Saturday, December 23, 2023

Wooden Doll

This was my entry to this year's Mozhi translation prize. It did not make the longlist which means I am free to post it here. You can read the original story titled Marappachi by Uma Maheswari in Tamil here.


Appa, who went up looking for something in the attic came down holding something else in his hand. Dust from the past had settled a dull patina on him. His face had the tired grace of someone who’d tumbled over memories along with old things. Appa called out to Anu - he’d found a rare child-like moment within him that stood on the precipice of a rushed life threatening to break into pieces at any given moment and it needed to be gathered and planted in her immediately. He held it out to Anu with a magical smile. A small parcel carefully wrapped in an old yellow cloth bag. Anu flipped it around enjoying the fascinating mystery of an unopened parcel. What was inside? A stack of tubers? A pencil box? A rolled up picture story book? Eight-year old Anu could not stand the suspense of the puzzle. Her dad however was keen that she should like it. When it was unwrapped urgently, out came a small figure of a woman made out of dark wood. Its age alone seemed novel to Anu. It lacked the unsullied beauty of temple idols and the dumb smoothness of plastic dolls spat out by machines. It had a uniform rough texture that wasn’t abrasive. Its small body was ideal for an easy grip. Long folded arms, legs that stood on a pedestal, eyes that brimmed with sadness of living in its curves, frozen lips. “It’s even got a plait, Appa!”. Anu caressed it one by one with growing wonder. 

“Each atom contains its sculptor’s language of touch, echoes of the chisel”, said Appa as he pointed to fine lines etched along the elbow, legs and face. Having noticed her astonishment with satisfaction, he left to allow her to play alone with her new friend. 

In her small hands lay miniature wood chips, a small stove, a pot, a pan, a spatula, a pitcher and a ladle that mimicked her future kitchen. The array tired her. A shadow of sadness like the hum of a small train running on a circular track spreads across her heart. The language of parrots, myna, pigeons and bird puppets is constantly stirring the clouds. The plastic girls are too slim to bear the weight of her imagination. 

Amma is forever busy cooking, rinsing, washing clothes and sweeping. Once done, she anoints the baby sister’s tender hands and legs with oil before placing the baby face down on her legs to give her a bath. She dries the baby, warms her in sambrani smoke, swaddles her in a saree, holds her close to her chest and sits in a corner for a long time. 

“Amma, shall I rest my head on your lap?”

“Are you still a baby?”. With her pregnant belly coming right up to her chest, Amma is panting even as she speaks. Anu is weighed down by the inadequacy of love that her mother partakes with her. 

Appa leans on a mattress, and cradles baby sister on his raised and folded legs. He shakes the rattle and amuses her. He talks in baby language to her, babbling ‘nnggu, akku…’. 

And if Anu were to ask about “this king” or “in that story”, he would scold her saying, “what questions you have like a grown up, stop being a nag.”

“So, who am I? Am I a grown up or a little girl, you tell me” Anu's questions to the wooden doll would be met with silent stares. 

“Who do I have? I’m all alone.”, Anu’s entreaties would be listened to attentively. When she rubbed a dried gourd on the ground, and placed the scorching kernel on its cheek, the doll would grimace, saying “oh, it stings!”. Anu’s belief that if you hull the black husk of a tamarind seed without damaging its inner brown skin and placed it on top, even your wildest dreams would come true, found a ‘yes man’ in the doll. It became the student in the school that Anu managed, the baby in her cradle, at times her mother, and a dream angel who remained at Anu’s side all the time. 

When the wooden doll would narrate new stories to her, its eyes would emit a blue light. Stories that the doll knew from when it was the heart of a tree, delightful stories that were kissed by the scent of the tree, rainbow stories that spread under rain drops…every day, she slept in the lap of a different story. 

