December 22, 2005

My father loved bells, especially on long silk ropes with four or five bells tied at intervals, a strand to hang on a doorknob, bells that played with every coming and going.

In college, this made my Christmas shopping easy. I would walk down to Marshall Street, to a shop where they sold things from India. The big sellers were incense and Indian print bedspreads, without which you could not listen to Ravi Shankar or Donovan albums. But on a rack in the center of the store hung dozens of “Bells of Sarna.” I would buy a strand for my father, and one year I even treated myself to a lone prayer bell with a deep sonorous tone.

Years later, after my father died, I found one surviving strand in the back of his closet and I brought it home to hang in the back of my closet. For a few years, it lurked there and worked on my imagination. A friend moving south gave us two Indian brass bells that had lived on her kitchen counter for many years. I put them on my dresser, and recalled the other bells hanging or sitting in the dark. One day, leafing through a Pottery Barn catalog and imagining what my life would be like if I lived with their furniture, I saw some small mahogany ledges that could be mounted on a wall; I envisioned them holding brass bells in a row. I hit the “buy now” button. I thought about finding bells on eBay. Everything is on eBay; surely I could find Bells of Sarna on eBay. And surely I did.

Bells arrived in the mail, some a dark brown with age, some dull gold with frayed and faded silk ropes, some with original tags from the 1950s. Pipal tree bells, curry bells, sweetmeat bells, oil press bells, carriage bells, New Year bells, water festival bells — round bells, pointy bells, short bells, fat bells, slender bells, each with its own personality, each with its own tone.

As much as I respect patina, and as many times as I’ve been warned against disturbing it by the well-spoken twins on Antiques Roadshow, I wanted to see what was hidden under the tarnish and grime. I wanted the bells to look like they came from a good home where soft breezes blew and tea was served to ladies and gentlemen on the veranda. I Googled “polishing brass” and found that a steaming vinegar soak followed by a dollop of brass polish and a brisk rub with a clean cloth was just the tonic.

My lone prayer bell went into the bath first. And when the polishing cloth fell away, I was looking at the very bell I had bought in 1967. Other bells revealed numbers, etched patterns and inlaid color. I heard a celestial choir. I heard a ghostly echo of the bell in the Shi-tenno-ji temple, Osaka, a 310,000-pound behemoth cast in 1902 and melted down for its metal in 1942.

In my research, I read that bells ward off evil spirits. I ordered more ledges. Bells surround our bedroom now. The spirits of darkness flee.


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