Fiction | Dolls – Subhravanu Das

A disturbing piece of absurdism in which a doll making competition becomes the site of conflict, resentment, madness and eventually murder. Doll maker Gamak seems to be overtaken by a silent madness accompanied by visions, while organiser Murki overlooks the dangers she is delving into. She favours the glory that the competition’s success will bring, and her myopic approach results in catastrophe. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

The floor is covered in arms. The table, legs. Gamak hadn’t tidied up last night. He leaves the mess intact. He goes and sits by the window, and looks through his telescope. Clouds cover the other hill. The single hut on its peak is lit up. The hut blinks. Meend is already inside the blinking hut, working with her scissors. If she were to look up, she would see him at the top of his peak. She looks up.

Gamak leaves his telescope. He goes and sits at his table. He pushes all the legs to one corner, and pulls out a doll from the drawer. The doll can turn its head, twist its arms, swivel its hips, and bend its knees, like any man. Like Gamak. The doll is almost complete. Gamak picks up his chisel and hammer, and starts going tak-thak, tak-thak at the left thigh of the doll. He carves out a line, and then an indentation, and then a bulge; he runs his thumb over the doll’s hamstring muscle.

There’s a thak-tak – from the door. It persists. He answers. It’s the man selling milk.

***

Murki rings the bell on her desk. Her three secretaries troop in – all bald, all clutching handkerchiefs.
“Madam, the contractors for the ropeway project are here.”
“Did you take them to the top of both the hills?”
“Yes, madam. They all seem confident. They can get the cable cars running again.”
“Now show them this proposal. Along with cable cars, they need to get a whole house to dangle from the ropeways. And that house has to be big enough to accommodate all the attendees of our Annual Doll Competition. Whichever contractor, if any, stays back, bring him in for a meeting.”

***

Meend sinks into the sofa. She unties the dupatta from her waist, and drops it on the floor, next to her feet. Her ankle bells stay on. She picks up the folded piece of paper from the coffee table – ‘All homeowners of Infinity Greens Apartment Complex are hereby notified that the garden within the premises will be no longer be let out for weddings, birthdayparties, and other celebrations and events that involve catering. You are expected to coperate.’ She gets up and walks. The ankle bells follow.

The inner bedroom is swarming with dolls; there are dolls on the shelves, on the stool, on the bed, on the pillows. A bag sits on the table. Meend pulls out a stack of costumes from the bag. Up in her hut, these costumes had shone brighter than the sequins with which she had adorned them. After their journey to her home at the foot of the hill, they have lost their sheen; they are more pliant, though. She picks up the bag and the costumes, and climbs into bed. She pulls out a piece of white cloth, a pack of white cotton, and a white thread attached to a needle from her bag. She stuffs the cotton into the cloth, and sews up a torso, four limbs, and a head. She stitches these pieces together, and slips the resulting amalgamation into a silk robe; she lets loose yet another doll upon the room.

***

“Tirobhav? Tirobhav?”
The man whose job is to help around the house has a tendency of disappearing at every moment of need. But when the ganji-clad set of rotten teeth finally appears, he does so carrying a cup of Murki’s favourite vanilla ice cream.
“Madam, today in the market, everyone was talking only about you and your decision to build us a hanging house. The pandit selling bangles even distributed bangles for free. ‘Devi’s blessings are with us. The sky will be in our grasp’, he kept saying. The doll competition is in six weeks, no? What all needs to be done in that time, madam?”
“Along with getting the old ropeway running, we’ll need to set up two new ropeways. All three will be side by side. The central ropeway will then serve as a fixed cable, from which will dangle the house, while the other two ropeways will ferry people to and from that hut. The doll competition will carry the tagline – A Celebration in the Clouds.”
“Wow, madam. No issues in getting the necessary permissions, no?”
“Definitely not. Your master has taken care of all that. What would be the point of him being a High Court judge if he didn’t?”

***

The wheel they roll up is small. The people rolling it are smaller. Together, they fit into Gamak’s telescope. The newly laid ropes, don’t. The ropes travel all the way from the other hill, and disappear before they reach his. Meend’s hut is a flick of his shoulders away. The people congregating outside her hut appear fixated on the ropes. Only a few of the ropes are managing to remain straight. All of them remain below Gamak.

“Let’s build a house in the clouds, they say. But can’t they see, we’ve been here for years already?”
The doll sits by the telescope. It has its hands out, as if it’s holding up an invisible serving tray.
“But if they want fancy, we’ll give them fancy. Wait and see what I have in store for you. You’ll have new hands, new legs, and a new hip. You’ll run, jump and move, better than any man or any woman. You’ll dance your way into their hearts, and win it all.”