The years melted her and cast her anew. Long, shimmering arms, rolling shoulders, pliant, folding waist, and once whilst having a bath, when her fingers brushed against her budding breasts for the first time, she ran terrified to the wooden doll and confessed to it. In turn, the doll showed her its own cone-shaped breasts. 

Amma was worried when she locked herself alone behind bathroom doors. “Let me wash your hair”, she would say. 

“No need”, says Anu moving away. Amma is mystified at the burgeoning, billowing screens between the two of them which only multiply each time she tries to progress by pushing them aside. She longed to run her hands along the shape of her daughter visible behind a thin but permanent screen. 

At nights when everyone was asleep, Amma would sit on a corner of Anu’s bed.  Amma’s wakefulness would penetrate Anu’s sleep and rankle her. Amma’s palms would seek something as she gently patted Anu’s body. If she were to wake up and ask, “What is it, Amma?”, she would murmur “nothing”, and turn to lie with her back to her. Anu would sense eyes and questions pouring at her from her mother’s back. 

These days it is Amma who straightens her top as she leaves for school. And if she were to be late by even ten minutes returning home, Amma would wait for her at the door anxiously. Wherever she went. Amma’s eyes guard her with warmth and tenderness. 

Anu marvels at how the wooden doll dulls and shines in sync with her own fatigue and joy. She notes how the wooden doll trembles with excitement and terror in the same way she does. She senses herself being bound by an invisible filament to the wooden doll. Its open body and eyes that shine beyond the lines, the space created by the hip and the folded arms, and lips that part as if to absorb everything in. Anu’s world would slip, slide and shrink within it. 


Other little girls invite Anu to play and then turn away making a face. As lights from television shows that ended a long time ago, wriggled and danced on the living room floor, as darkness seeped into the night, as the window doors waved about in the wind, Anu lies curled up in a corner of the cot. From the desk, the wooden doll’s eyes weave a gentle web that cradles her. Its breasts have crumbled and in its place the chest has grown a dense carpet of hair. The shapely waist straightens, the body thickens to a manly figure with a swirling moustache which is both strange and somehow attractive. Slowly it moved close to her bed. Its long shadow stretched over the bed and consumed Anu. As its dark veins spread across the entire mattress, they formed into new, new shapes; piece by piece. 

Its hands were those of a prince who gathered princesses and hoisted them on horsebacks in fairy tales. Its legs were of a lover who chased his paramour in the movies. Lips were those that kissed the cheeks of a drowsy woman on television. Its blinking eyes were those that flashed at her in crowded street corners, snapping her emotions. With a gentle likeness to her mother, and the fierce attractive movements of her father, as all the pieces of the silhouette spilled and coalesced, a rare rhythm of a man melted together. 

She’d never set eyes on him and yet he was always moving within her and how strange that she could see herself being penetrated like this! There was a blossoming cool delight to see him dominate the intimate corners that were only known to her. That night stretched uninterrupted, undisturbed even by the urgency of the morning.

Anu loved her body like never before. Her days floated from hiding secrets of the dreams. Once school was over, the wooden doll wound bound over and scoop her up; “why so late?”, it would ask with a long face; lengthy secret canoodling; kisses when Amma was not around; occupying her bed well before she got there. And if Amma were to try to snatch the wooden doll away from her from under the blanket, she would grip it tight even in her sleep. She delights in spending time burying herself in its wide hands, playing with the curly chest hair, laughing and tugging at the tips of moustache. She spins on the steps of passion. Without the will to move away but lacking the courage to dive deep, she dips her toes into the edges of desire. 

During Christmas holidays, when her aunt was visiting, Anu had gathered her skirt between legs, bent down to plant a pumpkin flower in a ball of cow dung in the kolam design in front of the house. “How you’ve grown, Anu!”, exclaimed her aunt as she scooped her in her arms. On the table were special dishes, served with care and attention by Amma. When aunt asked if Anu could go back with her for the holidays, Amma’s face broke into beads of terrified sweat. “Aiyo sister-in-law, would we eat her alive? And what’s wrong if she does come of age at our house? Do we have any other kids? Send her with me for once”, said her aunt, pulling Anu close to her with affection. 

