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Jewellery is only as ‘real’ as the story it tells

Jewellery always has a deeper meaning in Nagalandfrom individual, class and tribe identity to being used for self-defence

A file photo of Naga tribespeople at the Hornbill Festival. Photo: iStockphoto
A file photo of Naga tribespeople at the Hornbill Festival. Photo: iStockphoto

How do you know a new marriage has passed its initial bumps and is likely to get to phase two or three? In my extended Sindhi family, you just have to glance at a woman’s earrings. If she’s wearing solitaires, it’s safe to say the matriarch of the family has decided that the union has a healthy future. That’s around the time she gifts her daughter-in-law a pair of diamond earrings that are usually valued at the price of a car (anywhere from Maruti Alto to Mercedes-Benz, depending on the family’s wealth and desire to display it).

Contrast this with the fact that I’ve been married 18 years this week and the husband has never bought me a single piece of “real" jewellery (I’m not counting what I’ve inherited from my mother-in-law). The automobile correlation above is courtesy his spot calculation when he first encountered solitaires: “You’re wearing a car in your ears," he said in wonderment. If my father had heard that, he would have retorted, “No, jewellery is investment. A car depreciates as soon as it leaves the showroom."

Every time we attend a Sindhi wedding, I find myself trapped between these two worlds: My mother’s “Why aren’t you dressing up properly? It’s a family wedding!" and my husband’s “Oh God, you look like an overdecorated Christmas tree."

Saaz Aggarwal, author of various books on Sindhis, says the community’s love for diamonds probably originated in the 1860s when a group of traders from Hyderabad (in present-day Pakistan), all newly minted British citizens, went off to seek their fortune, travelling along the empire’s old steam navigation routes through Aden, Cairo, Gibraltar, Málaga, Tenerife and other African ports. “There was quite a lot of trade in South Africa then. That’s when a lot of glitzy things entered Sindh and it became popular to show your wealth," she says.

The ideas Sindhis hold about jewellery came flooding back when I guiltily shopped for tribal jewellery at the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland earlier this week. I don’t categorize jewellery as “costume" and “real" though I still wear the former only when my parents aren’t looking.

Jewellery is only as real as the stories woven around it, I believe, and that’s why Nagaland’s rich tradition of accessorizing has always drawn me to it.

Jewellery always has a deeper meaning in Nagaland—from individual, class and tribe identity to being used for self-defence. Both men and women are equally jewellery-obsessed with earrings, armlets, anklets, necklaces and belts. As with other tribes from the North-East, you can easily identify Nagas by the jewellery and traditional costumes they wear. Naga jewellery is made from a variety of materials such as carnelian and glass beads, coral, bronze, boar tusks, shells, ivory, conch shells, cowries. Orange, red, yellow, blue, green, bronze—the craziest colours go perfectly together on a single piece. Earrings can touch your collarbone and head pendants are standard issue among this once headhunting tribe. Most necklaces are multi-strand and it’s perfectly natural to wear many necklaces at the same time. Like Sindhis, they always over-accessorize.

I was always a little short on the Sindhi jewellery gene. My parents put aside all the money they could to buy a little gold every year after their darling daughter was born, but she grew up to be a plastic-hoop-earrings lover in her teenage years.

I never wore jewellery in my 20s and 30s, and in my 40s, any real ornament I wear must come with its own brilliant story to make the cut. My solitaires were bought by my maternal grandfather for my mother six months after she got married. My paternal grandfather paid for them. I cherish them because they hold the love of both my grandfathers. The gold jhumkas my mother gifted me when I got married were the first independent purchase she made after marriage. She saved a little every month until she had the Rs2,500 required to buy them.

The plain gold bangle I wear has its own bittersweet tale. What can I get you from Australia, I asked my paternal grandmother before I left on a trip. “I’ve heard gold is really cheap there. Buy me something gold," she said. Of course, I have no idea how to buy gold in a foreign nation so after returning, I made a trip to the neighbourhood jeweller with my mother, bought a bangle and told my grandmother she was absolutely right—gold was ridiculously inexpensive in Australia.

When she died, her daughter inherited all her jewellery but she was kind enough to return the “Australian" bangle my grandmother had worn every single day, thinking happy thoughts of the great Sindhi bargain her granddaughter had struck in a faraway land.

Maybe you see meaning more easily as you grow older? The Lounge editor tells me that author Jhumpa Lahiri, 50, wears her gold bangles wherever she goes because they signal important events or people: a wedding gift from her mother, an heirloom from her grandmother, a souvenir from a memorable holiday…each one a passage of time.

My jewellery-crazy part-Sindhi friend Simran has, over the years, made the transition almost completely from gold and silver jewellery to mixed metal. Her quest for the just-right pair of super-thin, big hoops is legendary (she has bought at least a hundred of these in her lifetime) and she compares it to the pursuit of the perfect nude lipstick.

For some of us, she says, jewellery has gone from symbolizing our value and providing a safety net to being more about moulding the sense of self. “Now it’s much more about self-worth and investments made in developing ideas and personalities so they demonstrate style and uniqueness." She’s right. Don’t tell my mother but I think I’ve finally found my brand of jewellery uniqueness. It’s Naga meets Sindhi.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

The writer tweets at @priyaramani.

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