Gamak plugs his power drill in. He picks up a cylindrical block of wood, rests the tip of the drill against the centre of that wood, and presses down on the trigger. The sound splits the hill into two. His hands don’t waver. Only once the drill has gone clean through the wood, his fingers ease up. He pulls the drill out, and shakes the hollowed out wood clean. He reaches into the open drawer, takes four shiny beads out, and drops the beads into the hole in the wood; two beads go right through and land on the floor, while two refuse to fit through the hole.
“See. Old ball bearings, but a brand new you.”

***

“I thought you had started working as a translator for the contractors. Now you’re their messenger as well?”
“These people are like this only no, madam. When their truck toppled over, just the orange paint got spilled on the road. Should they proceed with the other colours, madam?”
“They might as well.”

Tirobhav picks up Murki’s teacup from her armrest, and sets it down on the table. He has swapped his ganji for a shirt. His trousers remain the same, but his new belt must be causing him immense discomfort while he squats on the floor.
“Is your back feeling any better today, madam?”
“Not really.”
“I’ll go get the hot-water bag in a minute. I heard some troubling news while I was out, madam. Two plantation workers have gone missing.”
“What are their names?”
“Ati and Kan. You wouldn’t know them, madam. Two days back, they were seen leaving work together. And then they never showed up at their homes. Police have started looking, but there’s no trace of them.”
“Sooner or later, there will be. Not like we can do anything more.”

***

Meend remains wedged into her bus seat. Those standing insist on looking down at her. She only smells them. The woman sitting next to her is busy knitting a cap. The woman sets the paraphernalia aside.
“Didn’t I see you on TV? You were in that kathak performance, no?”
“Yes.”
“You were great. I remember because you were the only one with short hair.”
“Thanks.”
“What’s that in your bag? A baby’ sweater?”
“No. That’s my doll.”
“So cute. Did you make it yourself?”
“Yes.”
“You should come to my daughter’s school and teach the kids how to make their own dolls. I’m sure they’ll love it.”
The bus jumps up. Meend’s bag never slips out of her grasp.

***

The adjacent room is dotted with people. Their lips move, but the only sound which emerges is of the hammer hitting the rods; again and again. Even the fire submerging the rods is silent.
“Gamak, look, you have won the competition each time for the last three years. It’s obvious you’ll win again.”
“No, no, no. There’s a new venue now, which floats in the air. Have you seen it? It indeed floats in the air. Now the competition will attract dollmakers from afar. These dollmakers could bring dolls more advanced than any we have ever seen. My best will not automatically trump theirs.”
“Just be sincere in your dollmaking.”
“The limbs of my dolls are too small to accommodate all the ball bearings I have taken from here, brother. I now need to build larger limbs, and hence, a new, larger doll. Only then will I have a path-breaking doll, which will be more man than toy.”
“Great. Get started.”
“But those ball bearings will need constant attention. The more I understand what impact they’ll have on my doll’s movements, the more I’ll need to alter them. That I can’t achieve sitting inside my home up in the hill. I might have to come down daily to your kiln.”
“Come whenever you want. Where is the problem in that?”

Gamak steps out into the dust, and sees again. After waiting for five minutes, he flags down a jeep, opens the door to a packed back seat, and shoves his butt into his co-passenger’s thigh. He holds on to the shut door as the jeep navigates through traffic, picks up another passenger, and starts winding up the hill. The dust reduces, Gamak’s lungs relax, and his fingers regain their numbness. He traces the curve of the front seat, and the rod which connects the seat to the shuddering floor of the jeep. The jeep avoids a number of oncoming cars, overtakes two cyclists, and goes past a tea stall. The jeep often veers close to the precipice, but keeps turning enough to avoid falling off into the scenery. A shadow whizzes past them, knocking back Gamak’s hair; the shadow was huge, and fell from the sky. The rattling of the jeep’s engine takes a minute to die down. The jeep rolls to a stop, and everyone gets out. Gamak follows them onto the grass, walks up to the railing, and looks up; the dangling house is gone, as are the cables.
“Did you see something fall?”
“No. You heard something, no?”
“Look. Those trees down there are shaking.”
“Something must have fallen into the forest.”

***

All the men, who are standing before Murki’s desk with their heads bowed, have slept well. Their eyes are not puffed up, their skin isn’t hanging loose, and their bodies don’t emanate any additional odour. They have had a good breakfast, a hot shower, and the time to unfold a newspaper. She is the only one who has been deprived of all these luxuries; she is the only one who has been cursed.
“Do you have a solution or not?”
“Yes, madam. We’ll need to drastically reduce the height of the ropeways. We actually have to go low enough to provide support to the cable from the ground. We’ll build two steel towers, which will help the cable withstand the weight of the house. We’ll make the towers as tall as possible, madam.”
“I should hope so. Build ten steel towers if needed.”