Anu was baffled when she saw her mother in agony, as if one of her limbs were being amputated. As she was about to place the wooden doll in a suitcase packed with the rest of her clothes, her aunt said ‘there’s plenty of dolls there’ and snatched it and cast it aside. Anu felt sorry about it. But she found the trip pleasurable. Plenty of trees, joyous wind, leaning blue mountains. Everything was brand new. 

When Anu’s uncle saw her in the dark green skirt Amma had compelled her to wear, he was also surprised at how much Anu had grown. From the second her uncle saw her, Anu squirmed as she sensed something leaping from him towards her. It writhed under her uncle’s stagnating gaze below her neck as he asked her, “Which class are you in? Eighth? Ninth?”, but didn’t listen to her response. It wriggled in the heat of his breath as he coddled her saying “How you’ve grown! Are you the same little girl with a runny nose in a little dress?” and tugged at her waist while she kept pulling away. It seeped from the palms of his hands as they patted her and searched up and down asking “Is your shirt tight here?”. Anu extracted herself from her uncle's hands and ran. 

Aunt however was affectionate. She kept offering her food and practically fed her with thickly sweet jaggery appam, semolina paniyaaram and lentil fritters soaked in sweet milk. “Shall we plait your beautiful thick hair into a thousand legged braid?”. Once plaited, she threaded pichchi flower buds from the back garden on a needle, sewed them into a braid, turned her to stand in front of a long mirror and handed her a small mirror. “Look Anu, see if it’s good!”

The pages of love that had been hidden with Amma tumbled open with her aunt. Anu would forever cling to her aunt, curling up close to her at night near a corner of a wall, trying to fall asleep while keeping an eye on her saree edge. But in an instant the man would erase the entire distance between them as he set out for her from within the wooden doll. He would introduce himself in the narrow gap between aunt and herself settling down gracefully. He would churn and stir in her muscles and nerves as she slept. Their uninterrupted trance and everything else is ripped by the sudden entrance of alien eyes. Anu startles awake. She feels as if she desperately wants to go to the toilet. Open the back door, past the coconut trees, coral jasmine and henna plants, in the cold darkness…aiyo, it is scary. Should she wake up her aunt? Tcha, poor aunt. Dull, tired, and deep asleep. Her nosepin would glint with the rise and fall of her breath. In the jagged ends of hair by the edge of her ears, in the sprouted sweat beads on her cheek, the hidden child inside of her aunt is visible. Somehow she would go back to sleep. No, she is unable to hold. Her bladder stabs on her lower abdomen. 

Rising slowly without waking her aunt up, without letting her anklet roar, walking like a cat, banging against the dinner table but managing somehow, she feels around for the switch in the dark and turns it on. In the gentle silence, the tiny sound of keys turning in the door lock explodes loudly. Her aunt rolling over can be heard. ‘Would it be too dark?’. Scared and trembling, she removes the lower latch loudly and opens the door to be greeted by the blinking cheer of bright stars. Yellow light from the electric lamp wriggles little nails on the ground. Very beautifully, without causing fear. She is able to laugh now thinking about her fears. Billowing skirt in the wind. The fragrance of pichchi flower. The raw scent of plants. The heady pleasance of henna flowers, the low swinging string of stars. The infantile light of the moon. Even the screech of the toilet door is sweet. 

The body is supple once freed of urine. It is tempting to sit by the henna bush. Aiyo, but aunt would search for her. As she returned, Anu realised that she was not on her own. She prickled under the swarm of a hundred eyes. When she began running reflexively, she collided with something, hard hands held her tight, the same hot breath of the morning. ‘Chee, no; was she possessed or something?’ Her face is held against a dark chest with thick, grey hair. Pouring kisses - on the cheeks, on the lips, on the neck, groping fingers that seek something that has not sprouted or even taken root within her, but end up crushing and destroying it. 

