A Chip of Glass Ruby | Summary
A Chip of Glass begins with a flashback to when Mrs. Bamjee first brought a duplicate machine back to her house in South Africa. Mrs. Bamjee was a widow with the surname Pahad and five children when she met Mr. Bamjee. Now, they are married and have nine children in total- the oldest, Girlie, being married and living close by- in a small house with little space for privacy. Mr. Bamjee’s discontentment with the duplicate machine in their house is quite evident. He knows his wife will use it to print leaflets for her political causes, this time apartheid, and asks her whether it isn’t enough that they’ve got the Indians’ troubles on their backs without adding the Africans’ too. Mr. Bamjee himself is a fruit-and-vegetable vendor, waking up early to reach the market at five. Mrs. Bamjee tells him that it is not long now, and he turns his back on her as she and the children smile. Gordimer next describes Mrs. Bamjee’s physical appearance- her thin body and black braid and cheap sari. She used to have a glass ruby fit into her nostril, courtesy of her mother, but she had abandoned it long ago. Mrs. Bamjee sits up past midnight, making leaflets on the duplicate machine.
Mr. Bamjee already knows what the leaflets say- captions about burning passports for freedom and not going to work in protest of the Africans’ leader being jailed. Mrs. Bamjee has quiet and serious meetings with several prominent Indian figures in light of the situation, and having people of such repute in his house makes Mr. Bamjee proud. Further, he trusts her completely- he knows she will not behave improperly, for besides her political activism, she is a ‘normal’ Muslim woman. As soon as the meetings are over, she goes about preparing dinner and taking care of the children, just as Mr. Bamjee expects her to. When he questions why she does these things, she reminds him what happened last time she fought for a cause: he told her there was no point until something happens to them Indians- and then days later his own mother lost her house, and he realised that everyone is in danger.
As they discuss this, Mrs. Bamjee mentions that their family friend Ismail’s brother has been engaged, and there is a party to celebrate- one that the Bamjee-Pahad family must attend. She begins to fix up one of her children’s dresses for the event, and this very normal action calms Mr. Bamjee a bit. The next morning, they hear that Dr. Khan, one of the people who had a meeting with Mrs. Bamjee, had been arrested. Mr. Bamjee often comes home to see black women resting or drinking tea, and he thinks it would never happen in a regular Indian household. Mrs. Bamjee is not particularly modern, but she is different in an unclear way- the same unclarity that Mr. Bamjee has about his attraction to her. He was indeed attracted, which is what led to their marriage, but he is not quite sure what about her was attractive to him.
On a Thursday morning, Mrs. Bamjee is arrested, her duplicate machine seized. Mr. Bamjee is quite horrified- he realises that he will have to take care of all the work now, from the children to cooking to cleaning and all the other work his wife does. It upsets him greatly, and he wonders why she has to get involved in such business. As she is taken away, she reminds him to make sure the children attend Ismail’s brother’s party, or else Ismail will be offended. The children try to help her as much as they can, providing her with comfortable clothes and promising they will be alright. The fifteen-year-old Jimmy immediately runs next door to tell Girlie the news, and they are the ones who visit their mother in prison later- she is in the next town, and they take money from Mr. Bamjee to catch the train.
Mr. Bamjee finds the house strangely quiet and empty without his wife. The room seems different without the duplicate machine. One day, the youngest son gets mocked by the teacher in school because his mother is in prison for protecting the Africans- despite the teacher being a person of colour, as well. His colour brought him trouble throughout his life- he wants to hang on to the little whiteness he has, and refuses to believe they are all the same. Jimmy points out that it is this very reason their mother is protesting- to stop such a mindset. Soon there is a hunger strike, and Mrs. Bamjee participates from prison. She grows weaker and weaker without food, and Mr. Bamjee helplessly wonders why they must go through this.