The men fold their hands and troop out. The door doesn’t shut, and Tirobhav re-enters; he now has a watch to go with the rest of his costume. He comes and stands by Murki’s desk.
“There’s some more news, madam.”
“What?”
“Out of the two workers that had gone missing, one has reappeared. Kan was found unconscious in the construction site behind the right hill. His left leg has been amputated from the knee down, and he has no recollection of how that happened. In fact, he doesn’t remember anything from the time he went missing till the time he was found. Also, whoever cut his leg off has done a very neat job of stitching the wound up. There is no trace of any bleeding, and there’s no pain as well.”
“Stop wasting my time.”
“Sorry, madam.”

***

Gamak stands under the shelves. He looks like a white sack, left under the shelves. Meend sits up, and starts drumming on the table. The sack doesn’t stir, nor does it crumple. Meend smacks the table. Twice. The sack jumps up, and comes and sits across the table from her.
“Welcome, Meend. Welcome to my temporary abode. Till when can you apply?”
“A month from now.”
“That’s good. The process is strict, okay? Along with a recommendation from me, you’ll need to submit another one. I had submitted three recommendations with my application, but that was not mandatory. It’s been almost five years since then. That residency taught me a lot about French people and French food. It didn’t teach me much about dollmaking. There’s only so much technique you can learn in three months. But you’ll learn a lot, I’m sure. I’ll be able to focus on writing your recommendation only once our local doll competition is over.”
“You know that they have had to start again on a new venue, right? They might not get it ready on time.”
“No. The competition will happen for sure.”
“Hopefully. I’m more focussed on my application. I don’t know if I’ll get the residency. Only one out of hundred applicants get accepted.”
“It’s all in the head. If you think you’ll succeed, you’ll succeed. And you have been doing quite well here. You have been submitting your dolls regularly to the competitions. Your dolls show promise. And the costumes you make for your dolls have always been highly praised. Do you have anything for this year’s competition?”
“Thank you. Yes, my doll will have a long coat that showcases miniature Madhubani and Pattachitra paintings.”
“My doll isn’t ready. I’ve had to fit three ball bearings into each joint in its body. As a result, the doll now has heavily swollen knees, elbows, wrists and ankles. Though the doll might move a little more like a human, it looks a lot less like one.”
“This is a brand new concept. You’ll probably win again this year.”
“I’ve had to padlock my house at the top of the hill and move into my brother’s kiln down here to dedicate all my energy into this. I’ll need every precious second of the next two weeks to get my doll ready in time.”

Meend enters her apartment, doesn’t take her shoes off, and goes straight to the inner bedroom; she finds the green, embroidered coat laid out on the bed, right next to the white, pillow-like doll. She takes a pair of scissors from the table and some pins from the cupboard. She cuts the coat up into pieces, and pins every last piece onto the doll’s body. She doesn’t spare an inch, but leaves the head alone. The two eyes, which she had sewed on a week back, shine bright like the buttons they are. She rips the buttons out; she blinds the doll.

***

Shards of glass are strewn all over the floor; some have even made it to the carpet, and are hiding from Murki. She shakes her slippers off. Tirobhav, with a broom in hand, waits at the doorway.
“Do people consider the house being set up now to be high enough?”
“Of course, madam. There is one silver lining in all this, no. The ropeway system is now low enough for you to make a gigantic ladder available for the public to climb up to the house.”
“Excellent idea. Genius. Once all this is done, we’ll turn the house into a castle. Our little girls will then finally have some place to go and play princess-princess.”

***

Kan walks down the orange line defining the road. His new leg keeps clinking against the gravel. Every passer-by turns to look. A few start limping like him.
“How many times did I tell you? You should never have gotten a prosthesis made of glass.”
“You know it’s not made out of glass, no. It’s made out of simple wood, and has then been covered in mirrors.”
“But it’s still as brittle.”
“Only from the outside, dear.”
“Whatever. But why did we have to leave home at this time in the afternoon?”
“I wanted to see this new house they are building that stays suspended from above.”
“What is it to you? You are not an architect.”
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t tell you earlier because I didn’t want to scare you. In the doll competition that will be held in that house, I have been invited to be the chief guest. And I have accepted. I just want to get a feel of the layout in advance. Please.”

***

Meend steps out of her building, and sees the house dangling in the air. After walking for two minutes, she reaches the ladder leading up to the hanging house. The house is no higher than her sixth-floor apartment. The ladder is wider than her building, but, and is guarded by the same frail man.
“Submission?”
“Yes.”
There’s no one else climbing the ladder, and Meend starts taking two steps at a time. She leaves the empty right-hand side of the ladder alone, and keeps her head tilted upwards. There are three men harnessed to the cable above, slathering white paint across the underside of the house; they cough repeatedly, but nobody sends any water down. Meend stops to smoothen the grey jacket of her doll. She resumes climbing, and the wind picks up. Though the ladder doesn’t shake, she grabs onto its handrail with twice as much force; she continues climbing. The house hangs still, resplendent in its red, blue and green stripes. She reaches the end of its ladder, and enters through its door.
“Submission?”
“Yes.”

