Editor's Note

There is an unmoored madness here that actually makes sense, reminiscent of Toba Tek Singh. How else can dolls have such agency, defying boundaries, nationalities? Is it really the dolls though or is it the Mukherjees – old and young? And will the narrator now become them, like how he had taken on his former politician client’s persona?

— Priyanka Sarkar
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Translator's Note

My translation of E. Santosh Kumar’s short story, Paavakalude Veedu, came about purely by chance.

Rahul Radhakrishnan, a prominent Malayalam literary critic and friend, shared the story with me since E. Santosh Kumar is one of his favourite authors.

While the story was originally written in Malayalam and the narrator is a Malayali, the narrative unfolds in various places — a house in Calcutta, a factory in Mumbai, and a lost home in Lahore. Apart from the narrator, the main characters are Bengali and Parsee. I felt the story lent itself easily to a cosmopolitan register in that the narrator could have been a person from any part of the country. It could have been a short story written in any Indian language. And so, on a whim, I decided to translate the story into English, the first time I have attempted such a thing.

The big stylistic choice was to find a register that would suit a bilingual narrator who moves easily between Malayalam and Indian English without losing the original’s conversational tone. Everyday Malayalam expressions, such as boran, derived from the English word bore but that does not mean one who is boring, found their correct equivalent in English as a real pain. 

The part that I enjoyed translating the most was Mr.Mukherjee’s walk through the streets of Lahore. For that paragraph, I decided to do away with commas and full stops and use ellipses to indicate a person narrating a story and, for a while, getting transported into that time, that place.

All good stories have a mystery at the heart of their existence. In House of Dolls, we are left to imagine the reasons behind the dolls getting all mixed up and the larger import of the same. And it is a mystery that never quite seems settled.

— Tony Xavier

There were fifty-five pairs of dolls in Kalicharan Mukherji’s living room. Fifty-five male dolls and as many female dolls. They were arranged on the four shelves of a large showcase.

‘All these dolls have been collected from the countries I’ve visited over the years,’ Mukherji said with a hint of pride.

In his ninety years, he has travelled fifty-five countries—five continents, fifty-five countries—that’s the Math.

‘Of course, not as proof of my having been there,’ Mukherji smiled softly. ‘For that, one must take photos or write notes, no? I used to do that earlier. But then I lost interest. Stopped writing. The notes I made and the photos I took were eventually lost. What’s the point of showing proofs, anyway? Now, only these dolls are left,’ he said.

The dolls are all decked up in their national costumes. The males are all slightly taller; some have headgear, some moustaches; a serious face, a put-on bravado. The female dolls in their colourful and embroidered dresses were docile and well-behaved. But of late, they have been in a bit of disarray, something that Mukherji and his wife are working to set right.

I had dropped in to meet the Mukherjis to understand the history of a firm that no longer exists today. They were living in an oldish house in South Calcutta’s Lake Gardens. Mr K.C. Mukherji was above ninety but still in good health. He could climb stairs and walk a bit to exercise as well. Mrs Mukherji, too, was more or less the same. But a couple of months ago, she had a fall and had to undergo surgery on her leg, which was still in a cast. She needs a wheelchair to get around. Obviously, she is quite old as well, maybe two or three years younger than her husband.

I had not heard of these Mukherjis before. And to be honest, I did not know much about the old firm either. But last week, I got a call from Mumbai from a certain Mr Sorabji. He had been in the US for quite some time, and it seems as if he is still an American citizen. He still keeps going to the States once in a while, but he intends to stay in India for a long time.

‘This company was founded by my grandparents.’ Sorabji said loudly, making the phone redundant. ‘However, in 1970 or 71, everything was shut down after a lot of legal hassles. I got a few shares, which I sold and went off to America. I was young and hungry, ready to take on anything. And I did take on a few things—I started a few firms there and made them undisputed market leaders. But then I got tired of it all. Lost my energy, my drive. Nothing interests me these days. That’s why I decided to return.’

‘After I got back, on one of the evenings in Bombay—you know, my tongue just refuses to get around to saying Mumbai—anyway, on one of the evenings, while walking around Fort, I saw the name of my old firm engraved on stone, on a building that was at least around a hundred and fifty years old. It was then that I was stirred to do something. I wanted to learn the history of that firm and, if possible, to write a book about it and get it published. That is why I have reached out to you,’ he said.

