A silver lining for a mother and daughter

Objects of desire: Jewellery from a shop run by Kochchappan, a silversmith from Kerala. - Kalyani Candade

From a tiny store in a Chennai alley to the shopping cart of an e-commerce portal, artisanal jewellery bridges physical distance

My phone moved to my bedside the night my daughter left home. For years I had doggedly resisted intimacy with the ubiquitous gadget, wary of losing my independence. That night I succumbed.

It became the umbilical cord I wasn’t ready to cut.

“I’ve got a job in Mumbai!” Mumbai, that land of opportunity; of dreams, glitz and glamour. And hardship. She had stars in her eyes. Mine were blurred with unshed words. My stomach felt leaden.

“It’s way too soon,” I whispered, only half-jokingly. There was so much unfinished business. “We haven’t done a tenth of the stuff we planned!”

“Oh, come on, Mom,” she said under her breath. And then aloud, amused: “Like what? Kochchappan?”

Kochchappan was an old grouse. He was the stuff of stories that came with exquisite pieces of silver jewellery she unearthed in my cupboard. “Where did you get these?” she would exclaim, holding up a pair of filigree earrings. Or, “this is so lovely, Ma”, slipping on a braided ring. Almost always, the answer would be: Kochchappan. I hadn’t realised how much a part of my girlhood Kochchappan had been.

We had discovered Kochchappan quite by accident — my own mother and I, on one of our jaunts in the fascinating by-lanes of Madras, now Chennai. It was noon and my mother was tired, so we entered this tiny shop simply because there was a stool by the door. A wizened old man looked up enquiringly. In her inimitable style, my mother struck up a conversation, and we learnt he was a silversmith from Kerala. As we left after an hour of rummaging through his treasures, my mother turned to ask his name. You can call me Kochchappan, he smiled.

Our trips to Kochchappan became a ritual we cherished. Part of the excitement was the uncertainty. Would he be open? The old silversmith was answerable to no one, kept no schedule. And then, the joy, as we peered through the dusty, cracked glass of his showcase, of discovering another exquisite piece.

He was proud of his craftsmanship, and of what those gnarled hands and dimming eyes could do. Sometimes he would allow us to peep into his cupboard as he searched for a special piece he had reserved for us. Our finds grew into a collection I treasured; one that travelled with me through my years of marriage, moving homes, and motherhood. And when my daughter was old enough, she discovered the treasure — and the stories they held.

“I want to go to Kochchappan. NOW,” she declared one day, when she was about 13. Life had come full circle, and we were back in Chennai, the city of my girlhood. So we made the excursion. Of course, Kochchappan wasn’t there. Nor his son, or nephew, or grandson. Did any of them even become silversmiths, I wondered, or had the onslaught of ‘machine-made’ items driven them to alternative livelihoods? For years, every time I passed that way, I wished that, somehow, there would be a sequel to Kochchappan. But the emptiness hung in the air, an unfulfilled yearning. And through the ebb and flow of my daughter’s growing up and leaving home, it lingered.

As did that nameless ache deep inside me.

Of course, digital technology helped. Google and Skype bridged the chasm all the way to England. WhatsApp made me acutely aware of time zones, keeping me willingly awake well past midnight. Now my phone was in my bed, cradled against my pillow.

All of which I took completely for granted. Till late one stormy night, when the wonders of the internet came together on my phone to work the most impossible magic. I was tossing restlessly in bed, but not because of the thunder and lighting. It was another, deeper gnawing in the pit of my stomach, heightened because the daughter was sleeping on a cold floor in a tiny room 2,000 km away. The power was off, and it was pitch black but for the blinding flashes of lightning. Suddenly, my phone buzzed; the daughter had just returned home. I clicked on the link she had sent.

Online shopping? Silver jewellery? Curious, I began browsing, even as we discussed her dinner. Some of the workmanship was lovely. How about these earrings? I sent her back another link. Not this, Ma, see this. But there was that niggling doubt. How could I buy jewellery without seeing how it shimmered in the light, without feeling the weight of the silver, the caress, the comfort? My phone vibrated again. “You can send it back if you don’t like it, Ma.”

I was weakening.

Google’s mind-reading did the rest. In no time, we discovered artisanal sites that worked with traditional craftsmen across India. Links flew like lightning as we window-shopped and compared prices. By the time she snuggled into bed hours later, my cart was heavy with long-overdue silver shopping. Outside, the storm had quietened.

As I put my phone away, an inexplicable warmth and joy washed over me, dissolving some of that leaden ache inside. And then it hit me.

This, this was Kochchappan, all over again. Across ether. Across time. Across geography. The ritual had come full cycle.

Kalyani Candade is a freelance writer based in Chennai

Published on June 21, 2019

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