Every year, I was sent to stay with my grandmother during the ten days of celebration for Dussehra. Sometimes she went all out and had a nine-step golu in celebration of Goddess Durga’s victory over Mahishasura, the evil demon, stacked rows of little statues and dolls and other immovable objects displayed in the middle of the living room. Sometimes she only set up five steps. It depended on her mood. She gave no explanation.
When it was time for Navratri, she picked only the best of them to go on the golu steps. She taught me the traditional rules for arranging the dolls when I was five or six. She had three intricate and beautiful sculptures of Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga that went up on the topmost row dedicated to the supreme gods and goddesses. The next two rows were for Ashtalakshmi and Dasavatharam. She had eight pristine goddess figurines for the former and ten figurines of Vishnu’s ten reincarnations for the latter. The fourth row was for saints and godly men and women. The fifth row was for people who made some contribution to the society, and she put the freedom fighters, patriots, and national leaders there. The sixth row was for mere mortals—the wooden pair, the Marapachi dolls, went there. So did the trader couple, Chettiar and his wife, and the bobblehead Bharatanatyam dancers. The last three rows, she dedicated to the lowliest creatures – animals, birds, and insects, in that order.
So one Navratri day, I saw her turn into a plastic centipede. I picked her up in my palm and asked her if she was okay. She said she was on her way to get mukti, to start her journey from the lowest rung and move upward, closer and closer to the gods.
That year, I carried her around in the pocket of my school uniform. Sometimes, during phys ed, I put her in my backpack for safekeeping.
The following summer I fell in love with the girl from down the street. We walked around the summer fair, holding hands like two symmetrical pieces isolated from a paper doll chain. When she took me to her house, we inched closer and closer to each other on the chintz couch and I kissed her softly on her lips. I was tempted to open her lips with my tongue, but I was afraid of hurting her with my braces.
“Chee chee,” the sound of disgust and disapproval came from my pocket every time I sat next to the girl, every time I kissed her, every time I touched her cheeks.
As I ran my fingers over the many feet of the centipede, it was easy for me to tell the girl we were over. We were wrong. We weren’t meant to be.
My grandmother became a papier-mâché swan that Navratri. I put her on my desk, on top of my papers. We squabbled over my grades all the time. She squawked that I wasn’t working hard enough.
The next Navratri, my grandmother turned into a porcelain tortoise. The top of the shell was a lid. I used her to store my earrings. She clicked her thick tongue reproachfully every time I looked at myself in the mirror. When I applied makeup, she said I was vain. When I squeezed my breasts together to make them look bigger, she said I was a whore. Turning her to face the wall didn’t stop the commentary, so I stopped looking into the mirror.
She turned into a terracotta dancer next. I didn’t know what to do with her. After careful consideration, I settled on resting her atop the wooden headboard of my bed. She said she was happy to be human. Her neck was long and graceful, her eyes were large and lined with kohl. She said she felt young again. Soon, she would attain mukti. She would exit the world a goddess.
But she did not change into anything else for several years after that. I finished school, went to college, found myself a job, but she was still a terracotta dancer, frozen in her elegant pose.
She continued to sit at the head of my bed. I dusted her regularly for the first two years, and then I gave up. She didn’t say much. When she did, she was bitter. She complained that her pose was twisted, and she wanted to stand like a normal human being for once.
Many Navratris went by without event. I heard her sobbing in the night sometimes. I told her it would be okay. She said I didn’t know anything. I was only a silly child. But I was twenty-four.
When I brought my boyfriend home, she lamented that she was still alive to see all this degeneracy. She said it was time for me to get married. I almost locked her up in a chest.
For the next Navratri, I took her out to the living room to see the nine-step golu that my mother had arranged. She gazed longingly at the top steps. I left her there for the next nine days, so she could spend time with the other dolls. When she returned to her old position in my bedroom, she grew sullen again. I tried to cheer her up by dressing up in traditional attire. I donned an arakku silk sari. I wore the long gold haaram chain that she left me, and the big jimikki earrings that weighed my ears down. I didn’t forget to stick a round pottu in the tiny gap between my eyebrows.
I remembered the times when I could make her smile by just licking a bowl of payasam clean. Now, nothing was enough. She said caustically that, once Westernized, I’d forever be toxic and uncultured. Culture did not come from just clothes and jewellery, she spat. When I tried to remind her about the next step and mukti, she said it was easy for me to say; I wasn’t the old woman who was stuck midway on her arduous voyage.
One evening, when I returned from work, I saw the terracotta dancer on the floor, shattered into a million pieces. I asked her if she was okay. There was no answer.
I gathered all her pieces. Maybe I should have locked her up in that chest after all. I cried a little, but not too much. I buried all of her in our backyard.
Soon, I forgot I used to have a grandmother who loved her many dolls. When I watched the Golu being set up, when I took on setting up the golu to keep the tradition alive, there was a brief, vague moment of loss. But I had no name for that feeling.
© Neeru Nagarajan
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Neeru’s interview]