Brought in from the ambulance into the house on a softly padded stretcher, it was Seethalakshmi herself who saw the dolls. They sat swinging their legs on the branches of the mango tree. One of them looked at her and smiled. The smile began as a spot between the lips, broadened and grew to creep across the cheeks up to the ears and distort the doll face. She was afraid the next moment it might grow into a sharp fanged creature. Fortunately by then, the stretcher had left the veranda behind.
They laid her on the same waterbed she had been using because of her backache. With the speed with which images take shape in computer graphics, they assembled the drip-stand, oxygen cylinder, etc. around the bed and her caregiver sat on the cushioned chair by the head and held her arm to receive the drip. Then with the satisfaction of having completed the picture, everyone left the room.
Seethalakshmi’s eyes had dimmed badly. She was quite unconscious of the medicine flowing from the needle into her veins or that of the life’s breath stored solely for her, shut up in a small cylinder as one might stock cooking gas. There was little movement in her eyes, but they saw the mango-tree branches outside the window. They also saw a doll swinging in one of them.
Why have you come here? Seethalakshmi asked silently. The dolls shrieked in laughter.
The doll with blushed chubby cheeks seemed to resemble Anil. He was seventeen when he crashed his two-wheeler against a lorry and
departed. In due adherence of government regulations, he had worn a helmet. The wheels of the lorry had gone up and down his head crushing helmet and head into one mass that doctors had to try hard to separate. At night Padmanabhan’s wife said to Padmanabhan, Gone, Our first- born is gone. Sent to accompany this obstinate woman, our support is gone.
Did I call you? Seethalakshmi silently asked the doll. With my son lost to me, Anil, did I call you, another’s son, for companionship?
Anil? Who’s that? I am not Anil. I don’t have a name. The dolls began to sing:
Of a nameless country, Of a nameless house,
Nameless darlings are we all!
Observing Seethalakshmi’s attempt to move her lips, the nurse brought her face close. Seethalakshmi tried as best as she could to point to the dolls and say they frightened her – please close the window – but she could not move her lips, or arms, or anything. She closed her eyes tight.
In the hall outside, Gangadharan picked up the phone.
Yes… we’ve got the discharge from the hospital. It is impossible to say anything. It could happen any moment is what the doctor said. Yes, let her spend her last moments peacefully at home… No. Not conscious. No response whatever… yes, yes. Could be any moment… let me ring off.
He rested the phone and said to his brother: It was from the newspaper office. A certain Abhayan. Claims he has interviewed sister some time in the past. Called to find out how she is.
These interviewers are such a nuisance, said Padmanabhan. On my last vacation at a holiday resort, I had got to know a family and one of their youngsters had a book in his hand – sister’s. As I might well claim credit, I told them, the one who wrote it is my sister. The next morning, there he was in my room with a tape recorder. He wanted to know about her childhood, I believe! Oh! The trouble I had.
Couldn’t you have said something, Uncle? asked Gangadharan’s daughter Aruna.
If I say anything, little one, they would write it up and publish it.
You think your aunt would let me off on that?
Dad ran that youngster out, said Lakshmipriya. I felt sorry for
She never let interviewers come near, clarified Gangadharan. Her
complaint was that what they wrote up was never what they were told. She has really taken on some of them.
Auntie had praised the interview with this applicant, said Lakshmipriya. She liked him. She has said that it was Abhayan who had been with her when she fell ill in Melbourne.
Let me rest a little, said Aruna, rising. Pregnancy had spread its attendant fatigue into her eyes.
It is best to take her home, said Gangadharan’s wife to him. It could be bedlam here any moment. Then, how would I take care of her?
Later, the women prepared cold drinks and tea with powdered milk for their guests and waited in the living room. Over the commotion, guests came and went, talked of political/climatic conditions and kept successfully polluting the atmosphere. Some went up to Seethalakshmi’s door and tried to dampen their lashes but got turned back by the nurse.
Like a silver boat buffeted in river currents, a particular destiny waited in Seethalakshmi’s firmament. She heard the distant sounds of disturbed souls like a welcome song.