She wailed when her small breasts were squeezed. With the wordless shriek her aunt was woken up. When Anu’s body was laid on a bed of dried leaves, she plunged to the depths of consciousness. Her uncle’s body pressed heavily against hers. As her aunt came rushing, her uncle quickly got away. Her aunt shaking her asks, “Anu, what happened, Anu!” but there was no sign of life in her. “Looks like she fell down when she went to the toilet”. Uncle manages an explanation. Silently, her aunt embraces her, carries her and lays her down on a bed. 

Consciousness tumbles in waves of semi-stupor. Is it this? Is it that? Like this? No, usually faces come next to each other, then suddenly a flower and another dance close together, new birds will fly in the sky. Blue skies and verdant fields meet in a close embrace, the sweet sounds of flute spreads in all directions, isn’t that how it’s shown in that song? Oh, if it had been that way, would she have liked this better? Would you like a different approach then? No. What, this uncle? Greying along the ears. Stench of cigarette in his mouth. A gnawing decrepit lust in the tight grip of frail shoulders. Chest feels acrid. Body scorches. Chest smolders in pain. Eyes burn. 

“Aiyo Anu, the skin is hot. Please at least have this tablet”, sobs her aunt covering her mouth with her saree . She runs to uncle’s room and shouts something angrily. 

‘Can I not be myself anymore? Uncle’s touch is not like my father’s. It must be at least a thousand years since Appa even touched me! Is he the first man for me? What else has been destroyed when his body collided into mine and crushed me? Can the images that have been scorched by the flames of coercion and have drooped ever be reclaimed? What had uncle squeezed and discarded out of me? Something has happened to me. What have I lost?’ Sleep falls on her eyelids like a wet gunny sack. 

Faded sounds in the morning. The click of a lighter in the kitchen, the whistle of a milk cooker, the sound of milk being frothed in a tumbler. “Drink this coffee, Anu”, says her aunt to Anu who lies awake. “Don’t want it, I want to go to Amma now”

Anu paid no mind to her aunt’s pleadings. Her uncle folds the newspaper and comes next to her. Unconcealable guilt is etched on his face, hideously. 

“Shall Uncle buy you a new frock?”. Anu pushes away the hand that touched her shoulder immediately. As aunt’s frowns, uncle moves away. How long does the journey stretch? How slowly do the wheels churn? Her aunt’s silence breaks her heart. She appears as a worn out version of Amma. ‘Amma, Amma! What do I tell you? How do I tell you about this?’

“What happened? Why have you returned so soon?”, asks Amma as she comes running with the baby on her hips. She lunges and embraces Anu with her sight. Aunt forces a smile as eyes weigh heavy. 

“Your daughter caught a fever from being away from you for just one day” she says but Amma’s eyes refuse to believe it and move to caress Anu, as if she were a porcelain object that had been dropped by mistake and then grabbed with alarm to check that it hadn’t cracked.

Anu runs inside without a word. Sorrow stains every direction of the house. An inhuman silence has scabbed over it. “Where’s my wooden doll?”, searches Anu. On top of the tv set in the living room, amongst the dolls in the kitchen, inside the baby’s cradle, but it is not to be found anywhere. ‘It would have scratched and broken. Crushed into a hundred pieces. Amma would have swept it, gathered it and thrown it away.’ Tears pooled in Anu’s eyes. When she collapsed on the bed crying, the wooden doll stood on the window sill. But it didn’t see her at all. Its sight was scattered elsewhere, across everything but her. It clung to a corner seeking to avoid Anu’s touch. Her mind sobbed to think that she would never be able to reclaim their intimacy. Upon close inspection, the wooden doll had once again regained its shapely waist and a feminine body. Anu looked with disgust at its breasts which had started to sprout again.