The most important thing on my person is not what you think. Not diamonds or an iPhone; not my wallet or my house keys. It is a safety pin. Around my neck I wear what Tamilians call a thali, which is more commonly called a mangalsutra. This is a simple but thick gold chain with a rectangular pendant, embossed with different symbols based on family traditions. Mine has a tulsi-katte, or tulsi-madam: a raised platform planted with a tulsi bush. Others have shivlings or sudarshana chakras. Maharashtrians wear a black and gold chain with two vatis, or convex circles. Malayalis wear the leaf or ela thali, a custom prevalent even among Syrian Christians. Konkanis wear three gold chains that they call mani, or muhurtmani. Gujaratis and Marwaris, as becoming of rich business communities, wear a diamond pendant. The chain is meant to be long so that the pendant falls deep into a woman’s chest, hidden from prying eyes. Hindu women wear a thali as a symbol of their marriage; because they believe it confers longevity on their husbands.
This is a fascinating paradox. Hindus, and indeed all Indians, are fatalists—at some level. Yet we all do things that we believe will change fate. Longevity, for instance, is mostly about destiny (not getting run over while crossing the road or falling prey to dengue) and good genes. Yet, later this month, scores of women in north India will fast all day and watch the moon rise before eating a morsel, all for the longevity of their husbands. The more evolved couples fast together: The husband fasts for his wife’s longevity and vice versa.
For her: Most Hindu women sport some mark of marriage, such as a Mangalsutra or sindoor. Dinodia
Wearing a thali or mangalsutra also conforms to the same rationale. Hindu women wear a thali so that their husbands live long; so that they can die a sumangali, and not a widow. No Hindu woman that I know of in my mother’s generation ever removes her thali. Several Hindu women of my generation do. Many don’t wear the thing at all for all the reasons that I elaborate on below.
For modern, professional, global women, the thali is an issue. Some think it is unfair that Hindu men don’t have to wear anything that shows they are married. Why do only women have to wear the sindoor, toe rings and the thali, asks one. Why don’t men wear a noose-like thali around their necks that shows they are taken? Some women dispute the whole notion of thali as a symbol of fidelity. At the most fundamental level, fidelity comes from your heart and soul, they say. Just because a woman doesn’t wear a thali doesn’t mean she is any less married. From a more frivolous point of view—and this, in fact, may be the main reason why women of my generation shun the thali—this long gold chain simply doesn’t go with modern attire. It spoils the “look”, as Rajinikanth might say.
When you wear a sleeveless minimalist black dress with a plunging neckline, the last thing you want is a thick gold chain dangling down the front. It distracts from the line of the dress, your neck and pretty much every accessory you wear. The thali competes and takes away from the delicate pendants that most young women prefer. The easiest solution is to lock away the thali in a bank and pull it out for weddings and special occasions.
I have been tempted to do this. Yet, I wear a thali pretty much every day—except when I go skydiving or scuba-diving—for one simple reason: because it is important to the people I care about. My mother, for one, would be appalled if I removed it. As would my mother-in-law and every elderly aunt of mine. You could say that I am a conformist. Or a sap. I don’t like it, but I wear the darn thing. Someday, I announce to my mother, I will renounce all jewellery. All jewellery, I underscore. She doesn’t get the undercurrent of my message.
Turns out the thali is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to several websites, the tradition of tying a thali originated sometime in the sixth century. Before that, a yellow bracelet or protective cord called kankana-bandhana was tied around both the bride and groom—a sort of equal opportunity knot. Nowadays, the mangalsutra is supposed to bind the woman and man for a lifetime.
There is one huge benefit to wearing a thali though; and that is the two safety pins that I string through it. This again is a normal south Indian practice. Go to any village and you will see women with a cluster of safety pins nestling against their thali. These safety pins serve a multitude of purposes and are the south Indian equivalent of a Swiss army knife. Consider the numerous ways these safety pins are used in the normal course of my day.
To hang clothes out to dry on the balcony railing in the absence of a clothespin.
To pin together jeans, cushions or handbags when the zipper breaks.
To loosen seams or to rip out stitches.
To clip saris on the shoulder.
As a earbud in an emergency.
To excavate all manner of things that are stuck.
To clean combs.
To poke through shower holes and increase the water flow.
Sure, the safety pins beep when you walk through airport security checks. Sure, it looks funny when your thali inadvertently falls out and you have a cloud of pins hanging off it. But to the women who belong to this Safety Pin sorority, wearing a thali makes complete sense, not only for the long life of their husbands, but also for the toolbox that is at their disposal whenever they need it.
Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan
Shoba Narayan wonders if a thali made entirely of strung-together safety pins will take off—or hold water—with the matriarchs in her family. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org