It was a breathtaking piece of jewellery. Fashioned out of diamonds imported from South Africa, set in Antwerp, commissioned by a minor 19th century Indian prince for his paramour. A pair of earrings that had changed hands (or ears, if you will) many, many times, before reaching the confines of a glass display at Osian’s Auction house in Mumbai. It was on display until tomorrow, and then it was going to be auctioned off.
Mrs Indra Chopra was a patron of the auction house. She was a kind-hearted socialite with a wealthy husband. She came from humble origins, and from the time her husband had struck gold, she had developed a tendency for showiness. Along with this, she had further indulged in an already marked instinct to hoard. When she was poorly off, she had collected Papier Mache figurines and magazines. After her accession to Society, she collected jewellery and art.
Today, she pottered around Osian’s, looking at the pieces on display. Really, she was glad she had discovered Osian’s…her living room was coming along quite nicely. Why, it might even give a museum a run for its money! Look at that pretty wooden elephant! She had bought a bigger one last year. Maybe she should buy this one too and have them stand next to each other. She made a note and moved on.
Here were some long-limbed African tribal figures with thick hoops hanging around their neck and hands and what not. She had never understood why these figures were such a big hit – though she had caved to peer pressure and bought a pair of them last year (and put it up on the highest shelf of the showcase where she didn’t have to look at them).
Suddenly, the world swirled around her. In front of her were the most gorgeous, most spectacular, most perfect earrings she had ever set eyes on. A wave of craving crashed over her, a craving that she had never felt before. In a moment, she was abjectly in love and the spirits of obsessed collectors over the centuries seemed to be goading her on. She had to own those earrings.
The ceiling was resplendent with the intersecting lights and shadows of many chandeliers. The room beneath was not far behind in splendor – a riot of gold, diamonds and gems ensconced in the arms and necks and ears of Mumbai’s well-heeled. It was the birthday dinner of an industrialist who liked being rich and made no effort to cloak the sentiment. Indra entered the hall in a daze, acutely aware of her earrings and how beautiful they must be looking, and aware of very little besides.
However, she came to herself within a few minutes. ‘Look at you strutting around like a peacock! You look more like a fat pig in a fancy dress competition that anything else, you know’, said a Mrs Sharma, a distant acquaintance.
Indra almost jumped in horror. ‘Me…Wh…whaat?’ she stammered.
‘Yes, that’s right. Don’t look so surprised. Did you look in the mirror before you left the house?’ said Mrs Sharma, with a pleasant smile on her face. Indra was not equipped to deal with conversation of this kind. She gasped a little as she tried to think of an appropriate rejoinder to that comment, and when she couldn’t, she sidled away. That woman! She’d make sure she told her friends how rude Mrs Sharma was…though of course, she wouldn’t get into specifics.
She was still recovering from the jolt she saw her friend Mrs Aparna Mahadevan approach. She felt a mite relieved. She’d tell Aparna about it, and possibly feel better afterwards. And at least she could work in some conversation about her earrings. That Mrs Sharma hadn’t given her the chance.
‘There you are’, said Aparna. ‘ I told you we’d come here together, but you hurried off. I guess you couldn’t wait to show off’, she smiled indulgently. ‘You know..those earrings are pretty. But they don’t look so good on you. With a chin like yours, chins actually, hehe, you can’t put off all this delicate airy stuff. You should wear something solid and big and gold.’
Indra felt light-headed. Aparna and she were as close as any two people in their circles, and she could stand a jibe from Aparna…but this was going too far! That too, coming from Aparna, who had always been a staunch supporter of her fashion choices.
‘Aparna, really? I thought you liked my taste’, said Indra, slow tears streaming down her face. Mrs Mahadevan looked puzzled. She drew Indra aside, held her hand, and said in a comforting voice, ‘What happened now? God, Indra, you’re melodramatic as hell. Always fussing about something or the other!’.
Through her tears, Indra looked at Aparna, and was suddenly hit by the consciousness that something very odd was happening. Aparna’s face looked reassuring, her voice sounded reassuring, but she was saying these awful things! Was Aparna a little unhinged today? She drew back from her. She had had enough crazy conversation for one night. She stepped out of the hall and tried to calm down by striding up and down the corridor.
