nothing.

    ***

    'Would you like your tea now...?' asked a tearful voice with some sniffles thrown in. To my surprise, the voice belonged to Bua. This was very much at odds with the tough sergeant-like image she usually projected.

    'What's the matter?'

    'Oh it's nothing, bittia .... poor people have to put up with all sorts of things...'

    'Did anyone say anything to you?'

    'Your mother-in-law can be very direct when she wants to be...'

    'Amma Jaan ? What did she say?'

    'Now, now, don't you go meddling in any of this... you came here for two days, go back with good memories...'

    'Maybe Amma Jaan didn't mean to offend you... maybe she was just angry about something else...'

    'O, she was not happy with the way I wash the dishes, but when you have to do five houses in one day...'

    'You work in five houses?' I couldn't help asking. Bua gave a little laugh.

    'That's how poor people make a living... oh your mother-in-law's tongue is not as sharp as other women's... it's just that I can't tolerate people shouting at me... couldn't take it from my husband, couldn't take it from my in-laws...'

    'You? Married?'

    'Left him bittia, left all of them, left the whole cursed village... couldn't bear insults from anyone...'

    "Good for you, Bua!" I didn't dare say the words aloud. I could only think them. The concept of never encouraging women to leave their husbands was too deeply ingrained for me to voice my thoughts. Yet here was courage and independence standing right in front of me.

    'That's why I go and wash dirty dishes in other people's homes...'

    'But you're much more than someone who just washes the dishes.... I see you as part of the family... Amma Jaan was angry earlier about her shawl being ruined by the dry cleaners. She couldn't yell at them, so she yelled at you...

    'You are a good child.... a good child...' Bua suddenly squeezed my cheeks hard, as if I really were a child and disappeared, wiping her face with the corner of her dupatta.

    I looked down at the bangles, all twenty-four of them, shining on each wrist. A ring twinkled on each finger. Suddenly my revolt looked silly in comparison. No one had even noticed what I thought were surplus amounts of jewellery hanging about my person.



    ***


    My clothes were strewn all over the bed, as I tried to fit them into the same suitcase with which I had arrived. I was leaving tomorrow and had started packing, but after having done some shopping I was now finding it difficult to fit everything into my bag. Ayesha had sidled in silently, as was her custom. She casually laid her sleeping baby on a rug on the floor. I didn't like the way her sharp eyes drank in every detail of my newly acquired salwar suits and chikan pieces, which my Asian friends in Europe would be so envious of, so I switched on the TV. Madhuri Dixit, the latest screen-goddess, was doing convoluted movements in a blazing red saree. Ayesha's eyes began to sparkle as she floated away with the music into the small screen.

    'The thicker chain looks nicer on you,' she said suddenly, without taking her eyes off the TV screen.

    I jumped. Obviously, she was not as absorbed in Madhuri Dixit's jewellery as she seemed to be. I had put a thin gold chain against my throat to check in the mirror, for I could not go down with a naked throat.

    But Ayesha's heavily kohl-lined eyes hadn't missed a glitter. As I felt the constrictions of tradition clamping down on me, ready to pull me down into a convenient slot, something in me reared its head in rebellion.

    There were a lot of other things in the world, besides married women's throats and wrists respectably encircled by jewellery. So I flipped on MTV India, which I rarely ever watched at home unless I happened upon a song during the soulful hour when channel surfing. Here, it seemed to represent an 'alternative' way of life. I couldn't help smiling.

    Bryan Adams pleading to the world to forgive him in a strange language, held no appeal for Ayesha because her sharp eyes were back to memorising the details of all my clothes. She'd even picked up a dress and started to fold it half-heartedly. I didn't particularly care for her grimy fingers all over my clothes. But in all politeness, couldn't stop her from 'helping'. The safest thing for me to do was to switch channels. Her face brightened up immediately. She forgot all about clothes, as an ad from Nauratan Jewellers danced across the screen.

    'Oh... they look so good...' her eyes gleamed as brightly as the diamonds in the ad.

    'You think so?' I couldn't help suppressing a yawn.

    By this time, her baby had woken up and was crawling determinedly towards the nearest socket.

    'Look where your baby's going.' I exhorted.

    I plucked up the baby from within an inch of the open socket and handed it back to the unenthusiastic arms of her mother. Within a few seconds the baby wiggled out of her mother's lap and started on the same journey towards the inviting socket with all the determination of a good trooper.

    However, Ayesha was still absorbed in the jewellery winking from every nook and cranny of the bride's person. Even though the current ad was for a skin bleaching cream, it could have been about jewellery. Apparently, a dark girl had used this cream to successfully become fair and two seconds later was getting married to a gorgeously fair man, with Ayesha as one of the gaping guests.

    The only way to keep the baby safe was to switch channels. So it was back to MTV, as that was least likely to divert Ayehsa's attention away from her baby. And it worked. She picked up the baby and managed to successfully distract her with a worn-out toy that she'd miraculously manifested from the folds of her dupatta.

    Bryan Adams had had enough of pleading for forgiveness and Whitney Houston was now cavorting half-naked with Bobby Brown. Ayesha giggled at their antics in the pool.

    'They're husband and wife,' I told her, for want of something better to say, as I continued my packing.

    'But she isn't wearing anything!' exclaimed Ayesha.

    I had to suppress a smile. Perhaps a swimsuit seemed like nothing to her.

