Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Symbols

For over a week in January I wasn't wearing my wedding ring. I've put on a bit of weight this winter and the ring feels uncomfortably tight. I vaguely remember taking it off at some point and forgetting to wear it until the week after.

It should have been a big deal but somehow, it wasn't.

Symbols are a big deal to me or so I always thought. I tend to go deeply into the symbolic aspect of words, deeds, actions and objects, convinced that there must be more to them than is revealed superficially.

When I got married four years ago, I took the symbols of the married state very seriously. So I set my shankha-pola (bangles of conchshell and red coral, respectively) aside so they did not break within the first year (a bad omen), I allowed my beloved wedding saree to be packed away in safety away from me so that it should not be damaged in the first year (another bad omen), I didn't wear black and I did wear my ring and loha (bangle of iron) on my left hand. When I was furious with Vicky in that first one year I threw his ring and bangle in his face, renouncing him and the marriage in my characteristically subtle, tactful and understated manner. Because those symbols meant so much to me.

Even now, when I wear sindoor in my forehead and slip my shankha-pola onto my wrists, I do feel a sense of being married that seems to add an extra shine to my day. But I no longer feel that way about my toe-rings and now I find I no longer feel like I'm doing something wickedly satisfying when I take my wedding ring or loha off. I tend to not take my loha off because I've gotten attached to it like I was once attached to my childhood loha, holding it when scared at night, considering it a blessed protection like an amulet (I scorn amulets by the way but I've never claimed to be consistent) and yet, I no longer instinctively feel like I'm putting Vicky's life in danger by going around unadorned "like a widow".

In my late teens and early twenties I found myself consciously rejecting many superstitions and mini rituals that I had picked up as a kid, refusing to believe in something that didn't make sense to me. When I got married I fell for a bunch of new beliefs -- it's hard not to when you feel like somebody out of a novel, when you see an unfamiliarly beautiful bride looking back at you from the mirror: something changes irretrieveably or so I felt then. Now, without thinking about it, without realising it, I've lost the need for these particular symbols. I don't need my shankha to break while I'm flirting with danger to realise I need to get back to my own home and husband. I don't need the dimaond winking on my finger to remind me that I have duties to fulfil today. And I don't need the sindoor in my hair to feel a bond that only death can break.

I don't know when this happened, but at some point in the last four years I've stopped needing these external reminders of marriage. I feel a wife and a mother and a daughter-in-law and a married daughter, I no longer feel like Sunayana Roy, swinging single. What is somewhat more disconcerting, this change actually feels right.

And yet, I don't discard all superstition. Some, like wearing not black to auspicious events I do follow and make Vicky and Rahul follow too. That is not because I think I shall bring bad luck to the occasion if I were to turn up in black but because I know many people don't like it and we have enough formal clothes to be able to avoid black at weddings, pujas and so on. I daresay nobody will actually complain if I do wear black but it costs me nothing to avoid it and I know some of the older people do take note of these things, so I don't mind.

Another little habit I was taught by Mejopishi is not precisely a superstition but I do make a point of it: she taught me to wear little sindoor and very discreetly at that to houses where women have just lost their husbands. I don't think any widow would take umbrage at a headful of red on me and yet, I think it's one little way of showing your solidarity, of not rubbing in their loss. Just one of those discreet things like not wearing too much jewellery or a bright saree.

It's a funny line to walk, clinging on certain superstitions and discarding others -- all for no particular reason. I'm aware that many friends find these habits laughable and pointless especially given my esoteric choice of which to retain and which to discard, but I find myself following this code of conduct by choice, because it makes sense to me. So, I wear my wedding ring because it reminds me of Vicky when I am aware of it but I freely confess I'm glad I no longer feel like I'm gambling with his life should I take it off and forget to replace it on my finger!

30 comments:

aargee said...

Can relate to each and every word of this post, having come across same emotions. It was more like, I had written the post, though I can't write so coherently :)

The Soul of Alec Smart said...

Hey Sue, I loved this post - enough to delurk after having lurked for weeks actually. I got married 3 months back, and this post just so touched a cord.

Married into a Bengali family, I am learning the importance of the bangle and sindoor. Still, the insistence on wearing them and the feeling of adopting a symbol for a lifetime make me rebellious - I don't know why! I have a feeling that I'd have actually given them much more importance if I didn't feel like a "no escape" thing.

Sue said...

Aargee -- Hey there! It's been ages, dude.

Alec Smart -- First congratulations, although really, I'm not sure marrying a Bong guy was the best you could do. They are all annoying and I should know. :)

The loha and the sindoor aren't mandatory really but I understand why you're bothered by the "no escape" thing. You tend to get used to the loha. It helps if you have a pretty one, like I do.

Tell you what, choose your very nicest wedding pic and tell yourself that your bangles and sindoor are there to make you feel that beautiful everyday. That wouldn't be far from the truth either.

Chinky said...