A waiter passed by her. Smiling, he said, ‘Good evening ma’am’. And then, as he walked away, he muttered quite audibly, ‘Wow, those earrings are something! I wish I could get something pretty for Poornima, just for once’. Indra was past trying to understand. A waiter had just commented on her earrings in her hearing!
Hearing!! A nebulous thought made her run back to the hall. She walked around the hall, taking care to avoid conversation, just hovering around people and moving away before they could spot her.
‘Yeah, you came by that money honestly, I don’t think!’
‘How can he go on and on about his dog like that? There should be a law against it.’
‘Is she prettier than I am? I am fairer..but she has such a perfectly shaped nose.’
Her ears rang with naked, uncivilized conversations. Indra was genuinely spooked now. She realized what was happening. She was hearing what people were thinking, not what they were saying! She sought her husband as a last recourse. Her eyes darted around the hall, and she saw him talking to a group of dapper men.
She ran towards him. She saw his eyes widen as she approached. ‘Oh God, make her go away. She’ll come and say something stupid to my friends, I just know it!’ said her husband. Indra froze, stung beyond words. So that was how Prem felt about her! She had wondered sometimes.
She changed her mind about telling her husband. She walked away, leaving an open-mouthed Prem in her wake. She couldn’t stand it anymore. Everything was so stifling, so horrible! She left a message for Prem and called her driver. She reached home, took off her precious earrings as though in a dream, took a sleeping pill and went straight to bed.
Aparna came home next afternoon, just as she was waking up.
‘Why did you vanish like that yesterday’, demanded Aparna. I was talking to you and you just shot off!’.
‘I was just tired. Aparna, what did you think of my earrings yesterday? Do you think a person with a chin like mine can pull off wearing such delicate stuff? Or do you think I had better stick to traditional gold?’ asked Indra.
Aparna turned a pale colour, but she said readily, ‘No, I think it looked lovely on you! There’s nothing wrong with your chin, why do you worry so much about it!’. Indra strained her ears and listened hard. No, that was it. No insults forthcoming. She sighed and leaned back.
‘Indra, can I try it on just once?’, asked Aparna. ‘Ok.’ Indra waved a weary hand and heaved herself up to fetch the earrings. Aparna walked to the ornate oval mirror in the hall that just somehow made one look prettier. She wore the earrings, and she was turning this way and that and preening. Suddenly, she heard a loud guffaw behind her.
‘You think it didn’t look good on me? Well, well, look at you!’ said Indra. Aparna whirled around. ‘What did you mean by that? When did I say it didn’t look good on you?’, she snapped.
‘What did I mean by what?’, said a hapless Indra. What was happening to her? Every conversation she had was going awry. She’d just asked Aparna to screw on the earrings tighter.
And then it dawned on her.
‘Quick, Aparna, give me the earrings!’, she said. Aparna gave them to her, a little dazed herself. Indra wore them, and looked at Aparna expectantly.
‘How rude of you to snatch it like that! Really Indra, you’re the limit. Sometimes I don’t know why I put up with you’, Aparna was saying.
Indra felt like she had just solved a murder mystery! She plonked down, limp and light-headed. The earrings were doing it! They were making her hear people’s thoughts. She shuddered. A memory came back to her. Of the auctioneer saying that the earrings were rumoured to be cursed. Nothing dangerous – none of its owners had died or been dogged by obvious bad luck. But almost everybody who had possessed it had sold it within a year – so it was generally assumed that there was something the matter with it. Indra had barely paid attention then.
The earrings were back at Osian’s. Such was her love for them that Indra had decided to keep them in her showcase instead of wearing them. But it had been too much to bear. Every time she had looked at them, a macabre voice had gone off in her head and replayed that awful night. She had held out for a week, and then she had taken them to Osian’s and begged them to buy it back. Her collector’s spirit was quite subdued for the moment – for the first time ever, she had left Osian’s empty-handed.
It was a testament to their codependence that Indra and Aparna were on talking terms within a week, and bosom friends again within the month. But it was a long time before Indra managed to forget. When friends complimented her about her appearance or her accessories or her beloved showcase, she had taken to asking in a pitiful, eager voice, ‘Really? Do you really think that?’
Meanwhile, the earrings twinkled placidly in their glass cage, waiting for their next owner.