Charm

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

A r o u n d my throat is a chain of sharp, desi gold. Not the pale 18-carat of Valentine’s Day ads. Instead, the orange-gold of mangal sutras and Allah pendants.

Photo: Roohi Choudhry

Photo: Roohi Choudhry

Hanging from my chain is a small charm: carved square, a dark “R” inked cursive into its center. It’s the kind of charm necklace schoolgirls tug at with nail-bitten fingers. My schoolgirl days are long past, and I don’t wear this necklace often. But a few mornings ago, I rifled through my jewelry looking for it, and pressed the square to my chest as I walked to work through a reluctant Brooklyn spring.

This “R” did not always represent me. Once, it belonged to my grandmother, Rafia Siddiqi. Then, years ago, she had the chain and charm polished for me at a jewelry store in Pakistan. She gave it to me just before I left for America, as I prepared to make a new home thousands of miles from her.

My grandparents were fond of alliteration. They named their daughter, my mother, Suboohi, and their son, Saleem, and my uncle continued the “S” tradition with his own children. So the “R” initial was like a girlish secret between my grandmother and me. One of many that belonged only to us.

Photo of Rafia Siddiqi: Saleem Siddiqi

Photo of Rafia Siddiqi: Saleem Siddiqi

My grandmother passed away a few days ago in faraway Karachi. Since then, I worry this little charm along the scales of its chain and remember those other identities we shared. The books. Late nights spent reading because we could never get enough words. Late mornings because of the late nights. Loud arguments because of the books. And because of being so sure, even when utterly wrong, of our opinions. Little charm necklaces and gold filigree and turquoise rings. Silk embroidered with silver thread and cotton printed by woodblock.

Bangles are the handcuffs of women, she was fond of saying, chin firm with conviction. She herself wore a pearl inlaid bracelet one day, multicolored glass bangles another day. Always, her wrists clinked as she shuffled her newspaper or stirred a stewpot. Her willing pupil, I indulged in my own contradictory delights: sparkly trinkets and Persian poetry, scent of henna and sweep of fountain pens.

The same woman can love politics and pashmina. But my grandmother did not tell me this, not in so many words. I only needed to know her, and to know I am from her. Rafia Siddiqi, who spent hours crimping her long, black hair, who slept with sweet jasmine under her pillow, who kept a cast of bangles and rings for every day of the year. Who, at age eighty, climbed four flights of stairs to vote for change.

Whose love of shiny things was never at odds with her wit or her strength. Her charm is heavy at my chest as I continue my journey--telling stories, jangling bracelets--in a world without her. 

(Roohi Choudhry holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and now teaches memoir and fiction at the Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York City. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Open City, Big Think, Hyphen, Callaloo, and the anthology, 21 Under 40. She is currently working on a novel set in Durban, South Africa.)