Josna Rege

181. The Silver Hairpin

In 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2010s, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on March 23, 2013 at 11:47 pm


In 1977 my father travelled to India for his first return visit since emigrating to the United States, after a gap of eight years. (He has only returned  twice more in the 36 years that have elapsed since, once in 1984 and the last time, in 1996.) Nowadays, with so much more back-and-forthing between India and the States, particularly among our children’s generation—not to mention the constant phone-calling, email, Facebook, and videochat contact—it is hard to imagine the fevered anticipation with which we awaited his return.

My parents’ generation didn’t use the phone easily, especially not for long-distance calls. Incoming calls were dreaded, as they usually brought bad news, and there was the additional anxiety brought on by the knowledge of how much one’s loved ones were spending to make the call. Outgoing calls were equally rare because of the cost, and because placing a “trunk call” from India in those days was quite a hoohah, going out to an STD booth, waiting to place the call, waiting again for it to go through and then, as often as not, having to conduct the conversation shouting through the static. It is only very recently that my dad has stopped shouting into the phone at full volume, loud enough for them to hear him in India.


But I digress. The point is, we had not heard from Dad ever since he had left for India, so when the time finally came to meet him at Logan Airport, our excitement knew no bounds. How we waited until we got back to the house I don’t know, but we still have the photographs to show how he opened the full-to-bursting suitcases and laid everything out on my parents’ big queen-sized bed, everything from cotton and silk clothing to stainless-steel thalis and tumblers to silver jewelry to messages conveyed from this or that cousin to a Marathi cookbook to my grandmother’s famous laddus, carefully wrapped to stay fresh for as long as possible. Then came hours of questions and stories and trying things on and more photos of one or another of us modeling the new outfits to send back to the aunts and uncles who had gifted them to us.

Of all those gifts brought back by my father so many years ago, the one I have used the most, practically on a daily basis, is a simple silver hairpin. It was originally one of a pair, and its partner is long gone, but for years, among the plastic Magic Grip hairpins I used to buy at the West Concord 5 & 10 (brilliant in their own right, to be sure), this one gleamed regally out of  the top of my bun.  It still does.

I have always preferred the elegance, the moonlit-evanescence of silver to the buttery opulence of gold. Last time I went to India I asked everywhere I went for another silver hairpin, but in vain. As the middle classes were growing richer even gold, traditionally the most highly prized material for women’s jewelry, was being abandoned in favor of diamonds, for which I have even less appreciation, since they look like cut glass to me and put me in mind of men slaving and dying in the mines.

Finally Mandatya, my father’s youngest sister, took me into a little jewelry store in Vile Parle and spoke on my behalf to the proprietor, who rummaged under the counter for a while, eventually re-emerging, not with hairpins, but with an old box of assorted silver jewelry. Its tangled chains, black with tarnish, had obviously been lying neglected for many years. He called a young assistant to clean the one I selected and soon presented it to me shining like new and at a marvellously low price.

Although I love the silver necklace, I just keep it in a box and admire it from time to time. But the old silver hairpin is in everyday use. Just looking at it calls up India faster than a satellite phone.

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  1. As I read your post I just realized how with all our modern communications, which I value highly and which grace us with such wonderful benefits, something of the mystique of travel has been lost. I remember so well those long distance phone calls and all the feelings you describe. I remember when relations were going to travel overseas it was something hard to imagine and so incredibly mystical.We live in a different world and it seems to me it happened so quickly. Wonderful how such a small thing as a hair pin can be so charged with memory. Just love your last sentence – so true. As usual, a pleasure to read Josna. Thank you. Always look forward to your posts. .

    • I sure value modern communication too, Don. How else could I post a story at night and wake up in the morning to a comment from the other end of the world?! But yes, travel and communication, so recently so rare and slow, has now become commonplace. We get instant gratification and begin to expect and demand it, but perhaps some things are worth waiting for. Still, I’m very grateful to be able to visit my far-flung family a bit more often than my mother and father got to visit theirs.
      I’m glad you liked the last line; it came to me in a flash as I was trying to wrap the story up neatly. So appreciate your comments.

  2. It’s a beautifully woven tale. There is so much meaning in the simplest descriptions of objects and the meaning they hold for us. Thank you so much for sharing, as always.

    • bussokuseki, thank you for your kind comment. You show us in your blog how to cherish the small things, the small people, the fleeting moments, and in attending to them, find meaning in what others might overlook completely.

  3. I also love the ending. There are definitely pros and cons to the mysterious world of problematic communication, when people used to “disappear” for extended amounts of time, as well as there are pros and cons to the magic of the instant gratification of today’s world. Thank you for a fine tale of a small object.

    • Thank you for reminding us that there are pros and cons in each case. As a mother myself now, I realize how hard it must have been for my mother to have to wait for my letters when I was far away. On the other hand, I did write letters, if infrequent ones, and as a friend of mine once said, “letters last longer.” Meaning you can savor them, reading and re-reading, renewing your pleasure every time.

  4. The silver hairpin is indeed a lovely, simple object. I love your description of the excitement of your father’s return from India. We really have lost something in exchange for easy travel and communication. Maybe some day there’ll be a simple cablecar ride up Kilimanjaro, and a gift shop at the top, but what a loss of excitement!

    Toronto has an annual fair called the Toronto Ex (as in Exhibition), the usual agricultural type of fair that also has rides, amusement-park-type booths, etc. We’d go up from Cleveland every year when I was little. My mother told me that in the early 1940s, she and my dad won a free long-distance call at the Bell Telephone display, the catch being that they had to make the call right away and it would be broadcast over the loudspeaker. So they dutifully called a family member somewhere, and the moment the call was answered, said, “Hi! This is Joyce and Rowland! Be careful what you say, because everybody can hear it!” The relative at the other end was completely nonplussed. They mutually hemmed and hawed for a minute and that was it. I think they were all relieved when the time was up!

    • Great story, Sarah! That’s exactly what used to happen: the older generation would be struck dumb when a phone call came in. And what pressure, knowing that the whole world was listening in at the other end!

      It’s slightly off-topic, but your dystopic vision of a gift shop atop Mt. Kilimanjaro made me think of my first, fleeting (and only) glimpse of Stonehenge. Andrew and I were on a bus traveling down to Cornwall, when one of us happened to look out of the window just as we were passing it. In those days (1971) there was not fence or wall around it–it was just there, out of the window, in an ordinary-looking field. What a sight. Somehow it was perfect, and now I have no desire to go there again.

  5. I went to Stonehenge in 1970 or ’71! It was awe-inspiring and odd, just sitting there in a field without any hoo-hah around it. There was a small carpark across the street. I don’t think anyone else was there, or maybe a couple of other people besides my parents and me. I loved it, and agree with you: I don’t want to spoil the memory by going back.

    • Sarah, I’m not even amazed anymore about how much we have done in the same places at the same time! I’m glad you can corroborate that experience of this wonder of the world “just sitting there in a field”, because otherwise I’d be in danger of wondering whether I’d dreamt that vision out of the bus window.

  6. What a beautiful story, written with such love. It’s so interesting what gifts we most cherish, often the smallest, unassuming pieces.

  7. Thank you for this beatifully woven tale. I love the last sentence. For me, it’s the heady and sweet smell of mogra that ‘calls up India’ instantly.

    • Arti, thank you for your reply. This story is a personal favorite of mine. Ah, the rich fragrance of mogra on a summer’s evening–you express it so well.

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