Friday, May 27, 2016

I walk downtown to the jewelers to get the clasp fixed on a bracelet that Mom gave me years ago. I worry about our jewelers because they are not young, and when they no longer are downtown I have no idea who will fix my watch or find my necklace a clasp that is friendlier to my arthritic fingers, or make my wedding ring, though thankfully I don’t anticipate ever needing another one. I don’t know how old they there, but I know that when Darius retired – he was a professor of chemical engineering – he realized that retirement was a bad idea, so he apprenticed to a jeweler and jewelry-repairer and learned the trade. Since then, at least 20 years ago, he and his wife Fenu, have kept their weird and lovely shop in Hastings. It is filled with estate jewelry and odd bits of porcelain, crystal and silver, and has always been filled with those same dusty pieces. I don’t think anyone ever buys anything in the shop. We go there for repairs, lengthy repairs and conversations. Darius and Fenu are both from Bombay, when it was still Bombay. They are Parsees, or Zoroastrians – fire worshippers - which may perhaps be the most ancient religion in the world.

In the back of the store, Fenu sits behind her desk, piled with papers, pads and the cashbox. Beside her, just about four feet away, is Darius’ work table where he repairs. It is covered with the tools of his trade. On the wall above him are four clocks, but only one has ever told the correct time. I tell them I have come for my bracelet, and this means that Darius pulls from under his table a large cardboard box filled with items repaired or to-be-repaired, each in a separate plastic bag. He looks through everything in the box, and whatever I have come for is always the last one he examines. We are in no rush. The bracelet still needs to have its clasp fixed.

I mention that I saw this wonderful movie about an Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Darius says that for some reason there have been many great Indian mathematicians. He tells me about a student back in Bombay who had no shoes but was uncannily brilliant. Meanwhile, WQXR is on the radio, as it always is in their small shop, and now they are playing the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco. I am pleased because it is one of the few pieces of music that I can actually identify. Darius says to me, “Do you know how the Jewish people ever recovered from the war? I always ask my friends that, because it was such a terrible thing to recover from. Are you Jewish?” I say I am not, and then I think, what if I say Yes? I could be Jewish. Ever since Reine tested positive for the Tay-Sachs gene, I have assumed that there is some Jewish strain in there. Theoretically, the recessive gene could come from her father’s family, the Über-Waspy-Hewitts, as shocked as some of them would be to discovered such a thing; but honestly I prefer that it comes from the Euro-mélange that is my side of the family.

Meanwhile, we all concur that Nabucco is a beautiful opera, one of Verdi’s finest.
While he is welding a tiny lobster clasp to the bracelet, Darius recalls in incident when he was doing his BSc at the university in Bombay. There was a chemistry conference that brought in scientists from all over the world, including Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband. Darius was an undergrad then, and his department head asked him to walk Madame Joliet-Curie back to her hotel so that she could freshen up for the evening’s events. Of course he did. He escorted her to the hotel and watched her go up the elevator; her hair was wild, and her clothing rumpled. When she emerged from the elevator a while later, she looked exactly the same: wild hair, rumpled clothes. Of course he said nothing to the eminent Nobelist, but it caused him to ponder the idiosyncratic nature of genius. As he tells me this, Darius is almost weeping with quiet laughter. Fenu, his wife, is also laughing, though I assume she has heard this story dozens of times. From the Panasonic transistor radio, the exiled Hebrew slaves were singing,
Golden harp of the prophetic wise men,
why hang so silently from the willows?
Rekindle the memories in our hearts,
tell us about the times gone by!
Remembering the fate of Jerusalem
play us a sad lament
or else be inspired by the Lord
to fortify us to endure our suffering!

Apparently Irene Joliot-Curie was not the only eccentric member of the family. Darius relates an incident when Frédéric Joliot-Curie was lecturing and writing formulas on the blackboard with one, and erasing previously written formulas with the other. In the audience was another scientist, a Finn and a fellow Nobel prize winner. Seeing his colleague’s dilemma, he jumped up, grabbed the eraser and said that he would hereafter erase the board for Professor Joliot-Curie, whenever needed. Again, Fenu laughs heartily as if for the first time.
Darius has fixed my bracelet, and it is time to go. “Thank you for the story about the Curies,” I say.
“They were two stories,” he corrects me.

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