I can't tell you how much I hate the whole shaka-pola-loha sindoor business. I'm a Bengali, married and I don't wear one single thing because my marital status doesn't need to be displayed to the entire world, neither do I need to wear it as a badge of honor. I don't see the Bangali men wearing any such visible symbols of wedded bliss. Most men don't even wear a ring.

Marriage is an important relationship, but it shouldn't define your entire identity or overwhelm every other relationship. Unless you start wearing things distinguising you as a mother, sister, daughter, etc, I don't see why Bengali women have to wear symbols of their marital status on their arms and forehead. Yeah, ok, so we get it, you're married. Big fucking deal.

Sue said...

Chinky -- Vicky wears my ring all the time, like I wear his and of course, I don't think it's necessary but I like how he wears it. Before we got married he used to wear this little necklace I got him, like I wore an earlier ring he'd given me. Symbols I think can mean as much or as little as we want them to.

In my case I deliberately focus on what the symbols mean to me alone and wear them only when I want to or indeed, remember to.

I think what helped me come to terms with these very loaded portents was the fact that my in-laws did not insist on my having to wear them. In fact, I've never noticed my mother-in-law wearing sindoor in all the nine years that I've known her.

Chinky said...

Agreed--if one wears it out of choice and because of the meanings they attach to them, then hey, that's fine. Sometimes I wear my engagement ring because I like the bling! =) But in-laws/society insisting that these symbols be worn is something that raises my blood pressure.

I can't tell you how many times people, on learning that I'm married, have exclaimed, "but you don't look married." Uh, I wasn't aware we married women were supposed to look a certain way? Am I suddenly to morph overnight into docile, homely bou-ma from vodka swinging, cigarette-smoking, shorts-wearing single gal?

Sue said...

Chinky -- LOL yeah, I get that a lot myself. I think though it's along the same lines as "You don't look like a mother!"

I think they mostly mean I look too young. Or so I insist on believing. Anything else would make life too stressful for living.

Sue said...

Chinky -- Here, these posts are for you.

Substitue bouma for behenji.

http://sunayanaroy.blogspot.com/2007/11/modern-indian-parent.html

Chinky said...

Haha. =) I like.

dipali said...

What I like is that you enjoy your symbols when you choose to, not out of any sense of compulsion. Symbols as part of a tradition, and an optional one at that, can be fun. If they are deemed compulsory they can instigate much rebellion. I consciously stopped wearing a bindi when I was in my fifties, largely as a political statememnt.(http://dipalitaneja.blogspot.com/2008/09/meri-bindiya-re.html)

Of course, I cannot forget the lady who asked a friend what were the symptoms of marriage in her community!

the mad momma said...

hello behenaa. :D
I wear a loha for no good reason but that someone made me wear it. and my wedding band because not everyone realises its a symbol of marriage. but like alec smart and chinky, i smart at the expectations. its been 7 years of marriage and i dumped all the symbols long ago. i do wear them once in a while for an occasion, just to look pretty :)
that said, you know me, i dont care too much for any tradition that isnt fair to both sexes. so the OA and I both wear rings. thats it

GettingThereNow said...

Strangely, just yesterday I was thinking of writing a post on such symbols and how I never used/followed them. Ma stopped keeping the Karva Chauth fast when I was in high school. Her reasons were the same as yours. So that made me think twice as hard about other symbols and symbolic gestures.

Sands said...

can so relate to this post. I started just like you did and somewhere along the way they didn't make sense anymore. So I still do things that I don't personally believe in but in some way maintains harmony and happiness in certain situations and most other times do what I feel comfortable :)

karmickids said...

Lovely post. I might take it up as a tag...

Sue said...

Dipali -- Symptoms? ROTFL

Thanks for the link, I'll add it to my post.

MM -- Pretty, yeah, that's the thing. The bangles and toerings and sindoor not to mention the something mandatory upon the neck and in the ears does leave one looking very pretty. When one can be bothered to do it all. :)

Cee -- Do write your post. I'm not against fasts per se, nor am I against symbols. But it did suprise me to notice how unimportant they have become, low on my list of priorities and far below comfort and inclination!

Sands -- Hey, with you on doing some things that I don't personally believe in now and then to keep the peace. Mostly I do these things for my mum, I think. If it makes her happy in her old age and it isn't a huge symbolical deal to me, I don't mind going out of my way now and then.

Kiran -- Do!

starry eyed said...

Luuuurved this post...coherently expresses every single decision and choice I've made over 12 years to wear/not wear/occasionally wear all these symbols. They are precious in their way, but when it was made a rigid compulsion by my in-laws to prove my married status I resented it. I've dropped the bindi now except for decorative purposes, and changed my mangalsutra for a more decorative one, but have forsaken the toe-rings, traditional diamond earrings, coral mangalsutra and other dress and hair codes! Beats me why the men are never required by tradition to exhibit their married status!

Vintage Rings said...