‘You are a Malayali, right?’ he continued. ‘I’ll be straight, I am not really fond of Malayalis, in general—very cunning all of them—and I have had a couple of bad experiences as well.’

This guy, Sorabji, managed to get my phone number from a journalist friend of mine. I used to take up such gigs earlier. The first one was to write the autobiography of a politician at the behest of his followers. That is, I was to write everything as if it were written by him. I had to read up a bit and spend several days recording interviews with him. I transcribed all of it, and the book was published in his name. All of it took about six months of running around. Even though I got a reasonable amount of money, I had a feeling that writing the book made me a different person altogether—every time I stepped out, I began to wonder whether people were looking at me as if I were a politician; from a distance, the shouting of slogans reached my ears; my walk and my demeanour were as if I were on stage. This is the grave danger in ghost-writing autobiographies—one ends up living in another person’s shoes, almost.

After that, all sorts of people started approaching me to write their histories—some ancestral families, some small-time money-lending firms, who, in their affection for themselves, liked to call themselves ‘banks’. One ‘wise man’ made me write the biography of his dear departed wife—their love story apparently began when they were in third grade—in a way, it was good that the blessed lady left this world early, for I had become so bored listening to his stories that I felt I too would soon leave this world. Anyway, to date, I haven’t seen that book published. Who knows whatever happened to it? But yeah, such people are never strapped for cash. They would also somehow manage to collect enough details required for the book. But it was the writing that was impossible for them. My task was to neatly package all the details they supplied, with headings and elaborations, into around two hundred-odd pages. And, of course, a few photographs can be thrown in as well. The printing and distribution of the book was also their headache.

‘How many pages do you have in mind,’ I asked him.

‘That’s yet to be decided,’ Sorabji said. I did not like his casually dismissive tone—as if he were one of those aristocratic or feudal characters in films, characters who treat the world and the people in it like their property. As a rule, those who approached me with such projects were always very courteous.

‘That has to be decided,’ I said. Only then can I decide where to begin, what all to include…all these things are absolutely necessary to write.

‘Ha! Have I asked you to write the book?’ he asked. ‘Leave that to me. I’m educated enough for that. And by the way, I have written articles in newspapers as well.’

Ah! Then why did this guy even bother to summon me? I couldn’t understand.

‘Not for anything else,’ he started explaining. ‘The defunct company was last headed by a certain Mukherji. Kalicharan, or K.C. Mukherji. I have learnt that he is very much alive and stays close to you—in Calcutta.’

He told me the address and continued: ‘You must go and meet him. He is someone who knows quite a lot about those times. Some things need to be clarified. Take a good photographer along and get some pictures as well. What do you say?’

‘Let me see,’ I said rather listlessly.

‘No. You must go,’ he said, almost ordering me.

That really ticked me off. Usually, I wouldn’t have taken up such kind of work. But in the very next breath, he made a very lucrative offer, an amount that I could in no way refuse. With the photographer’s fee, taxi fare and other sundries on top of that. The only condition was that it had to be done within a week.

‘It is not as if there is a great hurry,’ Sorabji said. ‘But that guy Mukherji must already be past ninety. Who knows how long he will last? Better to get everything documented as early as possible.’

‘One more thing,’ he said before hanging up, ‘there is no way you can tell Kalicharan that I sent you. We did not part on good terms. You can tell him that you are working on a project about old firms that no longer exist. What do you say?’

What to say! Within an hour, half of the agreed-upon amount was credited to my account.

The very next day, I went to Mukherji’s home. I took a friend along as well. Not a professional photographer, but someone who has accompanied me on many trips.

‘If it weren’t for that crazy kid, the company wouldn’t have shut down,’ Mukherji recounted. ‘He sold whatever shares he had at whatever price he got and left for America. He wouldn’t listen to anyone. Did whatever he wanted. What came of it? It was a firm with a great reputation. It was founded at the time of the British. Do you think we can build such firms now?

While Mr Mukherji did get a golden handshake, he has had to carry the ignominy of being at the helm when the firm wound down to its messy end.