    'Doesn't she want her husband to have a long life?'

    Suddenly 'nothing' made sense. Whitney's bare wrists wouldn't exactly help her husband have a long life. I felt a bit stupid. These days, even though the latest crop of Indian actresses or 'heroines' as they are popularly called, showed off their perfect bodies in something like a decorative swimsuit or even less. So Ayesha was used to seeing swimsuits. However, they would have at least one bracelet or bangles on their wrists.

    'They don't have the custom of wearing glass bangles in Vilayat. ' I explained. Vilayat was an old term for England, and in Ayesha's world was now loosely applied to any country out there, chock full of white people, with their strange and somewhat barbaric ways.

    'No?' Ayesha's dark eyes widened in innocent surprise.

    'So it doesn't really matter if a married woman is wearing bangles or not. And the length of her husband's life doesn't depend on her bangles.' I couldn't help adding for good measure.

    All Ayesha could do, was give a disbelieving 'Oh'.

    I ruthlessly continued to shatter Ayesha's illusions. 'And this singer is considered to be among the most beautiful women.'

    'But she's blacker than me!'

    'In Vilayat , one can be dark, but still beautiful.'

    'Oh?' Ayesha's mouth remained open for quite a few seconds as this information sank in.

    'For instance, you would be considered to be very beautiful there.'

    'I don't believe you... You're just teasing me...' Ayesha just giggled and blushed a deep rose. Worlds were colliding too fast for Ayesha to digest it all at once.

    As Whitney and Bobby continued cavorting in the pool, Ayesha covered her face with her dupatta and sniggered shyly. She couldn't imagine putting on a display of affection quite so publicly with her husband. In her circle, husband and wife didn't even look at each other too much, let alone hold hands in public.

    As she raised her arm to adjust the dupatta on her head, I caught sight of some light bruises on her inner arm. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she had something in common with the beautiful, rich and famous singer after all.

    Major Ameena had told me that whenever Ayesha's husband started to beat her, Bua, her husband's brother and Major Ameena all rushed over to intervene and stop him. All he could get in were the first few strokes. I couldn't help wondering if anyone did the same for my favourite singer.

    By now Ayesha's baby needed feeding, so she disappeared as silently as she'd come in.



    ***


    'Are you leaving?' came the voice just outside the door.

    "Can't wait to.. " responded the voice in my head, as I went on with the final stages of my packing. The regime would be a lot more relaxed in my mother's house. Any token bits of brass, put on occasionally would do. As long as the uniform was in place when there were visitors.

    'It will be boring without you...' Ayesha, had now sidled back into the room.

    'There are other people in the house...'

    'Other people either go to teach or look after their baby.' Ayesha was referring to Major Ameena, who also was a part-time teacher.

    'There's always Amma Jaan...'

    'I am too afraid of her...' whispered Ayesha. I couldn't blame her. I hadn't been beaten or tortured. In fact I had been treated like an honoured guest, yet it was a relief to finally be leaving.

    'Eid is coming... you'll have fun...'

    'We poor people can't buy new clothes and jewellery... it's no fun... in the bazaar yesterday there was a beautiful frock for my bittia, all red and gold... but it was too expensive... a hundred rupees...' Ayesha gave a helpless shrug.

    'Why don't you start working and earn some money?' I thought of the hard-working Bua.

    'My husband won't let me...'

    'But you told me that he beats you sometimes... don't you want to become at least a little independent?'

    'But I do all the housework for us... Bua doesn't do a thing when she comes home at night... I also have to look after my baby...' Ayesha edged out of the door and disappeared.

    ***

    With the luggage finally packed and ready to go, Amma Jaan prepared for the leave-taking ceremony. I couldn't put off the moment any longer. A 'rich' daughter-in-law who lived in a phoren land had to give generous tips, regardless of how much she hated deciding how much to give to whom, especially the Commander-in-Chief's servants.


    ***

    'We are fine here... it became quite cold after you left...' shouted Major Ameena down the phone. Standing as close to the radiator as was possible, I had made the obligatory phone call to say that I had safely arrived back in Luxembourg.

    'It's very cold here too.' I shouted back.

    'It's a pity you couldn't stay for Eid...'

    'How did it go?' I asked for want of something better to say.

    'Amma Jaan says you shouldn't have given a hundred rupees to Ayesha...'

    'It was for her baby's Eid dress...'

    'Amma Jaan and I had given new frocks for the baby already... Ayesha spent all your money on jewellery...'

    'Jewellery? There wasn't enough money to...'

    'I mean that awful, shiny, artificial jewellery...'

    'Oh!'

    'She was very happy with it and wore all of it on Eid. Bua scolded her for buying that rubbish... said she should have saved the money...'

    'How is Bua?'

    'She is OK, same as usual... at least she saved the fifty rupees you gave her...'

    I regretted giving Ayesha anything. I should have given it all to Bua. I had a lot to learn from the really independent women of India.

    Submit Comments on this Article

    r knutson email
    (United States)
    bangle code

    as in 'code of conduct'

    very positive

    in itself

    in time

    and place

    even though

    codes of conduct

    are not ever

    about

    "cultivating

    indivi uality"?

    that your protagonist

    or narrator

    desires

    hmm...

    th first person

    narrator

    would not have

    to be the author....

    liberal arts education

    has great

    potential



    10.17.2005 @ 22:41

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