She stands by a window. The volunteers flock around the entrance. Two other dollmakers scurry from one wall to the other, their heads buried in conversation. The volunteers’ revelry ceases when Gamak enters, with a big suitcase loaded on his head. The volunteers help him set it down, and he pulls a doll out. The doll is as big as a ten-year old boy. Gamak runs his hand once over the head of his doll, before surrendering it to the volunteers. He looks at Meend. He walks up to the window she stands by.
“Do you think they’ll get the cable cars running in time for the competition tomorrow?”
“They better. Climbing the ladder will be impossible for many.”
“It was tough enough for me. Look. That tiny, idling jeep down there, will take me back home. I’ve been away for too long.”
Gamak persists in pointing out of the window. Meend follows his gaze. The ground is distant. The sky, even more so.

***

Gamak has his fingers wrapped around the telescope, and his eye stuck to its lens. The darkness of the night makes no exceptions for him. He can’t see his doll. He can’t see the hanging house where his doll is. He can’t see the other hill behind the hanging house. Not even a forgotten bulb burns in the valley below, in the valley that still presumably is. The bulb in his room is on. He gets up to switch the bulb off, and there’s a flash and everything gets buried in light. Everything inside and everything outside bursts into life, into an explicitness they never possessed before. Gamak puts his head out of the window, and sees the other hill; he sees the hut on its peak; he sees the hanging house at the foot of the other hill; he doesn’t see his doll. He sees the things he sees, without the aid of his telescope. He sees a hand descend.

The hand descends from the sky. The hand is as big as the two hills put together. The hand looks like his doll’s hand. But the lines on the descending palm are a lot longer, and a lot deeper. The hand doesn’t twitch, goes all the way down to the hanging house, and unhooks it from the ropeways. The hand slowly lifts the house up, carries it past Gamak, and disappears. His doll doesn’t peek out.

The light remains intact. But no person emerges onto the roads, nor does any dog start barking. The hand returns, tearing through the sky, with the house lodged between its fingertips. The hand again dives to the bottom and hooks the house back onto the cables. The hand immediately pulls out, and disappears. Everything plunges into normalcy – the houses, the hills, the dead trees. The day instantly transforms into the night, and everything disappears. The light from the bulb in Gamak’s room also disappears.

***

“Eighteen dolls were submitted yesterday, but only seventeen dollmakers are present today.”
“Who’s not here?”
“I’ll have to check, madam.”
“Don’t bother. One of you cover for the missing dollmaker.”
That’s all Kan can overhear, as the din inside the house culminates into an uninterrupted shriek. Murki leans back into her chair, and the retreating kid shields himself from the glare of Kan’s leg. The dolls, on the other hand, have no problem staring at Kan’s leg. The first sixteen, all similarly built and similarly clothed, have nothing to say to him. The faceless, naked one is less discriminatory in its silence. The tall one, who’s thrice as big as the rest, smiles at him.

Murki raises a hand and silences the crowd.
“The judging of the dolls will now begin.”
Her husband, the judge, gets up, and walks up to the dolls. The judge picks them up, runs his hands over them, twirls them, wrestles them, and returns. The judge sits down, and leans into his microphone.
“The winner of this year’s competition is doll number seventeen, the braille doll, by Prati.”
The faceless doll, with no clothes on, is brought up to Kan. The crowd screams, and spills forward. Kan holds the doll up. The crowd halts.

***

The hanging house is no longer swamped; only the dolls and a chosen few remain. Murki is busy accepting their accolades, when her husband comes and takes her by the arm. He doesn’t let her collapse, and continues to prod her as she labours past the bent faces. He guides her into a corner that is secluded, but for the towers of boxes which extend from the floor all the way to the roof.
“Why did you tell me to pick such a weird doll as the winner?”
“Your honour, because it’s path-breaking, a game changer. It’s a doll for the blind. Instead of being shown, the eyes, nose, ears and mouth have been written in braille on the doll’s face. The colour of its skin and of its hair have also been written in braille. On top of that, the clothes that you would imagine the doll to be wearing, have also been written in braille. And most importantly, this doll was made by none other than a blind man.”
“Prati was not blind.”
“The one who received the award was not Prati. That was Prati’s agent.”
There’s a screech from outside. Murki looks up. The farthest window is the only one still open. A cable car comes hurtling towards the house. The cable car is empty.

***

Subhravanu Das lives in Bhubaneswar, and has a degree in law from Bengaluru. He has just finished writing his first book, and is now delving back into the form of the short story. His work has appeared in Muse India.

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