Madanji had taken Haruko on as a favour to an American lady who visited sometimes and wrote in magazines about the goldsmiths of Johari Bazaar. Her references brought paying customers from foreign lands to his gaddi every tourist season. I’m sending one of my students to you, to learn your wonderful art, she had said and he had accepted.
Had he known that the student was a girl when he had agreed to the unpaid apprenticeship, he would have found an excuse to turn her down. Everyone knew that women were not allowed to learn the craft of goldsmiths and artisans. However, it was too late by the time he had discovered her gender.
Haruko had arrived at his haveli with a large bag strapped to her back. It is a matter of a few weeks, he had explained to his artisans. She won’t last. To his astonishment, Haruko had not only lasted, she had turned out very well too, learning the different crafts quickly, completing assigned jobs without spoiling any of the pieces – something Madanji was worried about initially.
She had seemed too strong, too forceful for jewellery making, which required lightness, patience.
Besides, and for this Madanji was secretly even more thankful, she always dressed properly in long-sleeved shirts and baggy trousers. He had been worried about her turning up in skirts or, worse, in a pair of shorts as he had seen foreign tourists do.
Haruko stepped out into the open courtyard, strapped on the thick-soled sandals she wore everywhere, and walked out into the lane. The lane, though tucked away in one of the backstreets of Johari Bazaar, was a famous one. It boasted of shops dating back a hundred years that sold the city’s favourite snacks.
Haruko breathed in the piquant smells of fried savouries mingled with urine and dried cow dung as she walked to the little shack at the end of the street which sold cold drinks out of a large icebox that barely fit inside the flimsy wooden structure. She bought frosted bottles of mineral water and a can of Coke, drinking it in hurried gulps as she retraced her steps to Munnaji’s gaddi. She tapped gently at the half-open wooden door.
“Come, come,” Munnaji called from the shadowed interior. Slipping off her sandals, Haruko stepped in. “Namaste,” she joined her palms and bowed, combining the Indian and Japanese greetings. She had grown up in New York, and her mother’s attempts at teaching her complicated Japanese etiquette had not succeeded beyond deep bows.
Munnaji smiled broadly, “All ready. Waiting. There,” and pointed to the wooden desk in the corner furthest from the door, laid out with a large silver bowl and two boxes, each marked with a large “H”. They contained the purified kundan gold, uncut diamonds and other stones she was to work with.
Haruko slid behind the desk and picked up the wooden, pestle-like polishing tool.
There was a large agate, the size of a dollar, set into its base. Taking a thin strip of silver, she began polishing it, passing the smooth agate over and over the piece of silver until it shone like tinsel. She took an oval-shaped diamond, transparent like glass, from one of the boxes, and measured its diameter with her callipers. Then, notching the silver strip, she cut out a piece according to the measurement and curved it into a minuscule bowl.
She placed the diamond into it, the thin disk of the stone glowing white with the polished silver backing, and set it gently in the centre of one of the enamelled flowers on the necklace. She drew out a wafer-thin gold foil with a pair of fine forceps and began the careful task of inserting it into the gap between the stone and the lac-filled setting. Numerous layers of the gold foil would need to be inserted with a feather touch so as not to damage the enamel or the lac, until a gleaming raised line of gold outlined the stone.
It was slow work, requiring concentration, and Munnaji set no more than twenty or twenty-five stones in one workday. Haruko’s collar needed over fifty stones and she estimated that, in the time she could spare from her apprenticeship at Madanji’s, it would take her about a month to complete the settings. She did not mind the time taken or the slowness of the task. The careful precision appealed to her.
From time to time, Munnaji glanced up from the piece he was working on to check how she was getting along.
Unlike Madanji, who had been handling foreign clients for a long time and spoke passable English, Munnaji’s English was limited and he guided Haruko mainly by showing her the right way. After an hour or so, Haruko finished setting the diamond and held out the necklace to Munnaji. He took it, smiling, and placed it on the soft cloth spread on his desk.
Picking up a thin sliver of the kundan gold with his silver forceps, he inserted it around the polki diamond with infinite care and the gentlest touch. Still smiling, he handed the necklace back to Haruko and she bent over the ornament again. If the kundan was not packed tightly, the stone would come loose and fall, earning disgrace for the artisan.
When Munnaji was finally satisfied with her work, he took a small slab made of lac and sand and rubbed the gold setting until it glowed sun-yellow. Haruko watched the delicate strokes closely. When he finished, she replaced the collar in its velvet case and placed it on Munnaji’s desk. “Please keep it for me,” she said, pointing to the iron safe next to Munnaji’s desk. “I will return tomorrow. I am not ready to work alone yet.”
Out on the street the shadows had deepened. Haruko glanced at her watch and realised that she had been longer than intended. She bent to do up the straps of her dusty sandals. There was a sudden rushing sound, like a drum beating a tattoo, and before she knew it, she was flung violently aside. An unbearable weight descended on her legs momentarily. She heard a crunching sound. So this is what a cracking bone sounds like, she thought before the shadows around her turned opaque.
Excerpted with permission from Kintsugi: A Novel, Anukrti Upadhyay, Fourth Estate.