Ties that Bind: How the Nose Ring that Enslaved My Mother Liberated Me


Ties that Bind: How the Nose Ring that Enslaved My Mother Liberated Me

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

My favourite memory of the umpteen summer vacations of my childhood was pulling my grandma’s wrinkled skin in all directions and marvelling at how beautifully it would curl up between my fingers. A sprightly woman whose eyes twinkled through the big block of four diamonds on her nose, she was the reason for many firsts in my life – eating ripe mango slices with curd rice, learning how to play the tanpura, and weaving mogra buds into a neat gajra that we could tie into our hair. After a long summer day of pickle making, vegetable shopping and tailoring, the one luxury that my grandmother would give herself was sitting down in front of me while I opened her bun and plaited her oily and limp air into a long braid so that it wouldn’t entangle when she slept. As I did that, and we both wound down for the day, she would tell me stories from her life. 

On one such night, I asked her why the hole in her nose had become so big. She told me it was years of carrying all the weight. I could sense that she was speaking about more than just the diamond nose ring. “It’s time to retire it then, grandma,” I said to her. “I wish I could, but I’ll probably end up taking it to the grave with me,” she replied. 

I didn’t quite know why, but I found myself hating the nose ring.

I ran to my mother and asked her why did grandma have to wear the nose ring when she did not. “I don’t have it because I refused to wear it,” she told me, as she spoke about how she vehemently rejected the tradition, viewing the piece of jewellery as yet another marker of marital status that found its way onto a woman’s body. “The mangalsutra is enough,” was what she thought. “Plus, I find nose rings highly inconvenient,” she added, trying to mellow down her rebellion by grounding it in the practicalities of quotidian life. 

That day, my stance on nose rings changed slightly. I hated it a little less. It certainly didn’t cause my mother as much pain as it caused my grandmother. Then, I forgot about it. Until I reached by teens

It was in these highly insurgent times of fashion that I finally got my nose pierced.

By then, the nose ring fast became the coolest fashion accessory to flaunt. If you wanted to be seen as hip, you wore torn jeans, streaked your hair red, carved out a mandala tattoo at the base of your neck, and sported a silver wire. The act of body piercing had metamorphosed from being a tradition that women were subjected to after marriage to a sign of assertion, a way for women to exercise their right over their bodies. That piece of silver on your nose came to celebrate your bohemian and free-spirited attitude.

It was in these highly insurgent times of fashion that I finally got my nose pierced. It fit perfectly into the phase of life I was in – breaking free from the past and desperate for a new narrative to define my future. My nose pin was a diamond one, much smaller than what my grandmother wore. I loved the way it lit up my face, sending a sparkle all the way to the tip of my eyelashes. I embraced this piece of jewellery almost as instantly as my mother had rejected it. I didn’t care too much about how I looked in it, as much as I was acutely aware of how it made me feel. Alive, is the closest I can get to describing it. Springing my face out of its slumber, adding colour to my cheeks, and setting it into motion. 

“It is a bit inconvenient though, ma,” I admitted to her, as she stood by me while I fiddled with my new acquisition. I thought she would say, I told you so. Because for her it was just another reminder of the patriarchy she fought, for herself and for me. Of the times she vowed that I would have a life better than hers, and the storms she withstood to make that happen. And here I was, finding all my joy in the nose ring she fought to throw away.

I waited for her to say it. Say that I had taken her behind by 20 years. Instead she said, “It looks lovely. And you will get used to it.” I remembered grandma and how she couldn’t dream of parting with her nose ring. Wasn’t that just another way of getting used to it? Maybe it was, but I reminded myself that unlike her, this was my choice and I could change it anytime I wanted to.

Sometimes, when I cry, my tears wash over this accessory on my nose, and sometimes they can’t go past it.

Over the years, the nose ring has come to symbolise a way in which I engage with the world – sometimes masking, and sometimes expressing my feelings – the shapes, sizes, colours, all having a distinct voice and rhythm of their own. If it’s the deep blue enamel stone, it’s me telling you that I’m not shy. If it’s the silver peacock, then mark the understated grace that runs through it. If it’s the meshed leaf, I want you to notice the timelessness, how perfectly it is perched on my nose, as if it was always meant to be there. Sometimes, when I cry, my tears wash over this accessory on my nose, and sometimes they can’t go past it. I feel like the nose pin is watching over me. 

With time, the nose ring has grown into a conversation starter opening the doors for new connections to be forged. Try telling a nose-ring lover, “Hey, I love that piece of yours”, and see where it takes you. The nose ring strikes a chord, turning strangers into friends, and friends into nose-ring hoarders. It is a life in which there is no such thing as too few nose rings.

Mine ended up being one such life.

And it’s in this life, that I finally defined a new narrative for myself. A narrative I crafted from start to end, a narrative in which I could lead the life I wanted to, without being judged for it. A narrative in which women and their relationship with this piece of jewellery became stronger with time. Thank you Ma. In rejecting a tradition, you ended up giving me the best gift any mother could give her daughter, and that is the gift of choice. I chose what you rejected, and you embraced what I chose. And between your beginning and my ending, between a nose ring that enslaved you and nose ring that liberated me, we would have lived one life, with no unfinished business – except maybe a grandmother who didn’t have anyone to bequeath her diamond nose ring to.