Thursday, January 23, 2014

Opening Act: the Out of Print Workshop at the Times of India Literary Carnival 2013: Monika Pant

The Pink Doll
Monika Pant

Mrs Sen’s palms felt soft and smooth and a little pudgy to the child as they cupped her face. It made her think of Pink Doll. She missed Pink Doll.

It had been busy at the intersection under the overpass, lots of big cars on the afternoon that she’d found the doll. The traffic light had started to flash before changing when a cotton-candy rainbow came arcing across the grey and landed on the road. She’d darted out from Poorvi’s hold, picked it up and run back clutching the woolly head accompanied by the other kids’ shrieks of ‘hurry, hurry’, only to have Raji snatch at the doll’s brilliant pink hair. ‘Let her have it, you cow,’ Poorvi shouted and yanked Raji away. ‘Kid doesn’t have anything, not even a name. Let her keep the damn doll.’ Raji let go but bared her teeth and jeered, ‘Anaamika’. The child didn’t care.

When she closed her eyes now, she could remember 666666666666666666666666666666WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO STAND IN THwhat irwhat what it had felt like to stand in the shadow of the massive concrete arches, hugging the doll to her chest. The sensation evaporated as Mrs Sen removed her hands, leaving a shallow vacuum.

‘Sangeetha, that’s what I’ll call you,’ Mrs Sen said. ‘Yes, Sangeetha, music, that will be your name. And I will teach you to use that voice of yours.’

She shivered.

Sangeetha. That was the name of the woman she had worked for when she had run away. Could that be a coincidence? The past revisiting in a bizarre turn of events?

She touched her face involuntarily to fill the space that Mrs Sen’s hands had done. But it was another pair of hands she remembered. 

Those hands. Soft, smooth, a little clammy as they stroked her face and sometimes her neck. She waited in horror for them to travel further down, her heart hammering within, her mind darting like the mynah bird which flapped its wings against the bars of the cage. She remembered the cage that swung from side to side as the bird fluttered desperately to come out. She used to keep her eyes fixed on it the whole time, with her fists clenching and unclenching, her breath held, breathing through the mouth in rasping tones.

‘Why can’t you keep still, child?’

She would close her eyes as pain racked through her and she felt salty drops on her lips, running down over her chin, her neck, and forming a dark circle in the front of her frock.

And then, it would stop; the faint whir of the air conditioner suddenly seeming deafening in the hot afternoon. The lone howl of a stray dog coming from a distance lent a voice to her subdued sobs. When she opened her eyes, the striated sunshine filtered through green shutters in the sweaty room. Later, she would curl up under the stairs on a worn out bedcover, her face contorted, and her body continuing to shudder for a long while afterwards.

 ’Come, Sangeetha,’ Mrs Sen was saying, ‘You are to live with me now.’ Like a stuffed rag doll, she was bundled into the long gleaming car and gingerly sat down on the velvet seats, quickly lifting her feet from the carpeted floor of the vehicle, fearing that she would dirty it. Mrs Sen was looking at her solicitously.

‘What’s the matter? Don’t be afraid. I have adopted you, you know. You will no longer be mopping the floors and cleaning the dishes like you used to do there.’

So that was it.

‘I don’t think you liked it there, did you? You were beaten, you were overworked. Stop shivering, child.’

She looked down at her fingers laced on her lap, involuntarily closing into a pair of fists. She stared at the dirt-encrusted nails and wondered what Mrs Sen had seen in her.

‘You will have to be clean and tidy from now on. Your hands are filthy.’ It was as if her thoughts had been heard by Mrs Sen. She quickly moved her hands out of sight and dug them under her dress.

Glancing furtively through her lashes, she saw the lady adjust her sunglasses on top of her head. A stray grey hair had escaped from her carefully made hairdo and was dancing like a live thing along the cheekbone. Entranced, she watched it for some time, before turning her gaze downwards.

‘… can you hear me?’

She looked up, aware that she had just been asked her a question.

‘I said, are you hungry?’

She shook her head.

‘Why are you afraid? You will have a large garden and I will give you lots of toys. Sangeetha, you can hear me, can’t you?’

She nodded.

She turned away to look out of the window, at the cars whizzing by, the sidewalk a hazy blur with women squatting on garbage heaps. O why could she not go back there and live among them? Why did she have to be rescued from the streets when she had run away? Her mind went back and forth over the events of the last few months – the beatings, the abuse, the charring of her back, the scarring of her mind, the silences, the screams, the laughter around her, the tears within – and then it had culminated in her running through the darkness, along deserted streets until morning found her lying exhausted next to an old beggar woman. The woman had been a mother, or an angel; she had heard of farishte in stories and was convinced she had been one.

