The streets were originally built only to be wide enough to handle a single oxcart. There seems to have been some ancient standards committee in India—the West owes a lot to India, such as the invention of the standards committee—and this standards committee established the precise size of an oxcart hundreds of years ago.
Along with this standard, the Indians long ago established standards for the dimensions of sewer drains, cooking equipment, clothing quality; and the thousands of rules for weddings, and the handling of relatives and mothers-in-law; and behavior for business partners, servants, and masters. Every Indian cannot grow up without implicitly knowing at least ninety percent of these standards.
The amazing part of all this is that these standards somehow were used from the top of the country to the bottom, across old nation-states with Raj rulers, bypassing restrictions imposed by religions, over vastly differing climates and topography, and even across different subclasses of Indian gene pools. It was a monumental effort of cooperation, and done long before America was even settled by Europeans.
The buildings now were taller, the street very crowded. Tottering above us were signs for companies, schools, computer training, and family shops. As usual, there were electrical wires strung everywhere, and over the years they had collected so much dust that they were black and fused at the many places they crossed each other. The power through the city had its own jealously guarded paths: no one ever dared to disturb the black fused junctions of those wires and their killer current.
My niece, Jimu, suddenly started talking very fast in Hindi. I couldn’t follow a word she said in her clear high soprano voice. Mickey, her brother, suddenly flung the steering wheel to the right and our Ambassador swerved into a very narrow gali that at first I thought was a driveway. All the people in our car swayed back and forth and jiggled with the movement, and we did so as one great mass of family rather than as individuals.
We turned left. Then right. Then left, right, left, left, right. Little vendor shops were everywhere. People were walking everywhere. Just inches outside of the car were huge black bullocks just roaming the street, having nothing to pull at the moment. There was a greater than usual number of bicycles, lots of motor scooters exhaling dark stinky exhaust, and fearless bicycle-powered ricksha-taxis carrying schoolkids wearing clean, military-pressed uniforms.
The noise was a chaotic swirl of oil paints smeared on canvas, a miasma pouring into the ears. All sounds from vehicles and animals echoed louder as we moved into tighter, darker little streets, and every vendor from every shop was calling out to everyone else to come see his goods.
There were also voices of people in vehicles arguing with each other about right-of-way. The cars were constantly beeping their horns indicating that they wouldn’t mind running over anybody in their path: they were giving fair warning that they were coming down the street.
I was stiff and sore, and my left leg had gone to sleep with Mickey and Varsha’s two children sitting on my lap in the back seat. We were, as usual, all packed into one car—why bother with two with so few people on this trip?—and that meant individuals themselves were some of the seats.
From where I sat I couldn’t see out too well and I was lost with all those turns. I don’t like being lost. The streets themselves didn’t feel they needed to follow straight lines. And they narrowed some more. I felt more lost.
With the houses and shops pressing in I couldn’t see the sun either, so I got no help from that ancient guidance device. I never would have been able to walk out of that neighborhood. My family members, who had been this way many times, could have led me out. But of course, nobody had ever mapped most of the city streets in India, there still were no street signs, and in this town, if I had to rely on some stranger to get me out, I was in trouble. The taxi drivers didn’t say a word I could understand in this particular place: they had their own form of inner-city accents.
We were going slower now. We made a turn to the right, and suddenly the car stopped with an alarming crunching noise.
The turn was too sharp for our car, and our lovely new Ambassador was finally initiated and now looked like every other “proper” Ambassador car in India: its front left fender had been pushed in by the wall of the building. Now our car had ascended to be one of the Usual Ambassadors, and looked seasoned and capable rather than new and effete.
We were surrounded with people and bicycles and motor scooters. It was beyond me how we would possibly move the car to inch around the corner.
But Mickey performed the impossible. By very slow creeping, we started to back up to make more room for the turn. I heard the crowd around us start speaking to us in loud, fast, outraged voices.
What they were saying were things like, “Watch out, you idiot, I’m going here,” and “Hey, what’s the big idea?” No swearing or serious insults: it wasn’t personal.
This was just one of those rare situations where a car could not push its way down a street with impudence, and the pedestrians were taking the opportunity to get payback and be superior. It is at intersections like this one that the crowd turns the tables on the arrogant cars and tells them to wait for pedestrians for a change. It is a kind of catharsis for the people, to get back for all the times in the streets they were pushed out of the way by an Ambassador.
In fact, even though everyone outside of our car was calling loudly and indignantly at us, and sometimes Mickey would stick his head and arm out and argue and gesture with them too, or rev up the engine to try and scare somebody in front (it never did), everyone knew this was just the way things worked. Nobody was really angry, and both people and cars just forgot about such incidents immediately after the intersection had been conquered.
Since I couldn’t see out of the car too well because of all the family beside, under, and on me, I was startled when it suddenly got very dark outside. I wiggled a little, pressed my cheek and nose against the glass, and saw that we now were driving through arched tunnels that ran right through buildings. Inset into these buildings were, as usual, both shops and residences.
In this part of the city the large buildings were all effectively glued together. Thus, passage for carts and people was needed, so the clever Indian construction crews of a century ago put tunnels through the glued-together buildings.
We passed odd, wide, cleared areas on the sides of the tunnels, and sometimes went through rectangular courtyards with daylight shining straight down from the top, fifty feet above.