Girlie, pregnant, arrives early at the house one morning to wish Mr. Bamjee a happy birthday, something which he had completely forgotten about. She explains that her mother reminded her when she visited the prison- Mrs. Bamjee insisted that her husband’s birthday should not be forgotten. Mr. Bamjee is moved- despite all the chaos, as she starves in prison, his wife remembers his birthday. Girlie points out that her mother has always been that way- she never wanted anyone to feel left out and always remembers everything, from the starving kids to the boys who can’t go to school. That is the reason he fights for justice so strongly. Mr. Bamjee is tired of this situation, but nonetheless, a realisation dawns on him at Girlie’s words. Mrs. Bamjee is always kind, compassionate and strong. She was never like the others, and in that moment, he remembers why he was attracted to her.
A Chip of Glass Ruby | Analysis
A Chip of Glass Ruby by Nadine Gordimer is a short story written in third-person and internal monologue- here specifically of Mr. Bamjee. It focuses on an Indian Muslim family living in South Africa, and provides a glimpse of the political scenario at the time. This story was published in 1982, which is in the midst of South Africa’s apartheid era- 1948 to 1994. Apartheid means ‘apartness’, and refers to the segregation policies and blatant discrimination against the non-white South African citizens. This is what Mrs. Zanip Bamjee fights against, through meetings with prominent figures, by making leaflets and by providing a safe shelter for people of colour to rest and drink tea.
Gordimer employs a balance of perspective, description and narration to portray the mindset of the other characters, despite the internal monologue being heavily focused on Mr. Bamjee. More prominently, it is the characters’ discussions and interactions that highlight their thoughts and points of view. The story also contains clever dialogue, symbolism and imagery which help paint a more vivid picture. The themes in A Chip of Glass Ruby are sacrifice, bravery, compassion, selfishness, discrimination and justice, and political activism. We also see the overarching theme of relationships, family, and community.
The duplicating machine plays an important role in the story, both literally and figuratively. It is introduced in the very first line- Mr. Bamjee’s irritation on seeing it gives the readers an early glimpse of his perspective on the situation, as well as the differing opinions of him and his wife. His insistence on “let the natives handle their trouble” shows that he is less compassionate and more self-centered. We may also assume that he does not want to attract trouble or danger in any way, and would much prefer to live a calm life in a ‘normal’ Indian Muslim household. The machine symbolises the political protest in itself, as well as Mrs. Bamjee’s courage and strength as she participates in it.
They are a family of eleven- nine children and two adults- with ten of them living in one house. They manage to work, play, eat and sleep within their space without any complaint, which is a subtle hint at the theme of family. Through Mr. Bamjee’s thoughts and the way he regards his wife, readers can see that he has a very conservative and patriarchal view. For example, when he says “her body was as scraggy and unimportant as a dress on a peg when it was not host to a child.” it shows that he considers his wife’s’- or a woman’s, in general- job to bear children and raise them, cook for the family and look after the house. Anything else Mrs. Bamjee does is seen as unnecessary and questionable, and she receives no support from him. The only thing we may say is that he doesn’t stop her, either- however this is more likely due to her willpower and strong personality than his understanding. The reputed figures who often visit their house may be another reason, as Mr. Bamjee feels a sense of pride to see such prominent people in his home. Overall, his outlook highlights the theme of selfishness. Another glimpse at his patriarchal mindset is when he describes her stamping leaflets “as if she were pounding chilies” which suggests that he believes that’s what she should be doing, rather than political activism.
The fact that Mr. Bamjee trusts his wife completely and knows that despite all her meetings with reputed men for her cause, she would never behave offensively is a hint of one of the things that attracted him to her- something he struggles to remember throughout the story. Jimmy and Girlie are presumably the two oldest children, as they seem the most supportive and understanding of their mother. It is also important to note that as her children from her previous marriage, they have known her longer than Mr. Bamjee has, and are used to her spirit. When Mrs. Bamjee tells them they must go to Ismail’s brother’s engagement party, it shows the way she balances her life as an activist, a wife and a mother. She still makes sure the family attends all social gatherings. She still cooks every meal and stitches up her children’s clothes. She does not compromise one for the other, which proves that family is just as important to her as her cause. It is also a nod to her personality, which becomes even clearer at the end- she never forgets anyone and never leaves anyone behind.
