I suddenly needed a set of green glass bangles. It was a religious festival the next day and as a married woman I had to be wearing the dozen green glass bangles which in this part of India indicate the married state of a woman!
My daily work as a veterinary surgeon requires that on a normal day I go about ‘bare armed’, which even a generation ago would have indicated the calamitous and ‘inauspicious’ state of widowhood. Besides which, sliding or rather wrestling, the thin glass bangles up and down my boxer’s knuckles results in a high attrition rate of the delicate accessories ,and hence I do keep the bangle sellers in business.
By the time I realised that I did not possess two dozen green glass bangles it was quite late (around 9pm) and most shops selling such stuff had closed. However, our local vegetable vendor mentioned that a bangle seller , known to all as ‘Chudi-wali’ (bangle seller) lived in a slum nearby and sold bangles from home. I had never been inside a Mumbai slum and as my husband was with me , I immediately insisted that we had to go find her.
It was surprisingly easy to locate the block of tenement flats, inspite of the late hour children were playing in the alleys and women were cooking in their one roomed homes. The Chudiwali, Mrs Kotwale, a widow, also lived in a tiny single room and she seemed very glad to have customers walk in. While we were there several local women dropped by , to buy bangles for themselves or their children.
Her little one room home (9ft by 5ft) was all neat and orderly, with a single bed that also acted as divan for the visiting guests, built in cabinets, a curtained storage loft , and a wall mounted altar next to the framed picture of her late husband. The kitchen in the corner was all tidy , with clean stainless steel utensils and the little washing up area in another corner. I felt like an intruder , walking into her personal space but she was warm and at ease and immediately made us feel welcome.
Like bangle sellers all over India, Mrs Kotwale gets her supplies of glass bangles from the factories of Ferozabad in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She buys them from a local whole seller and then sells them at retail. For decades she had been a door to door vendor, toting her fragile merchandise in a large rexine bag, which now though much mended, still holds her stock. However, the onset of severe arthritis has forced her in recent years to give up this job and she currently works in the day at a tailoring shop. She has not giving up selling bangles though, as now she is quite well known in the area and people drop in at her home to pick up an odd dozen of bangles, so she still keeps a large enough stock in the locker under her bed.
You had only to see her handle her wares to know that here was an expert! She tapped the glass bangles and tinckled them against each other to detect the tiny cracks that make them ring flat and lead to summary rejection.Then she casually pushed tiny ones up my wrist as I watched awestruck. However, I reminded her that I would be removing them a day after the festivities by myself, and as it is considered bad luck to break all your bangles at once, she just as expertly pulled them off my hand and offered me a larger size.
Her audience of local housewives watched the procedure with interest , offering all kinds of inputs . It is a way of doing business that is fast changing all over the world and inspite of the oddness I could not help being entertained too . After the sale was made (she talked my husband into buying me an extra set of red bangles to go with my favourite sari) Mrs Kotwale, in the proper traditional manner pressed us to have tea . ” I am so proud of my profession”, she said,”for it brings guests to my home”.