In these wider areas and courtyards I began to see women. There were lots of young girls, a good number of wife-age women, and a few aged mothers and mothers-in-law. I cannot quite describe what a wife-age woman looks like although I know one when I see one. She is just someone of indeterminate age but probably older than eighteen and younger than sixty. It was usually hard to guess their age. Indian women keep youth on their faces.
The women were sitting on the dirt ground in groups. Sometimes there was a brightly colored awning over them, held up by long bamboo poles, and sometimes there were silken walls separating the groups, or just a few feet of empty dirt space.
The women were all concentrating on something, and I noticed that a lot of the groups had on the ground next to where they sat little bottles of paint, gold leaf, and drifts of shockingly bright powder in many colors: powder in little cone-shaped piles looking softer than whipped cream.
The people also had tiny little colored dots of some stones or something piled in small pyramids near their crossed legs. The gaps between groups of people were obviously separators, invisible fences, between families that did things differently from each other.
In the center of many of these family groups I saw odd little circular fireplaces made of firebrick, flicking with flame; they were extraordinarily hot, visible even in the sunlight. Some of the women sat close to these little fires and were doing something with tools.
Then I saw the racks upon which each family put the finished product of what they were working on. Hanging on the racks were objects of violent glistening rainbow colors. Some of the objects were so crisp and clean in their shine that the sun reflected off of them in a way that glorified them, instead of glorifying the sun itself.
These women were making Indian glass bracelets, called churies.
All Indian women traditionally wear bracelets on one or both wrists. You will see even a monetarily poor little girl playing on the side of the road, covered in mud like all children are who play outside the world over, and even she’ll have a single colorful churie dangling on her thin arm.
Churies are solid pieces of material, be it silver, gold, glass, or wood. They can cost much and be fragile, or be inexpensive and durable.
From birth a girl practices how to fold up her hand and slip it through a churie so it will hang on the wrist.
Women from the state of Rajasthan, during weddings and other special occasions, wear dozens of silver churies that essentially cover both the upper and lower arms, and sometimes the legs too. It makes them look like women in bright—even glowing—silken saris strengthened and beautified with shiny armor.
When deciding what she would wear one day, a woman often will pick a sari or a kind of pant-suit called a salvar-kameez. She then walks to the little wooden box centered at the rear of her dressing table. This box contains a rod that runs from left to right. Hanging on this removable rod is a rainbow collection of her glass churies—delicate things that can be broken if she hits her arms against a wall. In fact, that’s just what a woman does if her husband dies: she hits her wrists against a wall breaking her churies off, thus signifying that she is a widow. This isn’t practiced much any more, but everyone knows about it.
Glass churies are inexpensive, decorative bracelets. Almost all women have them. When you buy them, you purchase them in sets of four to sixteen identical churies. This lets the woman wear two to eight bracelets on a wrist. The ones you wear match the color of the sari or salvar-kameez you choose to wear that day. Sometimes you would wear a lot of churies, sometimes only two. It depends on your mood … or how much you want to impress people such as your in-laws.
When a woman moves her arms, glass churies make a pleasant and mysterious tinkling sound like wind chimes.
A woman who can afford to do so will wear sets of churies on her arms any time she goes out of the home. Since glass churies are so inexpensive, using them is frequent and widespread. On an arm, one can see a region of red, then green, then golden color, the width of each region decided by how many churies she feels like putting on. It is all quite attractive.
And it is all surprisingly unique. In a country of more than a billion people it is astonishing how you can find colors and patterns in glass churies that one woman uniquely possesses on her arms.
The colors, the dots attached to the outside, or the delicate paint applied while the glass of the newly-made churie is still hot, depends on what the person making a set of churies feels like at the moment. They are to this day mostly produced by hand because people can do it fast and cheaply and machines would cost more and produce far fewer beautiful variants.
Some women like plain, pure-colored glass churies just to match clothes. But many women want the unique feeling of having a dress, or sari, or set of churies that no other women in the world possesses.
Both the clear glass and patterned churies were being made all around me in the tunnels and courtyards. Because each family makes their own designs, you can hunt in the shops for days and never find another patterned set that exactly matches the one on your arm. The sets are like snowflakes that are all unique; ephemeral, delicate, and beautiful art.
We were driving in our Ambassador between the very families that were making churies for a large part of India. There, in the tunnels and courtyards, I was seeing groups huddled around their mini-forges, their hands working in blurs making the glass circles and applying decoration.
We were moving slowly through the narrow streets now, so I could see everything. Around the barefoot women sitting on the ground were thousands of glass circles of incredible beauty and variety. In the dim light of the tunnels the startling reds, blues, greens, and golds sparkled like jewels in the dust. No … it was definitely more like fire, a fire of many colors.
Driving slowly through the tunnels and courtyards of the sprawling stuck-together neighborhood houses, I marveled at the number of churie-making families huddled to the sides. Looking at them, I thought of all the Indian women around the world who were wearing on their wrists glass circlets that had been forged right here, right beside me.
I suddenly felt that humble feeling one gets when one is next to some great sculpture, building, or canyon that can never be duplicated or recreated if destroyed. Looking at the churie-making families, I realized I was looking at an art of creation unique in the world.
The Indian way of beautifully dressing their women, and in particular their unique selections of churies, has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years … far longer than fashions found in the so-called “old” centers of world couture.
The fashions of France, Italy, the United States, Japan … wherever … cannot in my opinion hold a candle to these things made by hand by people sitting in the dust in this city in India.
I couldn’t help myself.
I suddenly laughed out loud at the arrogance of the fashion industries of the West.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.