Straining to open her eyes, Seethalakshmi saw the doll faces in the branches. Laughing faces, crying faces, grave faces. Her limbs, yearning for air, filled up with fear. She wanted to say: Go, I don’t want to see you.
Go away? The dolls laughed together raucously. Nobody tells us to come or go!
Then they played with pebbles, sitting on the branches.
With a loud noise air gushed out of Seethalakshmi. The nurse, who was mixing some medicine, turned in alarm and came running to
see Seethalakshmi with open mouth, raised chin and body elevated, struggling for breath. She hastened to press the oxygen mask to her face.
Relatives came bustling to the door.
Revived on oxygen, Seethalakshmi calmed down a little. Her son brushed the relatives aside and rushed into the house.
Is it over? he gasped.
Where were you, Vinaya? Gangadharan asked in fury. We really thought it would be over before you got here. Fortunately nothing happened.
I went to send a fax – to Kuwait. When all is over and I return, what if there is no job? The Arab wouldn’t care that my mother is an international celebrity. Since the war, the Arabs have become very strict, Uncle. That’s okay – what happened here?
The usual bustle! said Padmanabhan. In any case, better not go anywhere now. Remember what the doctor said? Could be any minute.
Could you give me a glass of cold water? Vinayan asked Lakshmipriya. Then he leaned back on the cushions on the settee and opened his shirt buttons.
The dolls laughed. Their dance in the branches with leering faces and teeth showing, reflected in Seethalakshmi’s tired eyes.
Seethalakshmi clearly saw the dolls prancing around. Seeing her attempts to raise her hand and say something, the nurse once again brought her head close to hers. Then covering the frustration at her own lack of comprehension, she went to the door: She is trying to say something. If anybody would like to come…
You go, said Gangadharan to Vinayan.
You had better go, Uncle. Must be some family matter. Vinayan gave the glass back to Lakshmipriya. The extraordinary beauty of the long fingers that received the glass did not go unnoticed by Vinayan. Ann Mary’s fingers are not as beautiful! But fingers alone cannot satisfy a man!
Why behave so at such a time, Vinayan? Gangadharan’s wife advised: couldn’t you go in?
With no effort at hiding his irritation, hands in the pockets of his jeans, Vinayan walked slowly to the door.
Since the fuss he made over that Christian girl, he has come home only now. Children should not be this obstinate, said Padmanabhan’s wife.
What does it matter to us, sister? Gangadharan’s shoulders shook in laughter. Our dear Lakshmi, in any case, is saved.
An unusual expression on her face, Lakshmipriya left the room. It was Seethalakshmi’s deepest desire , said Gangadharan’s wife.
She has talked to me a lot about our Lakshmi. She was very sad when Vinayan came to tell us about that Christian nurse.
Don’t talk about it anymore, said Padmanabhan, watching for Lakshmipriya’s return. Lakshmi has forgotten all that. She concentrates only on her studies now.
She too writes, Padmanabhan’s wife said. I have read the stories and poems she had secretly kept away – just like Seethalakshmi’s writings.
Why didn’t you say that earlier? We could have shown them to sister secretly. Now, that’s not possible. So sad!
That this fool should not know the worth of our Lakshmi! I have seen that other girl’s photograph! Gangadharan showed his contempt. What’s her name? Ann Mary or something – one big stack! Cropped hair, painted lips, and pounds of flesh. To think that this fool turned away Lakshmi for her!
When Vinayan came back, all acted good cheer. What did she say? Could you make out anything?
After straining a great deal, I caught only a vague sound ‘da’. Couldn’t figure out what. As the nurse directed, I gave her a kiss on the forehead and came away.
Lakshmi Priya who appeared at the door asked: Could it have been ‘doll’? Auntie has always loved dolls.
They all looked at the dolls lined up in the showcase – dolls brought from all over the world!
The dolls guffawed in the branches. They pointed fingers in mockery: What do you know, Seethalakshmi? Can you tell what is going on in the room next door? Think you have conquered the world with the tip of your pen – you poor, poor thing!
Seethalakshmi lay with her eyes open. Her pitiful helplessness sank into a sob within.
