The story so far: The grownups were taking their afternoon nap. The children were busy playing. Suddenly, there was a loud crashing sound. The elders were up in no time, running towards the inner room from where the sound had come.
The inner room was part of the larger guest room, with an entrance from the second verandah at the back of the house. Usually nobody went in there, as it was used only as a place for dumping all kinds of things.
When the elders reached the inner room, they found the children there, with Bunty sprawled out on the floor. He had placed a stool on the ground, and then an old trunk on top of it, and climbed on the trunk to reach the loft. The trunk had slipped off and landed with a crash. So had Bunty! Luckily, he was not hurt seriously, and had escaped with a few bruises. The trunk had opened on hitting the floor and its contents lay scattered all around.
The children stood awe struck. Ammu and the others, who had rushed in, stood transfixed. Then Shaku’s mom fell to her knees, gathered up a couple of the objects and hugged them. “My dolls!” she exclaimed.
The children looked open-mouthed at the dolls. Some of them were made of clay, some of wood and a few of metal. Some were a bit chipped; the paint had come off from many others. Shaku was disappointed and wanted to say so, but quickly stopped herself. How excited her mother Geeta, looked!
“Our Navaratri dolls!” Geeta said, turning to look at her sister with shining eyes. “Suma, remember how we used to arrange these dolls on steps during the Navratri kolavu?”
Suma’s eyes were shining too. “How can I forget? Uma, see this pair of big wooden dolls — a bride and bridegroom — Ammu brought these from her mother’s house when she got married.”
“Shaku, this swaying Bharat Natyam dancer doll was given to us by Uncle Narayan…”
Bala picked up a doll armed with a gun. “It’s my soldier!” he said. Bunty looked at his father curiously. “Was this the birthday gift given to you by your eldest cousin who served in the army? So that’s why you too joined the army when you grew up!” he exclaimed.
Shaku was looking at Ammu. Her gaze was fixed on the dolls. Her eyes looked soft and they had a distant look. Shaku instinctively moved close to Ammu and hugged her.
Bala began to describe to them how he used to help Ammu and his sisters arrange the rows of dolls from the floor to a height of about six feet. “We could easily make seven to nine rows, one above the other,” Bala said, smiling as the memories flooded back. “We would arrange the dolls — Krishna playing the flute, Hanuman carrying the mountain, Rama, Sita and Lakshmana in Guha’s boat, Shiva and Parvati riding on Nandi, Ganesha, and his brother Skanda holding his weapon, the Vel, the ten avatars — the incarnations of Vishnu ….”
“And there were also dolls from everyday life,” Suma added. “A merchant in his shop, a farmer and his wife, a fisherman, many animals — bullocks, dogs, a lion, a tiger, and an elephant. It looked like a zoo. See, many of them are here, though some seem to be lost…”
“And on the ninth night, we would put the dolls to sleep,” Geeta said, softly.
Ammu slowly put the dolls back into the trunk. The dolls lingered in her hands, as though she was reluctant to put them back to sleep, not knowing when they would be ‘woken up.’ She knew those golden days would not come back. Today’s kids have different interests.
“Times change; nothing stays the same,” Arasu consoled Ammu. “Our kids today have other toys.”
Ammu did not speak.
The next day, Ammu and Arasu were leaving for Tirupati. They said they would return after three days, well in time to see off their children and grandchildren, who would return to Mumbai, Jalandhar and Kolkata.
The children were in front of the TV, glued to a cartoon show. “Appa and Ammu are leaving,” Bala called out to them.
“Ammu-Tatu,” said the children, as they ran up to give their grandparents a quick hug and then rushed back to the TV.
Arasu and Ammu returned after three days. Their daughters and son came to receive them at the station.
“Ammu,” Suma said. “Today is Navratri.”
Ammu looked at her daughter with a sad smile. “All the excitement of Navaratri is gone. You had all left Mysuru; for whom would we celebrate the festival? That’s why the dolls also went to sleep.”
Arasu patted Ammu as she wiped a tear.
The moment they entered the house, Arasu and Ammu gave a cry of amazement. Arranged on nine stepped shelves covered with white cloth were the kolavu dolls. “How…?” “When…?” “Who…?” they stammered. Every chipped part had been repaired and every worn-out area had been carefully repainted. They looked glorious, surrounded by lights and decorations.
The children had been hiding and waiting. They came charging out now. “We did it, Ammu-Tatu.” “We re-modelled and painted the dolls. We did it — just for you. Happy Navratri!”
“Appa, Ammu, after you left for Tirupati, the children said to us: “We remember the softness in Ammu’s eyes that day. She was thinking of the old days. So let’s bring those days back.”
More tears welled up in Ammu’s eyes, but these were tears of joy.
The children hugged their grandparents, and this time, the hugs were long and tight. Arasu smiled.
“So the dolls have woken up,” he said.