The silver Challa

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY NIHARIKA MAGGO
Gurgaon, India

My naani, maternal grandmother, died soon after I was born. All I heard about her was through the lens of my mother’s memory. This object is a wedding gift, from a mother to her daughter. It is a symbol of one’s independence and courage passed on to the other. And more than a wedding gift, it’s a reminder that strong women raise strong women. 

It wasn’t until sometime back, when I chanced upon Aanchal Malhotra’s “Remnants of a Separation” that I became curious about knowing my family’s past, where we come from and our stories. I still regret not getting a chance to ask these questions directly to my maternal or paternal grandparents. All four of them passed away very early. But the good thing about memories wrapped as stories is that they’re there – whenever you decide to look for them. That day after finishing the book, I asked my mom to sit down with me over a cup of chai and tell me about my grandmother. 

Before partition, my naani, Shanti Devi belonged to Lahore, now in Pakistan. She married my grandfather, Gyan Chand on 16th March 1950 in one of Karnal’s districts which is now Panipat. This is when she was given this keyring or ‘challa’ – as we call it in Punjabi – as a part of her wedding trousseau by her mother. It was made of chaandi (silver) by a family jeweller in Lahore. Kept fondly by naani’s mother to pass on to her daughter. In the early days, the challa was my grandmother’s favourite ornament to wear on special occasions like weddings and festivals.  

Naani had 4 children, Surendar, Saroj, Mahindar, and Sushma (my mother). My grandfather, who was the only earner in the family, died when my mother was just 5 years old. Naani didn’t let this deter her, she took up a nursing course, got a job and served as a nurse and even the head of the nursing department for over 30 years. As the years passed on, two of naani’s children too died. One with cancer and another met with an accident. The death of her two children was like while building a new life from the ground up.

This challa travelled with her through all these losses, though kept unused in a box. Perhaps as a strand of hope. Hope for better times, of a happy tomorrow – where it could actually be passed on to her daughter and the generations to come. It is the experiences that we go through that shape our outlook in life. Both my naani and my mother had their fair share of such moments. My mother is a self-made woman. But it was naani’s efforts and her support that made it possible. My grandmother fully supported my mother’s decision to focus on her career as a teacher and marry when she wants. In her case, early 30’s – which was and still is a bold decision in India. 

Just a day before my mother’s marriage on 5th May 1990 that ‘challa’ was passed on to her over what I like to call our family’s ‘sacred chai routines’. I asked my mother to recall that conversation, and this is what naani said to her – “Never give up on your dreams. Struggle is an unavoidable part of life, but if you face it head on, there’s nothing that can stop you. Take the space you deserve in the world, claim it and never let anyone tell you otherwise. You always have me- mai tee ha hi tere naal“. It suddenly felt like all I wanted to hear. Like in that moment, it was naani saying that to me. Passing her legacy, strength and love on to me, through mom. The challa was shown to me over a cup of chai too very recently. More than an ornament my mother had kept it as a memoir, all wrapped up. It is possibly the only object with my mother that we can relate directly to naani

It’s colour has now worn out, but it’s beads are intact. The little pop of red and green in its overall neutral colour instantly brings a smile on my face. It makes a pleasurable and familiar sound when it moves. My mother faintly remembers naani wearing it with her favourite green saari. I love how it is so detailed yet easy to carry. Holding it feels like I’m holding on to years of strength and the struggles that it has witnessed. Each bead of this piece of jewellery embodies the values that my grandmother passed onto my mother, and eventually to me. To always have more room in your heart. To not let your sadness define you. To always move forward even when adversity hits your limbs so hard. To find little moments of happiness in your daily life. To love your family. To hold onto your life story and narrative, just like the challa.

There will be a time when this challa will be handed over to me continuing our family’s tradition. For now it’s kept safely in my mother’s jewellery bag and I just hope to take these values that come with it and keep them safe too. I hope to be able to empower my mother, just like she empowered me. And live my life, daringly. Like naani wanted. 

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