The phone rang and rang continuously. Just about anybody kept saying whatever came to mind.
Seethalakshmi, a doll hollered. I am the clown-doll you threw and smashed a long time ago. That I had fallen apart in two did not quench your rage. You stood on my round head, crushed it with your heel and turned around to turn me into dust, remember? Today, I am going to do the same to you. The helplessness that was mine then, is yours now!
I have a grudge to settle as well, said another doll. Me too, me too.
The dolls roared and came to attention like an army corps.
This has become a nuisance, said Gangadharan putting down the phone. That newspaperman Abhayan. This is the seventh call. He says he is on his way. That he should be allowed to see sister for at least a moment.
No , said Vinayan loudly. The reverberation startled Aruna at her milk porridge. Ask the servants to close the gate. Vinayan’s voice shook. Do not let that whelp in.
Seethalakshmi, the doll called. Come out of your daze. Somebody is coming to see you. Do you remember the Odeon theatre on the Australian sea coast? Amidst the crowd with pale skins and blue eyes, you leaned on the shoulder of this brown skinned man and sobbed silently. You found your peace in the comfort of his fingers, his lips, his compassion. Didn’t the music of the blue waves that surrounded the Odeon flow out of your pen? Seethalakshmi, what did you do with that doll?
I didn’t do anything, said Seethalakshmi without speaking. Always others went off leaving me alone.
What a joke! The dolls laughed out aloud.
As the effect of the nurse’s injection shrouded her eyes, the image of the dolls became indistinct.
Ann Mary’s tinkling voice cried into Vinayan’s ears: I know. I have read a lot of stories. You will say I was not able to set aside my mother’s dying request and such, and marry your cousin promised to you by tradition. Who am I, after all? I don’t have the backing of a prestigious family or accumulated wealth. Nor even the support of relatives. I am a poor innocent who has no means of livelihood, and came to be trapped in this Arab land…
Please Annie, said Vinayan, you have told me all this so many times. And I have answered them so many times. I cannot be explicit with you now. But I give you my word that none of what you fear is going to happen.
Gangadharan’s wife looked at Padmanabhan’s wife, then hastened to wipe away her displayed scorn. With no thought for anybody, Vinayan looked at the wall and continued talking.
My mother cannot even speak. How is she to pressurize me? Death would arrive any moment. Won’t I fly back immediately after that? Do be brave until then.
Seethalakshmi, are you asleep? The dolls woke her up. See, your son is talking to his sweetheart – that he would rush to her as soon as you are dead.
Seethalakshmi sobbed without sobbing. Her son! Whose fingers were entwined with hers and brought her peace at stressful junctures. Vinayan had been born a chubby cherub. As a baby, she had smeared his whole body with oil, placed him on her knee, indulged him with baby talk, and lullabies and coaxed out words struggling in his little baby throat.
Which mother does not do all this, asked the dolls. Which mother does not dream your dreams? You are just like all other mothers, Seethalakshmi!
Not only that Seethalakshmi, what right have you to admonish him? You have walked out on your husband; you have passionately searched out new experiences.
The dolls suddenly changed their serious mien. They started swaying and singing on the branches:
Reap, reap Seethalakshmi.
Reap what you have sown, Seethalakshmi.
In the bone-chilling cold of Sweden, Seethalakshmi had cried, I’m not destined to enjoy peace in this life.
Her friend said, you Indians believe in rebirth. We have only this one life. Why give this up to yearn for a next? Just be one of us. In this cold land, where the sun’s warmth makes guest appearance and comes and goes once in a while, find your peace, blessing, in my love.
Shouldn’t we inform Krishnan , Gangadharan asked.
Isn’t he in this world, asked Padmanabhan irritated. If he reads the newspapers, he must know. He is not such an enemy to letters, is he? He is deliberately staying away. This is not an occasion for invited entrances.
I was only thinking of our courtesies. What do you say, Vinayan? What?
Do we inform your father? No.
Even if you do, he will not come, said the dolls. Seethalakshmi, your husband is pampering his pristine body in a naturopathic centre. He has seen your news in the paper this morning and has not given it any importance.