You're writing the things right and powerful. One can only identify themselves.

And yet - I only had a hard time with the definition of "symbolism."
If it's done "by mistake" and "not knowing" so it contains the message and the symbolism, he really is symbolic?
And if we do what we do knowing? To symbolize something? It still remains symbolic?

It's very complicates the reception of things.

Sue said...

Starry -- I think the men go around wearing this peculiar harried expression that all married men seem to have on -- more potent than any marital symbols and far more evocative. ;)

Vintage Rings -- I'm not sure I follow you. Come again?

Varsha said...

Hey...glad to read someone thinks like me, and that someone is a young modern lady. I too wear my wedding symbols coz they feel nice, and I like the way I look wearing them. Not out of any compulsion, or for the life of my husband. I read all smart women blog about how they have long left their mangalsutras (and the cultural equivalents) far behind and "progressed"! And I felt stupid at times, or a bit old fashioned! But I am glad I am not alone. I wear my toe rings! Man I have pretty ones, they look neat on my feet! My husband does not wear a wedding ring, he hates wearing gold, I respect that as his choice. Why should we wear/ omit our sindoor etc coz our spouse does or not wear them? Its individual choice!

Like your blog....keep writing

Sue said...

Varsha -- I think the true sign of our freedom is how most of the women I know feel comfortable choosing to wear these symbols -- or not. No point in lumping bloggers together, so many of us come from such very different worlds. That's the fun of it, right?

Shobhana said...

Hi I just suddenly bumped into your blog. Quite loved it. Am impressed to read everyone's opinions.I am a Bengali girl. Got married last year to a Bong guy who sounded very liberal initially.When I was a litl girl, I used to go with my Maa for her Shakha-pola shopping . Always loved th rich crimson color of the Pola. Thought I would wear it someday.So wen the D-Day arrived I most lukd forward to my very own pair. Unfortunately it was bought in 5 minutes. For me marriage was more of a spiritual thing than social or any other crap. Therefore wearing them was profound for me.
Anyways (within a month)when I realized that my marriage was hollow and defunct from the inside as I was not really needed by my husband in his life, I took them off. The hurt of this truth was so deep that the shakha-pola-sindur became an eye soar. They reminded me of exactly that what I didn't have, yet so loved. Later on I was accused (by him) of wishing death on my husband because I had stopped wearing them. I was seriously SHOCKED..
So do these objects really signify what is there in our hearts? I feel these have no relation watsoever with how we feel about the man we love. They are nothing more than a sign for the rest of the world that hello-I m a bong girl who is married or my hubby is a Bong.
Anyways, now that the final divorce is 3 months away I thot why should I waste this time. I am still officially married and so qualified to wear my favourite red n white bangles. So I am wearing them full-on. Am planning to wear them with all my favourite dresses and experiment to my heart's fill. hehehehehhehhehehheeh...,here's to the bohemian spirit of all women....cheers!!

Sue said...

Shobhana -- I'm sorry your marriage didn't work out. Enjoy your shankha-pola days. :)

Ahona Kashyap said...

very honest and well written piece. :)

Sue said...

Ahona -- Thank you

Saptadeepa said...

Hey it was grt reading your blog. Having got married for around 9 months, I always feel the same. Acually I was on the net searching for some logical significance of wearing shakha-pola, when I came though ur blog. When I argue on this with my family, they have told me to wear it for atleast the first year and since my first year is about to finish in a few more months, I was planning to go back to my pretty bracelets I used before my wedding.
To be frank, I cant put on the sindoor properly yet, it spills all over usually and now have switched to the liquid ones. The shakha-pola and loha is also irritating at times as they make noise in silent places like offices and people know about my presence there. Anyways, I am proud of not having broken my shakha after using it continuously.
But these things really dont matter when I hear my most stylish little sis saying that after marriage, these symbols have enhanced my looks and I look a lot more preetier. She insists that I put them. Also my hubby dear saying that he would have also put on such things if there was any such custom for men, makes me feel better ;)
Cheers to all the preety sweet Bong married woman!! Being a probashi bong, it has always attracted me to the culture which we havent experienced out of Bengal :)

Sue said...

Saptadeepa -- Congratulations on your first year of marriage. :)

Monika Roy Chowdhury said...

Hi!! I wanted to write something on Shakha Pola as I am extremely proud of wearing and flaunting it... Its been almost two years I am married now..... it was great reading your article and at places I could really connect to your thoughts :) Gotta follow you for more intresting articles :))

Sue said...

Monika -- May you always feel this way. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi ,

I am a bengali maarried about 11 months back.

I wear a loha more out of habit than any compulsion...last month i was in an accident and my loha broke...although my mom in law didnt mention so many relatives were more concerned that my loha broke than my health. Thats when i decided to junk it altogether. Now i do wear a bangle but its not a loha & only because i like the design.

Sue said...

Anon - Good for you. Happy first anniversary-to-be.