Josna Rege

406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm


For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. If you really want to keep them pierced, why not take out those horrible short earrings and put in some small hoops with thin wire that will let your ear air out and heal?

    I wanted my ears pierced from the time I was about 12 and my mother wouldn’t let me until my uncle, who was a doctor said they should let me. I went to his office once day after school (I was in high school by that time) and he pierced my ears with a hypodermic and put in some gold hoops that I brought. I had not trouble with them. Later, I had pierced or pierced my daughter’s ears when they were very small and one ear for my youngest son when he kept begging me to do it as a teen. One daughter ended up having to remove hers because two years later they began to keloid – form scar tissue. In my mid twenties, I put two more holes in each ear but ended up letting them close up because I just didn’t wear that many earrings.

    Best wishes for the ears!

  2. Oufff, double pain times two: physical plus psychological but for each ear. Not easy for the reasons you say, especially cultural. I’m with the don’t-do-it brigade, but it’s easy to say.

    As a bloke I don’t see the need for piercings, but tattooing seems to be the unisex thing to do. If I did have it done it would be subtle and discreet, but why would I want it? I’m comfortable with myself without having to to define myself with a personal brand. And the initial pain is more prolonged, isn’t it?

    • Alas, I ought to have listened to my own “don’t do it” warning! I agree with you about tattooing being “self-branding.” I don’t feel the appeal of it though I think I understand it intellectually it seems to mean a lot to the younger generation. A 2014 poll found that while 21% of people in the US had a tattoo, that number was 40% for the 18-29 age group.

  3. Dear Jojo,
    I am so sorry that you have once again, had to endure the results of a cheap ear piercing.
    I think the idea of thin GOLD hoops now, is perfect while your ears heal up. Sensible advice!
    “Would-a, could-a, should-a”, as my New York friend used to say!
    What I would have recommended was going to a GOOD Jeweler who would use sterile technique, and the proper sized GOLD studs, along with correct care instructions after.

    Anyway, as usual, you have analyzed the whole thing so thoroughly that it has become a
    huge, rather scary thing. Wish I had been there to give you my support and comfort you
    after. So sorry to have been part of the cause of such anxiety!


    • Nothing for you to be sorry about, Marianne. This is something I’d been wanting to do for a while, and this place was recommended. They ARE gold studs, and the application was correct–except for the length of the darn post. I went to look at hoop earrings at a jeweller’s today, but they said that because my ears are still swollen (though the good news is that the swelling seems to be going down) it would be very painful to put in the thin gold hoops. So it’s a waiting game, and I’m still hoping for the best.
      Don’t worry about my over-analyzing–this experience just became the taking-off point for reflections on those other issues!
      But I wish you had been there too. Will show you a photo once the swelling has gone down–if it ever does!
      They say that I can wear hanging earrings only after six months, so I was hoping to be able to wear them at our reunion in May!
      xxo J

  4. So much pain! In many ways the psychological pain is worse than the physical. Hope things improve. I thought temporary hoops were always the default immediately after piercing until the ears had healed.

    • Thanks! Yes, I am learning this about temporary hoops rather too late. A month out and the swelling has more-or-less subsided but the ears are still red. I may buy some thin gold hoops and try to replace these uncomfortable and too-tight studs. Still hoping to win out in the long run, but it looks as if my whole system just rejects the foreign body.
      Thanks for your good wishes. It
      s good to hear from you after a long time. I’m not managing to post new stories more than about once a month these days. How about you? How is your writing coming along?

      • I disappeared for a while to complete my book. The Kindle edition is now on Amazon. It’s called “A Couple of Choices” under my real name “Ajesh Sharma”. I’m currently struggling with the cover for the print edition. Image manipulation isn’t my thing… 🙂

        Initial feedback has been generally positive, but very few people have taken the time to read it.

        2017 also saw two of my short stories appear in online magazines. Overall, I remain an “unknown” heh heh.

        I’m hopeful, that 2018 will finally see ‘One Bluish Egg”, my memoirs, see completion. Fingers crossed..

        • Congratulations, Ajesh–you’ve been busy and productive! I have looked up your book, read the Foreword, and will download and read it as soon as I have a free moment. I will look for your stories too–well done! All the best for your memoirs; you are an inspiration.

        • Thanks! It soon some courage to hit “submit” and send it out for strangers to read. 🙂

  5. So sorry about the ordeal you’ve had to go through Jojo. I had my ears pierced when I was a child and thankfully, didn’t have any problems. I think that was because we were made to wear very thin stalks of neem for a few days and then we graduated to wearing pure gold “balis” (hoops?). I’ve been told that both neem and gold have antiseptic properties. The only issue now is that because I haven’t worn earrings for quite some time (ever since I’ve had carer responsibilities), the holes appear to have sealed. When Kavita visited us a couple of years ago, she used antiseptic ointment to force earrings through. It was very painful but it did the job. However, they seem to have sealed again. I’ll try to unseal them one of these days!

    • Thank you for your comment, Savita. I wish I had had fresh neem stalks followed by gold balis. Still living with reddened ears, but they’re a bit better and I’m hoping that the inflammation will eventually subside. I may go out this weekend and buy some small gold hoops. Yes, they do seal up after a time. Hope someone can help you with yours when next you try.

  6. Dear Josna, have caught up with you again! I was rivetted by your saga about the earrings… but I see that everyone else has given you the advice I would have done – gold hoops !The advice from the chemist who did mine in England was to keep twisting them round, to keep the holes open while they heal..
    Over the sixty years since then, a couple of times one or other of my ears has felt a bit sore as though they were going to be infected, so out came the earrings, on went an antiseptic cream, and in a few days,- back to normal… Hope you can soon wear all your beautiful earrings with peace of mind…

    • It’s lovely to hear from you again, Valerie. Thank you for visiting and for your comments. I’ve fallen down on the blogging this past year and a half, but have seen your posts out of the corner of my eye, and finally visited yesterday to read your latest one about your walks through London in 1949 with your step-grandfather. Now I will have to go back and start your autobiography from the beginning.
      Thanks for your good wishes. I’ve still got those original post earrings in, because I read that one should keep the original earrings in for three months. But I’ve got my eye on a small pair of hoops in the jeweller’s and now you’ve inspired me to try them, and replace these at last. My ears are still a little red–after more than two months–but I’m holding out hope.

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