When Mrs. Bamjee is arrested, the copying machine is taken away. This represents a loss in her freedom, as she goes to prison. The way her children help her showcases the theme of family, while her husband’s anger and fear highlights selfishness once more. His main thought is how he will manage looking after the children and house in her absence. This is in stark contrast to her attitude- even as she is being taken away, she tells Mr. Bamjee that he cannot forget to take the kids to Ismail’s brother’s party. Even in a difficult moment, she shows love for her family. Her compassion for others is one of her strongest qualities. Mr. Bamjee does not once in those moments think about his wife’s health, well-being or state- he simply wonders why she had to be so politically active, why she had to leave him to do so much work. His thoughts are consistently about himself, while Mrs. Bamjee’s thoughts revolve around others.
In school, one of the younger sons faces a difficult time from his teacher because of his mother being in prison. Here, we see the theme of prejudice. The teacher, who is a black man himself, ridicules Mrs. Bamjee for fighting for equality. He strongly dislikes the idea of everyone being equal, because his colour gave him trouble when he was younger. He wants to hold on to the little whiteness he has and assert his dominance over others- something he cannot do if everyone is brought to equality. He is triggered by his own experience into believing he is different or better than others. He discriminates against others in fear of being discriminated against- linear to the mentality of ‘if I do it first, nobody will be able to do it to me.’ While Mr. Bamjee thinks his wife is being troublesome by bringing this plight upon her children, Jimmy is very mature and reasonable. This shows his open mind and the bond between mother and son. This incident also provides a direct, everyday example of the problems faced in the society because of apartheid, which help the readers feel closer to Mrs. Bamjee and her cause.
Mr. Bamjee finds the house quiet after his wife is taken away. This represents his gradually changing thought process. He may be closer to understanding his wife when he gives his son an extra shilling to visit her. However, it is Girlie who delivers the final moment of enlightenment. Mrs. Bamjee remembers her husband’s birthday, something he himself does not. She is in prison, starving on a hunger strike, yet she thinks of him. Once again, we see a clear display of compassion from her end, especially with Girlie’s words about her. Mr. Bamjee remembers why he married her- he complains all the time that she is not like other wives. Yet the very reason he was attracted to her is that: she is not like anyone else. Not just in her spirited nature, but in her kind heart.
The fact that Girlie is pregnant, and her belly is mentioned in the last line, may represent a full-circle. Girlie herself is dressed ‘modern’, according to Mr. Bamjee. This could be a hint that the next generation is going to follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Bamjee. Maybe not as political activists themselves, but not confined to the expectations of patriarchy and society- it hints that they will be open to fighting for justice and standing up for what they believe in. The yet-to-be-born baby is a symbol of new life and new beginnings, for society and for the family- especially Mr. Bamjee’s view on his wife. Meanwhile, the title of the story- A Chip of Glass Ruby- comes from the glass ruby nose piercing that Mrs. Bamjee used to wear. Glass ruby is shining and striking to the eye- this may symbolise Mrs. Bamjee herself. Her bright spirit and strong but beautiful nature, a light of hope among the difficulties.
A Chip of Glass Ruby | About the Author
Nadine Gordimer was a South African writer born in 1923. She often wrote about moral and racial issues, and included the political scenario as an element in her work. Especially the apartheid, as she lived through the entirety of it.
She was actively a part of the anti-apartheid movement. Gordimer reviewed Nelson Mandela’s famous defense speech of 1964. She is critically acclaimed and has several honourable recognitions for her writing, including the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. She passed away in 2014, at 90 years old.