THE STONE AND STRING EXPEDITION

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A RECENT VISIT FROM A NIECE IN SILICON VALLEY, CALIFORNIA persuaded me to accompany her to the silversmiths in Dariba — the heart of Chandni Chowk. The tiny shops displayed the most amazing antique silver jewellery while on the street outside, scores of peddlers hawked cucumber, jamun and ganna as the temperature soared above 44°C. Coolies hurtled past, issuing dire warnings to meandering cyclists and pedestrians, their handcarts cascading with merchandise. A municipal van and its entourage of dog catchers had selected that very day to round up stray animals whose agonizing wails rent the air. Through this mad melee my determined niece located ‘Mor Wali Gali’ (which even the West Coast of the United States had heard of) to get her vast array of trinkets and baubles restored.

At the entrance of this famous alley, two brothers sat perched on a platform the size of a vegetable cart, separated only by a steel contraption equipped with two hooks — one facing each sibling. We were offered one moodah between the two of us. Without so much as moving the mound of paan ensconced in his mouth, the older brother held out a red velvet tray and asked my niece to empty all her belongings there. Out tumbled unending clutter comprising broken necklaces and bracelets, pendants, charms, semi-precious stones all tucked away into assorted coin purses, envelopes, match boxes and ‘dibbis’ waiting for their hour of redemption.

My heart sank at the thought of spending an entire June afternoon as my computer-savvy niece communicated her concepts and ideas in American twang. I need not have worried. In less than sixty-seconds, the older brother had run his expert fingers through the entire assortment of stones. Without opening his mouth he suggested amazing permutations and combinations fit for a princess. “How much?” we asked. On the corner of a crumpled newspaper the princely sum of Rs. 5 10/- for fifteen items was quoted. “Wow that’s just $12,” whispered my niece in utter disbelief.
The stringing process commenced. For each new necklace fresh skeins of matching thread were wound around our craftsmans big toe then hooked on to the steel contraption, leaving two hands free to load the stones on to a long needle from where they were translocated smoothly on to the coloured threads circling his toe. In a matter of minutes those useless beads and broken ornaments were transformed into resplendent jewellery — every tiny piece of coral, jade, lapis and quartz strung together in perfect harmony. Offset by a knot here, a braid there, a touch of gold here or a sliver of silver there, we watched stupefied at the speed and skill with which each job was executed. Meanwhile, the brother attended to their regular clientele of chattering women and indulgent husbands whose mission was only to get a displaced stone, or of a missing clasp repaired — all at the price of Rs.10 per job.

As I see it these are the small wonders that make life in ‘desh’ such a joy. Not all the jewellers of San Jose, home to the millionaires of Silicon Valley could have given my niece the joy of witnessing the reincarnation of her beloved baubles. For the love of money there is no place like India when it come to restoring anything- the more intricate the better. Long live our traditions. Long live Mor Wali Galli.

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