This afternoon mom and I strolled about the busy corridors of Phoenix mall. I was embarrassed to realize that I was tired while my mom frolicked about, always a few paces ahead of me. I noticed a little boy wreak havoc lying flat on the ground, stomping his hands and legs and screeching his throat out. It was obvious he was demanding a toy from the toy store which his parents refused in the beginning but gave in soon after the theatrical blackmail. My mother elbowed me and said, “you were just like that.”
Yes. That was me twenty-five years ago, strolling in the streets of Varanasi, walking a step behind my mother holding the loose end of her saree. The streets were illuminated by the glittering lights of the shops and perfumed by the exhaust of power generators running in front of each shop. There was a whiff of winter in the air. My parents shopped for lamp shades, wall hangings, Diyas and innumerable such things for the festival of Diwali. I remember I felt bored and tired of the lights and the smell of petrol and was waiting for the turn of cracker shop with the same desperation as of those times when father watched News or a Test Cricket match on the television and all I wanted to watch was the advertisements of soaps, toothpaste, and health drinks. The jingles were so much happier than the monotonous commentary of Doordarshan News or a Test match.
My parents were still haggling over the price of a sack of earthen diyas when suddenly I noticed in a neighboring shop a big box containing a Barbie dressed as a Doctor in a pink tunic and a white overcoat. I walked up to the shop for a closer look. The Barbie set consisted of little pink stilettos, a mini comb, a medical briefcase with a red cross, a little silver clutch bag and the most pretty shiny silver blouse and a blue mini skirt as a change of clothes. Wow!! I whispered to myself. This Barbie is a doctor by day and a beautiful party loving girl by the evening. I wanted it. I craved it.
My constant urging was just a white noise to my parents’ ears initially. When I roped in their attention by means of head banging on the road and pulling my hair skywards in order to lift myself up, Father checked something on the back of the box and came back a quick, insensitive statement, “chheh!! bad quality”, and reasoned with me that I already had better dolls back home. I did possess a couple of them. They were the Indian dolls with tightly plaited black coarse hair which did not match up in my eyes to the Barbie’s blond, soft and flowing hair that could be combed and tied in a ponytail or left loose. My doll was a chubby kiddy doll. But Barbie!! Oh, she was a petite, beautiful young girl.
I wailed my eyes purple but my parents were not of the sort to pay much heed to tantrums. I would dream about the Barbie and she would tell me that she is waiting for me but the shopkeeper wants to sell her. “Lot of children picked me up today. You must have me quickly before they take me away.” How my parents could be so heartless, I would think. As I endured my period of mourning over the lost love – Diwali festivities not being able to lift up my spirit – my Mother took up the task of putting together a new dress for my old, fat and ugly doll. I refused to look at it while mother sat on her sewing machine and created a doll outfit. I accused her of not being my real mother. “Listen Kid, in this life you are stuck with me” – she would respond wryly with a lopsided smile. Like the first sprout breaking the earth, it was all coming back to me; that which was buried under the debris of new memories, ambitions, failures, successes, first kisses, heartbreaks and most of all – Age.
I found myself still pinning for the Barbie doll a week later on my birthday. I had woken up to the aroma of sweetened dough and vanilla at 4.30am. Mother was baking the cake for the party in the evening. The smell is still so fresh in the memory. She kissed me happy Birthday and I pushed her gently away. She showed me the packet of chocolate toffee that I would be distributing in my classroom later. She told me to go look in the almirah what father had got for me. I squealed with joy presuming that it was the Barbie. When I opened the almirah my ear to ear smile lost its strength. It was no doll but a dress. An orange flared ‘Frock’ with puffed short sleeves and white laced hem.
Fresh tears began rolling down my cheeks. I cried even though I was pleased with the dress. I made one last attempt and said – “It’s my birthday. All children’s parents give them what they wish for. Why don’t you? Are you not my parents? Am I not your ‘darling’ daughter?” My mother sat me down gently on her lap. She wiped my tears and uttered calming, soothing sounds as I hugged her tightly and sobbed inconsolably.
When the vehement cries reduced to feeble whimpers, she produced my old, rejected doll. Only that she was all decked up in new clothes. She wore a green brocade blouse and a full-length satin royal blue skirt. Her hair was tidied, although still plaited. But the plaits were adorned with silver strings crossing over and under each knot. She had studs in her ears which were nothing but little shiny bindis stuck to her ear lobes. She also wore a necklace that mother made by breaking the linking chain of her old jewelry and introducing tiny black and gold pearls in between. She looked all shiny and beautiful. My mother then motioned the doll in sitting and sleeping positions alternately which made her eyelids open and shut. Her blue eyes now revealed and now concealed. The Barbie couldn’t do that, I realized.
I remember later that evening when my friends came over for the party, one of them who was more of a rival, showed off her Barbie doll. And I showed her mine. She said that her was brand new and was ‘impoted’. None of us knew what that actually meant, only that if it is impoted no one else could touch it. I said, “Well my doll is a real girl. She sleeps and she cries and she talks to me. She is like my sister.”
I made up a hell of a story of how my doll was born and what struggle she went through when one of her eyes won’t open and it looked like she was winking all the time. I told my friends how she burned the hem of her old dress while cooking on my kitchen set. And how bravely she doused the fire with the water stored in the little yellow plastic pot.
“She has read all my storybooks along with me and she has become so smart, she is going to be a doctor. See, her doctor’s bag!!” I revealed a small white box with a handle and with a red cross on its surface. Earlier that day after coming back from school and having a brief lunch, I scurried back to my room. After a while mother had come to check on me and found me struggling with a match box, white chart paper, red sketch pen, adhesive, and scissors. With her help, I had created the exact same doctor’s bag that the Barbie pack had. My ear to ear smile had returned.
Funny thing is, I still have that doll shelved on the display unit of my living room. I had stopped noticing it since, I can’t remember when. She still wears the green and blue dress that mother had made 27 years back. It’s battered now; faded and dusty.
I was drawn back from the memory lane into the mainstream of present-day by my mother’s insistence on buying for me a saree on display that I could wear for Diwali. I hugged her warmly and tightly for several moments – “Maa, will you sew another dress for my old doll?”