The nurse wiped Seethalakshmi’s dry lips with a medicated swab.
A few drops of medicine went in.
By the gate, Vinayan turned on Abhayan: I have been looking for you. How did you manage to snatch the copyright of the award-winning book? What did you say to deceive mother?
I did not snatch anything, said Abhayan. I came to know of it only when the publishers mentioned it to me. Oh, what a facade! Vinayan trembled in fury. Do you know that it is going to be a university textbook? If you are dreaming of grabbing lakhs, it is not going to happen. I am taking you to court.
I did not come to quarrel. I just want to see her. A moment will do.
Impossible. You have seen her a great deal on several occasions, haven’t you? That is enough. See you next in the court.
Abhayan stood looking at the house for a minute, then started his scooter.
One doll made an appearance at the head of Seethalakshmi’s bed.
Fearful and helpless, Seethalekshmi stared at it.
There’s a terrible change in the eyes, said the nurse. The pupils are rolling upwards; it may be well to call the doctor.
Don’t do anything to me, Seethalakshmi begged of the doll, without words. The doll did not laugh. A grave look sat on its comic face.
Gangadharan called his wife. See, sister’s eyes are turning up. Hurry up and serve the meal. If we don’t eat something now, we will all have to starve the whole day.
Please don’t harm me, Seethalakshmi begged. Forgive my transgressions.
The doll continued to stay at the head of the bed with unaltered gravity; its eyes and lips hardened. Seethalakshmi’s lungs dried up in fear.
When the doctor arrived, Seethalakshmi was lying with her eyes closed and the oxygen mask on her face. Vinayan and uncles washed off the smell of chicken from their hands with pieces of lime, and assembled in the room.
Aruna at least had the milk porridge. How come you don’t want anything, Lakshmi?
Because I don’t.
Anger bristled through Lakshmipriya’s words. Supporting her head in her hands, she lay back on the settee. She recalled her aunt’s tears running through her hands as she sobbed: My child, forgive me. A shell that does not know the worth of its pearl – that is my son. The green shoots that had appeared for Seethalakshmi alone on the parched hill of her solitude – who but Lakshmipriya knew about them? What strange spiritual bond raised that sigh?
The telephone sounded. Lakshmipriya spoke in a voice which laboured to suppress sobs.
Yes. She is given oxygen and laid in bed. The doctor has come. May I know who… O, Abhayan! I am Lakshmipriya. My aunt has told me a lot about you. I have known you from what she left unsaid as well…, the mist in my aunt’s eyes… the tenderness in her words… those are enough to know you. Why see her? Is she not there in your mind? Is that not enough? Do not cry, save your tears.
Lakshmipriya put the phone down and wiped the tears pouring down her cheeks. She was conscious of her mind splitting like a beehive.
In the branches of the mango tree, the dolls were very silent. The cold had hardened in the eyes of the doll at the head of the bed. It sat silently, flashing the brilliance of the tip of its sword. Sunlight faded above the reaches of the mango tree and darkness spread its wings.
Consciousness gone entirely, said the nurse. She is not likely to wake up again. Could be any moment.
How many days have we heard that, grumbled Padmanabhan’s
Yet another doll surfaced at Seethalakshmi’s feet. The body that
rejected the drip convulsed. Exhaled breath condensed in the oxygen mask and clung to it.
When Vinayan quietly crept into the room, the tired nurse was leaning back and dozing. He stood looking at Seethalakshmi’s mouth open and close inside the oxygen mask. If that mask is displaced for a moment, the moments now held up as in a cold storage will come alive! The wheel will turn again.
Unseen spirits moved in the air. Stepping quietly, Vinayan came to the bed and stretched out his hand towards the oxygen mask. The dolls on guard by the bed got startled and stared at him. Then like faintly drawn sketches, they faded into the atmosphere. With a rattling sound the dolls from the tree branches and elsewhere also flew up into the air.
From the newspaper office, Abhayan once again dialled Seethalakshmi’s number. A recorded feminine voice told him: the number you have dialled does not exist… the number…
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Bommakal”. Reindeer. Kozhikode; Mulberry, 1998).
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.