The Partition Jewels
by Zehra Nawab
Laughter emanates from downstairs. Dadi, as we call our paternal grandmother, has rung the brass hand-held bell that indicates the evening-milk is ready; my siblings seem to have already made their way to the table. I do not like milk but I still rush out of my room, sliding down the staircase railing of our home in Karachi, with Dadi exclaiming “Uff Zehra, you’ll fall and bring the wall hangings down with you!” But I can’t help it, I do like to arrive in style. My grandmother sits on the table in her green printed georgette sari and a black paranda (braided tassels) in her hair. The plants outside glow under the soft evening sun and a beaming wide smile adorns my grandmother’s face. She sits at the head of the table, as it is the closest to her room and thus the shortest walk. Her left foot shakes as it always does. Parkinson is it? Osteoporosis? Or is it both? I never seem to remember. I eat the cream toast prepared for me, and my siblings finish their milk as Dadi begins to instruct us to go to the wall in our lounge. Shoulders, heels, head all touching the wall; she brings a book and places it on my head as I step forward. And, as per our evening ritual, my siblings and I walk down the corridor of our home, backs erect, books balanced, and our postures corrected. We learn different things each evening, some days it is yoga, other days we read literature and on some we learn knitting. Dadi is sturdily built but is becoming frail, she has kind intelligent eyes and a poetic verse always on her lips. She helms our home like a sea captain, with one eye on the waves and the other on us kids.
The Arabian Sea is a five-minute drive yet no wind seems to be blowing our way today. Dadi slowly walks towards her room, holding each furniture piece as she exits the dining room. My parents have placed the furniture along the route strategically; a small sofa, then the long one and right by her bedroom door a wooden chair, so that Dadi does not feel conscious about her difficulty in walking. “I am switching on the air-conditioner in my room,” Dadi announces. This is her way of making the shutting of her door, which is usually always open, inconspicuous. My mother follows behind. My curiosity is piqued so I knock and, without waiting for a response, barge in. My grandmother is perched on her bed with my mother sitting beside her, pen and paper in hand. Velvet boxes of all kinds, pieces of cloths of all sizes litter the bed, each with a set of jewels peaking at me from inside.
“Ajao Zehra,” Dadi ushers me inside as she sits surrounded by bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, anklets, teekas, jhoomars—her jewels, ones she had been gifted, ones she had inherited, ones she had bought. She picks up each piece of jewellery and tells my mother which is to be gifted to which grandchild on their wedding. A pure gold Ginny coin is put aside, it is to be gifted on her behalf to “Zehra’s future husband.” Mama meticulously takes notes. A pair of gold nauratan jhumka earrings catch my eye. The design consists of a flower with petals like rays of the sun, which is why the design is referred to as the Karun phul, the radiant flower, my mother tells me. And below it is attached a jhumka, a little inverted flower bud edged with pearls. It is a hand crafted Nauratan set, Dadi says. The inlay work done in the gold consists of nine different stones: coral, emerald, turquoise, ruby, pearls, aquamarine, sapphire, hessonite garnet. Accompanying the earrings is a teeka, a bejewelled pendent worn in the middle of the forehead attached to a row of pearls which fall along the parting of the hair. The teeka design is fish-like, plain gold circlet with stunning stones glistening from within. The fish was the court emblem of the rulers of the state of Oudh, the capital of which was Lucknow. This was the city my grandmother grew up in. The delicacy and beauty of these jewels were a result of exquisite workmanship, one that I was able to recognise even at the age of fourteen.
I had seen Dadi wearing these in the sepia toned photograph framed in our hallway taken around the time she was appearing for her O level/ Senior Cambridge exams during the Second World War. She would recall writing exams with carbon paper under each sheet to make copies of each answer as back up. This was in case the ships carrying the answer sheets from India to England were to get bombed, a second set could be dispatched. India was partitioned soon after the war and in 1947 the British exited our land by drawing a line in the sand, dividing a nation into the Hindu majority Hindustan and the Muslim majority Pakistan. Lucknow fell on the wrong side of that line so Dadi and her family decided to migrate to Pakistan. Her books, jewellery, and cross-stitch handkerchief constituted some of the most precious belongings that were packed into a trunk to bring across. And so a young Dadi travelled with her parents and siblings to Bombay from where they sailed by ship to reach the city by the sea: Karachi. I wonder how prepared she was for the loss of everything familiar that accompanied this freedom. Dadi’s new home was now Karachi, the one where she would work as a teacher, fall in love with a Civil Servant, marry him, raise her family, and say her final farewells.
“May I please have this one,” I ask placing the nauratan teeka on my forehead and the karun phool in my ears, modelling them as I gaze into the mirror. “I’ve already marked that one for your cousin,” Dadi responds with a smile as she encourages me to choose another piece for myself. But I insist. I present my case. “Dadi please na, I love you, pleaaaaase.” I pause. Not entirely sure if my pleas were making a dent I continue, “well, everyone tells me I look like you, and if these earrings suited you then they’ll suit me. If you enjoyed wearing these earrings then I’ll enjoy wearing them as well.” I look towards my grandmother and she looks back, touches the jewelry adorning my forehead and pats my cheek as she lets out a soft laugh. “And there is a stone that will match every outfit! A worthy choice.” My eyes light up and Dadi nods, I leap in to hug her. “Care for them well, these were a gift from my father,” she whispers as she continues organising and helping my mother with the list.
Jubilant, I run to the drawing room, where bookshelves are lined with meticulously maintained aged books, the walls are decorated with artworks and photographs, heirloom furniture sits atop the Persian and Afghan carpets, the tables are lined with family memorabilia: a 75-year-old edition of the poetry works of Ghalib, a paandan (pure silver and gold carry case for paan), the surmaydani (silver kohl tube). And yet the wooden box seems to hold its own. It has gravitas. I have done this many times before but it never ceases to fascinate. I open the box and a mirror folds out and fits into its designated slot in front of which is a section to keep jewellery and another for perfume. This is my maternal great grandmother’s jewellery box dating back to 1945 made of sheesham wood, intricate carved with inlay work of ivory and a curved latch closing it shut—a true work of handmade artistry from the city of Badaiyun in India. Embossed on this box is Mrs A H Raza, the name of my great grandmother, who passed the box to her daughter (my maternal grandmother) in the 1970s, who then passed it down to my mother in the 1990s.
Many summers later some friends gathered in our drawing room, from amongst them was Asad Raza. He was affectionately called Asad Head-boy Raza referring to the position he held in the school student council. My friends insisted he and I would get along and that we should get to know each other; it was a teasing I had gotten used to. That day one of my friend’s gaze fell upon the wooden box that sat atop the centre table. “Oh my God, Mrs A H Raza. This box says Mrs Asad Head-boy Raza. Mrs A H Raza! It’s a sign!” she exclaimed.
Fast forward a few years and that prophecy came true. I married Asad in a beautiful intimate ceremony surrounded by laughter, music, dance and all our loved ones. My grandmothers had passed away by then but on our wedding I received the nauratan jewels, Asad the gold Ginny, and my mother gave me the box engraved with Mrs A H Raza. Pieces of tangible history were passed down that day from my ancestors to us and with it their stories, their grace, their teachings, their values and above all, their love.
Cover image created by Zehra Nawab. Illustrated portrait by Sam Trieu.
Zehra Nawab is a multimedia journalist, visual artist and theater performer from Karachi, Pakistan; based in Kitchener, Canada since 2018. Her work garnered critical acclaim and awards during her time in Pakistan. Today, she continues this passion by engaging with the theatre and journalistic community in Canada.