Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience
On Mother’s Day, as on all others, I was thinking of my mother and grandmother. Even though they are no more, they are very much present in my everyday life. This is partly thanks to the gold jewelry—a chain, a pair of small earrings, and bangles—that they bequeathed to me. These items matter to me not because of their (modest) monetary value but because of what they signify.
In Marathi, streedhan means “woman’s wealth” (stree=woman, dhan=wealth). The term means “woman’s capital” and, traditionally, it was endowed upon the bride at the time of her wedding. It was comprised of gold and jewelry, household items, and cash. This was the contribution that her birth family made towards helping her get settled in life. Sometimes, the groom’s family also made a contribution towards the streedhan.
This was a way to provide capital that would serve as insurance or investment. If the marriage did not last—early death of the husband was common—the helpless widow would not be entirely at the mercy of fate or her in-laws. Uneducated and unable to earn a living, she could sell the jewelry to pay for her children’s educations, or to buy a small home of her own.
I wear my gold chain, hoops, and bangles all the time—despite the fact that the pieces don’t match my American outfits. Over the decades lived in this adopted land, I have changed about as much as I want to, especially regarding attire. On the few occasions that I bow to the dictates of fashion and take these items of jewelry off, I sense emptiness. My wrists feel manly, my neck seems bare, and my face—unframed by two little hoops—looks as if it is sickly or in mourning. And so, I avoid taking them off; on the few occasions I do, I put them back on at the earliest opportunity.
I walk in this world with my foremothers holding my hand in the form of the jewelry that they wore throughout their lives.
But the chain, hoops, and bangles are not my literal streedhan. My womanly capital is my education. It is what makes me a critical thinker and a lifelong learner. It gives me self-confidence as well as emotional independence. My mother (and father) and grandmother (and grandfather) invested as much thought and energy into making this streedhan available to me as previous generations of parents might have to gather the gold that they bestowed on their young, about-to-be-married daughters. Having witnessed or suffered the havoc that resulted when women were un-empowered, my elders were determined to change course.
Despite my being female, I was excused from doing chores like cooking and cleaning. My elders set expectations of high educational achievement and applauded me when I achieved my potential. So convinced were they about the rightness of this that they did not allow themselves to worry about the consequences such as the challenge of balancing work and family. That would be my battle to fight—using the capacities with which I was being equipped.
They conveyed the reason for the focus on education in clear-eyed and empowering terms. Yes, it was so that I would be spared the hardships and indignities that women of earlier generations had suffered. But, with discipline, determination, and their encouragement it was achievable. All that mattered was making me the most empowered person I could be.
So, the streedhan that I will hand down to my children will be the jewelry that symbolizes a way of being in this world—the courage and sacrifices of our ancestors over outdated and crippling customs; their commitment to nurturing the children and to seek to flourish through unsparing hard work.
Last year I moved 3,000 miles—from the east coast to the East Bay. The pull was my deep desire to be present to my infant grandson. The push was the pandemic which made travel impossible for the foreseeable future.
As he awakens into consciousness and learns about the world around him, sundry items catch his eye. He tugs at my gold bangles and when I hand them to him, he touches and, invariably, puts them in his mouth. Sometimes I twirl them on the floor and they spin like dervishes. He watches enthralled.
The bangles that were worn by my mother and by her mother before her have become the beloved toys of their great-grandson/great-great-grandson. The distance—across five (!) generations and multiple continents—is being bridged through an outdated but repurposed tradition.
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.