‘Everyone knew I was not to blame. But all said and done, I was the one who performed the last rites? That can never be forgotten.’

‘What did you do next?’ I asked.

‘It was a very well-known firm, right, so because of my association with it, I had no trouble getting another job. After that, I became the head of two companies based in India. I worked in Singapore as well. But what’s incredible is that even now, after all these years, people still identify me as the head of that old company.’ Mr Mukherji smiled. ‘None of that is my achievement, you know. It’s the legacy of the previous generations that built the organization.’

It has been many years since he returned. As with many upper-class families, his children are not with him—one is in America, and the other in Europe. Their children are in Canada, Australia, and Singapore. Usually, once a year, at most twice, one of them visits India. A cook and a watchman are at hand as domestic help. If needed, the watchman himself doubles up as a driver. When Mrs Mukherji was unwell a while ago, it was the same watchman who was by her side at the hospital.

Though the house was old, the furniture and the rest of the decor looked contemporary—as if the place had been renovated recently—blue carpets on the floor, new fans and expensive chandeliers on the ceiling, a showcase full of medals and certificates, probably tokens of Mukherji’s professional success, and frames with photographs from times past neatly lined up on the walls. It was then that my eyes fell on the large collection of dolls in different dresses in the glass almirah behind Mr Mukherji—dolls with varied facial features, headgear, and ornaments. I was engrossed in them for a while, and it was only when I noticed Mr Mukherji watching me that I turned my gaze away.

‘You said that your wife was hospitalized; what happened?’ I said, wanting to change the subject.

‘Oh, yeah, yeah. She was admitted for a month. She had a fall. It was a lot of trouble.’

We went to the next room to meet Mukherji’s wife. She was lying on the bed- her left leg, which was in a cast, was resting raised on a pillow. As soon as I entered, she tried to get up, but Mukherji signalled to her not to. A new wheelchair stood close to the bed. And there were two dolls on the bed too! More dolls! I wondered whether they had a set-up that manufactured these dolls.

Close to Mumbai, there was a wedding of a family friend’s granddaughter. They were insistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so the Mukherjis had to go. She was getting down the stairs when she slipped and fell flat on the floor—she couldn’t get up, the pain was extremely severe. She was immediately taken to a hospital close by. Luckily, there was a very senior specialist at hand, who, after a thorough examination, concluded that the leg was fractured in two places.

Despite the doctor being available, the hospital as such was not well-equipped. It was evening, and there were things needed for surgery that could only be brought from Mumbai, which would take at least three hours.

‘Sometimes, it feels as if we got lucky,’ Mukherji paused for a moment and then continued in a tone of astonishment. ‘Yes, it was luck only! This firm about which you have come enquiring—the doctor’s father worked there! I don’t exactly remember his name. But when I mentioned my association with the firm, the doctor immediately treated us as one of his own. He sent his own car and driver to Bombay, got all the necessary things, and performed the surgery.’

‘This is from Japan for sure, no doubt,’ Mrs Mukherji said, picking up a female doll from the bed and showing it to her husband. He looked at it but did not say anything. Mrs Mukherji looked quite frail. It was as if the pain from the fall had not yet left her eyes.

‘The firm belonged to Parsis,’ Mukherji said as we walked out of the room. ‘The employees had all been working there for a long time; everyone knew each other. All said and done, it was the best organization I have worked in. I would have continued to work there if it was not shut down.’

At its peak, it had branches all over the country. It was in the business of procuring seasonings and fragrances and exporting them to various countries. Mr Mukherji had done a course on foreign trade from London, a degree very few people had at the time. That was why Sorabji’s father made him the boss despite his relatively young age. Heading the firm meant constant travel—both in and out of the country.

Mukherji went on to describe the workings and activities of the firm in those days—some former colleagues, certain memorable occasions, the visit of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to their office, numerous honours, travels, travel descriptions—he recounted everything with great passion. The friend who had come along with me kept clicking away without paying attention to what we were saying.

‘But everything came to an end. When I went to Kochi a while ago, I stayed at Willingdon Island. Back in the day, we had an office there. Trains were extended right up to the island only for transporting goods. A railway station was built there. After all, there were a number of such companies operating there at the time. During those evenings in Kochi, I wandered all around the area—that railway station no longer exists; no trains arrive at the island anymore; only an old solitary bogey stands there as if someone had abandoned it by mistake; and the surroundings are all overrun by the forest.’

