At every social occasion, a dear friend of mine is turned out in a simple and elegant sari. She wears the same diamond earrings and the same gold chain. Her sari blouses are always sleeveless and always cut in the same way. Almost always, however, one accessory stands out on her wrists: a two-inch procession of metal bangles that reflect the colors of her sari.
Although the concept of the bangle as an item of jewelry was around long before the Indus Valley civilization and even during the upper Paleolithic period some 8,000 years ago, the word bangle was first heard used only in the late eighteenth century in the English language. A bangle is simply a ring of colored glass worn on the wrist by women. Today, the word itself—originating from the Hindi bangli—applies to “a ring-bracelet or an anklet of any kind worn on the ankle or leg.”
In my home, you can hear the clink of bangles all the time—as I type, read, cook or clean. It’s a tinkle that’s as banal as it is momentous. It means that everything is all right with my life—even though in many parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, the glitter of Indian finery is now tantamount to an all-points bulletin attracting a gold rush among local burglars. Petty thieves have been fishing out their guns and making off with gold worn by women of Indian origin disrupting the peace in what once was a safe community.
But fears of personal safety never stopped those of us who grew up in India from displaying our gold glitter. The reasons for doing so are rooted in tradition and beliefs about womanhood. Like most mothers from my part of India, mine too instructed me to never leave my forearms bare. “Girls mustn’t be seen without bangles,” she would say. “You’re not going out without wearing something on your wrists, are you?” she would ask if she ever caught me barehanded. While the preferred choice of bangle was gold, of course, glass or metal bangles were acceptable, especially if we wished to match an accessory to an outfit.
The feminine mystique of the bangle has survived through civilizations in different forms. A few decades ago, archeologists who excavated sites in what is today’s eastern Pakistan uncovered evidence of the existence, in antiquity, of different types of bangles manufactured from exotic materials such as marine shell, ivory and terracotta. More than their use as ornaments, bangleswere believed to have been protective bands. One of the most telling images of a bangle invokes the legend of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra who is thought to have worn the coiled bangle of a snake that reached for its own tail. In India, wearing a band around your wrist made with panchaloka (an alloy of five metals—gold, silver, copper, iron and zinc) is believed to shower balance in one’s life, bringing daily energy, self-confidence, good health, fortune, prosperity and peace.
Conditioned by the influences of my early years, I too began believing in the latent power of a gold bangle on my wrists. I believed it would bring me luck although I had no proof of its magical properties. In June, when I had to fly to India to be with my father through the last week of his life, I made sure to wear my favorite four gold bangles—the first two that my late mother bought for me as part of my trousseau and the last two that she insisted I buy a few years before her death. The four bangles seemed to exert a magnetic force on me during the last days of my father’s life. They gave out a reassuring jangle as I hovered by my father’s bedside.
The sound of security. Bangles offer that to the listener. In the Indian custom, a married women wears bangles as a charm representing safety and good luck for her husband. Their color and material often bear a special significance. In Bengal, for instance, red coral bangles symbolize energy. White shell bangles represent purity or innocence. Bangles are auspicious also during childbirth. They are gifted to women during a baby shower because the tinkle of bangles is believed to offer acoustic stimuli for the baby while allaying the expectant mother’s stress.
The symbolism associated with the bangle, especially with regard to marriage, has been exploited by Indian cinema and television. In the sappiest regional language and Hindi serials that I’ve followed, the heroine weeps copiously while her forearms glitter with colored glass bangles. She often runs away from a tumultuous showdown into the confines of her bedroom. The force with which she throws herself on her bed (or gets thrown by someone) causes herbangles to chip or crack. The sound of broken bangles is portentous of tragedy. The man in her life has run away with another woman or there’s a divorce looming or the man in question is about to meet his end.
That notion of beauty and sentiment in a specific object does not always translate into another culture. I’ll never forget an incident that took place at the local library where I had walked in to work in silence. An hour after I sat down, a Caucasian women seated at the table next to mine turned around to catch my attention. “Your bangles. Do you mind? They’re making too much noise,” she said in an exasperated, yet apologetic, tone. “Absolutely,” I replied with a smile, removing them and tossing the four bangles into my bag where they stayed until I walked out of the city library pondering the entitlement of the woman who protested the environmental pollution of a sartorial preference.
That afternoon at the library, I found myself apologizing even though I had been quite offended at having lost, temporarily, at any rate, my freedom under the flag to which I now owed allegiance. I wondered how my friend with her deck of bangles might have reacted to that stranger. I suspect she would have told her to purchase noise-canceling headphones from Sony.