Nandini Dhar

 

MY SISTER AND I DREAM NINETEENTH CENTURY

A house shaped like a banyan-tree: root-carved rooms, bending like flags unfurling
on a windy night. A leaf-shaped large courtyard, the columns are all painted grey,
with rust-colored broomstrokes in between. That was the beginning of scarcity: not
even enough linen to sew flags to unfurl on every terrace. Mothers sleep-walked
into a college corridor spreading like the end of a sari, the ghost of a sahib professor
mounting the neatly pleated staircase. There had been no centuries like the
nineteenth, and in our dreams, my sister and I walked into its manuals – one after

the other. Manuals which defined how mothers should behave with daughters. And
fathers with sons. But, alas, we had no brothers and no little girls were allowed to
leave their footprints inside these corridors. A large leaf-shaped courtyard and no
one inside. No shadows. Mothers walked in red-rimmed white starched cotton
saris, by orderly twos. Like a well-rehearsed and orchestrated vigil, ceramic flower-
pots in hand: inside each pot, the seed of a daughter. Owls circled the clock on the
wall above our heads, pecked it open, smashed the porcelain cuckoo and the little
door that opened at the strike of every hour. I jumped puddles, and my sister dug
her feet inside muddy water: she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Little girl trail on
marble-floors. Asphalt and car-fume smell.

 

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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF OUR MOTHER

Our mother runs errands. Our mother runs errands, dangling the shopping bag in the
air. Inside our mother’s shopping bag: eggs, onions, potatoes, salt, sugar, soap,
Brittania Marie Biscuits, Washing Powder Nirma. Nirma girl twirls and twirls her
skirt in our mother’s palm. Our mother studies the ribbon in her hair to find her way
back home. Our mother runs errands. Our mother runs errands, dangling the
shopping bags in the air. The streets open between our mother’s toenails. Streets
open like an old recipe book. An old recipe book and precise directions. Easy to
memorize. Our mother fills her shopping bag with powder milk, butter, bananas,
eggs and onions. And a slice of the asphalt. Folded, brittle along the edges. Like the
letters of an old lost lover. A loaf of the asphalt in our mother’s shopping bag. Safely
hidden in an envelope.

 

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WHAT WE WERE REALLY DOING

Because by then, my sister Toi, already seven, was in the habit of naming everything.
When she finally meet the juju-lady, she named her Dollmaker Granny. A woman in
white sari, bare arms without any hint of blouse anywhere, no petticoats. The white of
her sari completely rubbed off: overuse, lack of proper soap, sitting on pavements, rail-
stations and floors. Except for her white hair, she had nothing in common with our
grandma. Including that white hair which our own grandma oiled everyday, combed,
made into a bun as tiny as an one-rupee coin, which Dollmaker Granny kept covered
with the end of her sari. When the wind blew the cover away, we would see it: ends
split, utterly oil-less, stiff like jute fibers. Kinky.

And she was light: like a baby. So light that we could carry her – white sari, jute hair,
wrinkled skin, unseen bones and all – and shove her inside the closet. Where juju-ladies
are supposed to stay. Toi pinned back her hands: wings of the butterflies, plucked off
her skin from places in her face, until she screamed. I laughed. Toi ordered her to make
us clay toys, preferably animals, from each one of her wrinkles. She did.

The animals and birds Dollmaker Granny churned out – a sparrow, a parrot, a pig, a
rabbit and a goat – were monochromatic, yet glinted like ocean jewels. The animals did
not have eyes. The human-dolls she made lacked any recognizable arms and legs, or
hairs, or eyes which could be shut close. Toi stared at the animals – inordinately bright
vermilion red, banana leaf green, sunflower yellow, sky blue, hyacinth purple – looking
for possibilities. My sister pinned the human forms in between the pages of our Enid
Blyton books. Soon, they became skeletons hiding in our bookshelf.

Afternoons, Toi played with the animals, occasionally lining them up like soldiers,
whispered stories to them – the ones that she would not trust anyone else with. But it
was the goat – red and with black eyes like prayer beads – that she took to bed with her
at night. Because the goat had a little girl’s face. A little girl’s face and a belly protruding
downwards. A belly protruding downwards and a black slit on the back, through which
Toi slid coins: five paisa ten paisa twenty-five paisa. Sometimes, a full one rupee coin.

Anything she could steal from our father’s wallet. Its belly now full, the clay goat with a
little girl’s face, began to talk in our grandmother’s voice. Only when we came to bed,
the lights all switched off.

Stupid little girl. Has no manners, nothing.

Look at yourself in the mirror.

No earrings, hairs like run-down paddy fields.

That’s why no one plays with you.

Our own grandmother’s voice inside the clay goat’s throat: hoarse, nagging, phlegm
inside. Other nights, when our mothers were too tired to read us bedtime stories, the
goat would slip inside our covers. Holding the flashlight over pages, reading passages
from fairy tales. At night she made us drink her milk, standing before the mirror. We
would stare at each other’s milk moustache – white as jasmine. Inside the covers of the
bed, the clay goat would flick its little-girl tongue, wipe Toi’s milk-moustache off.

And thus we were living happily ever after.

Until the goat learned to demand:

Wear frilled frocks and nothing but frilled frocks.

Because Toi had seen our neighbor Sheila, eight years old, turn into an elf as soon as she
slipped inside a frilled frock, she would not.

“Shut up,” Toi murmured, her voice faint like an eraser on paper. The little goat-girl’s
tongue would not stop talking.

“But you yourself are naked,” Toi said.

“If you like frilled frocks so much, go wear one yourself,” I continued, trying to help my sister.

Like a scratched record, the clay-goat-with-a-little-girl’s-voice kept saying, Wear frilled
frocks and nothing but frilled frocks.
Toi held the goat on her palm, dropped it on the

floor. It smashed into pieces. Why didn’t we do this before? All the while, Dollmaker
Granny sat inside the closet: wrists touching ankles, making clay-dolls. Humans without
hands and legs, animals without eyes. With the practiced fingers of an assembly line.

Toi smashed them. One by one. The clay toys. They did not make sounds. Did not bleed.
The colored clay bits, she kept. In the cardboard shoe box, with other knick knacks.
Dollmaker Granny she released out into the rooms. Granny roamed around the porches
and the terrace. The backyard. The bedrooms. But the living-room she would not enter.
Although we asked her to. Because she was not visible to anyone but us, she scared Toi.
So we asked her to leave. Politely at first. She would not, although she did not argue
with us either. She kept roaming inside our house.

Because she would not leave when we asked her to, Toi took her by her neck. Throttled
her, slowly. Watching her hands go limp at her sides, her tongue coming out. And finally
dead. We shoved her into the closet again – where the juju ladies belonged. Only now
she was dead, and would not be making any dolls.

Toi was seven then. An extremely polite child who never spoke too much.
Occasionally prone to explosions. That time when she killed Dollmaker Grandma
just happened to be one of them.