With gnarled fingers soothing and washing her bleeding feet, the woman had brought back life into her and she had let her cry and cry until all her tears had dried and her natural childishness had returned. Somehow, her burdens had been transferred onto the bent back of the angel in disguise; and both lay entwined on the cold pavement – her small blackened face resting near the old, lined one through days and nights.  

But good things do not last forever and one day she found herself waking up with a cold hand clasping her own and a circle of faces peering at her, blocking the sun that had risen high in the sky.

‘Wh … what has happened?’

‘This woman, … is she your mother?’

‘No…, but, yes, she is.’

‘Who else do you have … a brother, sister, your father?’

The soft voice came from the slim girl in a blue salwar kameez, who was sitting beside her and questioning her.

‘I ... I have no one else.’

There were  other girls like her. They were part of a group from a school that was distributing old clothes to pavement dwellers and had found her lying next to a dead woman. The police came, she was sent to an orphanage and, just when she had begun to get settled, there was Mrs Sen to adopt a child. Why, oh why did she choose me?

Even though Raji had tormented her, Poorvi had smothered her with her big sister ways, even though the entire gang made fun of her because she did not know her name, she had settled down; and, in her own way, been happy. Times spent with them were like bits of coloured glass in her mind; shards which had pierced her sensibilities, but had also made her see pink, blue and green sections of the life around her. And now, it had vanished without a trace. Never would she see them again! Never again would she fight with Raji over….

‘Stop! Stop the car!’ she shouted.

‘What happened, child?’ Mrs Sen asked.

‘My … my … my…’

‘Yes, what is it? Your what?

‘My pink doll…’ she muttered, ‘I want my pink doll, I can’t leave it behind.’

‘Oh!’

Mrs Sen heaved a sigh of relief.

‘I will buy a doll for you exactly like your pink doll. Come. Driver, stop the car in front of a toy shop.’

The car stopped, they went from shop to shop, a strange pair they made – a little ragamuffin and a poised, fashionable lady. Everywhere, the shopkeeper brought out dozens of dolls. In boxes, in plastic covers, tiny wooden ones and big ones like human babies. Dolls that said ‘mama’, those that sang, and some that jiggled across the floor in time to music. Dolls with smooth golden hair, with ringlets of brown hair, or black wavy tresses. But she did not like any.

‘I want one with bright pink hair,’ she said.

‘Pink hair?’ Mrs Sen had a strange look in her eyes.

Disappointed, she hung her head and still Mrs Sen was not angry with her. She looked up at the frown that creased the perfect oval face smiling ever so tenderly at her. Was she wrong? Did Mrs Sen really care for her so much?

‘Let’s see what I can find for you at home,’ Mrs Sen said.

The car pulled into a beautiful bungalow and a guard came running to open the door. Walking through carpeted corridors and beautiful rooms, she was struck by the silence.

‘Does no one else live here?’ she asked.

‘Only you and me,’ smiled Mrs Sen. ‘Of course, there are cooks and other servants. You won’t be alone, there are the cook’s two young children with whom you can play.’

She nodded her head, taken in by the opulence, at a loss for words. This was like what they showed in the movies, she thought. Could people really be so rich?

She was shown into a tiny room upstairs with a bunk bed and a rocking horse. There was a cupboard of pretty dresses too. She was stunned. How could Mrs Sen have known that she loved horses? And how could she have bought so many dresses for her already? And then, she saw it.

On the round study table with a flowery tablecloth, stood a framed photograph of a family. She went and stood before it. She recognised only Mrs Sen who looked happier. There was a little girl on her lap. Beside her stood a tall man, smiling at both of them.

‘My husband and my daughter. They were killed in an accident.’ Mrs Sen stood at the door holding an old doll in her hand.

‘But … I … I came to give you this. My daughter used to sleep with this; can you make do with it tonight?’

The doll had one arm, a broken leg, and straggly hair made of bright pink wool.
*
Monika Pant is from India and has had her stories and poems published in several anthologies around the world. An English teacher for over fifteen years, she also writes course books in English Grammar and literature. Her real life snippets are published in the Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul series, which may be accessed at her Amazon author page. A short story written by her was on the longlist for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She recently published her memoir, Echoes From the Vortex , Authorspress India, 2014, and her debut novel, Caught in Two Winds, Lifi Publications, 2014. She blogs at http://monikapant.blogspot.in/.


3 comments:

  1. This story is very moving, I loved the theme of hands in the first half of the story and the passage about the child crying is very poignant, beginning: 'And then, it would stop:'
    Also, 'Dancing like a live thing along the cheekbone' gave me a shiver, it refers to an escaped piece of Mrs. Sen's hair ... it's a lovely sentence.
    This is a tender and and sensitive story. Thank you for writing it, Monika.

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  2. Thank you, Rebecca, for the lovely comment. Glad you liked the story.

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  3. I have yet to read your novel, but shall get there!

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