For some time, he was lost in his memories. From the other room came the sound of Mrs Mukherji coughing. When it ceased, the large house seemed to sink into a deep silence. The camera’s flash went off once.

‘You said that you have travelled all over the world. Which place, which trip is the most unforgettable one?’ I asked to get the conversation going again.

‘Oh, that was Lahore, no doubt about it.’ Mukherji replied in a flash.


‘Yes. But it cannot be called travel. Going home can’t be called travel, right?’

‘Home? In Lahore? Whose house?’

‘Our home was in Lahore. I was born and raised in that city. My father was a senior official in the North-West Railways. We left everything and migrated here. In ‘47. I was eighteen or so at that time.’ Mukherji tried to recollect.

‘It was the same company you were speaking about that sent me again to Lahore. They had major business ties there even at that time,’ he said.

‘After reaching Lahore, I got quite delayed wrapping up my official work. It was dark by the time I was done. And suddenly, I felt a strong desire to see the house where we used to stay. It was a city I had lived in for so long…the mosques, the school, the college, the library, the market, all the surroundings, all the gullies…everything was fresh in my mind. As I came out of the hotel, I was seized by pangs of deep regret. Maybe what I was feeling could be called nostalgia. It felt as if, after many years, I was going to see a close blood relative once again—someone I thought I had lost forever. I was walking the streets of Lahore after ten-fifteen years…streets that ran next to the big mosque, the famous Gurudwara…I had to walk past many havelis, many streets before I reached home…paths that my feet had walked so many times…light from the streetlamps filtered through a faint mist, filling the air with a soft yellow glow…a subtle aroma of some herbs…I was walking through my childhood…from the inside of a house, the sound of a musical instrument…a melody was flowing out onto the streets…its waves seemed to lift me, carry me away…it was winter and all around me, people were wrapped in woolens from head to toe…I bought a hot cup of tea from a roadside vendor, the way we used to when as a child, I walked these same streets with Dad…steaming masala chai in an earthen cup…after years and years…the taste…of a life that no longer exists, a life that is now closed to me forever…

The street in which we used to stay has changed. Many houses have been demolished. New ones have taken their place. Even so, after all those years, it was as if the street still wore the same familiar face. If we look carefully behind new facades, we can see traces of what stood before. The way in the faces of children we can read the features of their mums and dads. Our house stood at the end of the street. It had not changed much. It was lit. It was obvious that a new family was living in the house now. A stab of pain, a surge of anger—when those we thought of as ours and ours alone move on to other friends, other relationships—that sadness—in reality, it is just jealousy wrapped in grief—that was what I was feeling, too—the rooms where we ate, took naps, the corridors we ran around, the yard in front of the house where we had slipped and fallen, the trees that flowered only for us, the windows that opened out to streets that woke up at dawn and waited for us to look at them.

I thought that I would walk around the neighbourhood where our old house stood and then go back to the hotel. But that night, after I reached there, I don’t know why I felt the urge to go into the house and spend some time there. Or maybe it was my body that refused to turn back. Even if it once belonged to us, it felt strange to enter a house after so many years. Not just that, we do not know how those who now stay there will react. Many stories of intolerance were also doing the rounds. I thought—whatever has to happen will happen—and went ahead and knocked on the door.

It was a boy of about ten or twelve who opened the door. I stood there, not knowing what to say.

‘If you are here to meet Father, it will take time. He is praying. Please come tomorrow morning,’ he said.

I did not say a word and just kept looking at him.

There was very little light inside the house. It was like that even when we lived there—the light would always hide behind doors or curtains, not showing itself as if it were scared of someone.

‘Who are you?’ he enquired upon sensing that I was not ready to talk.

‘No one,’ I said.

Someone, maybe a woman, seemed to have slipped away from behind the door. Then, the sound of vessels clanging in the kitchen.

‘Who are you?’ a voice called out. It had to be the same woman who was inside. In between, the sound of water dripping from the tap.

‘I …I…’ I stammered as if I had forgotten the words. ‘I’m nobody…But I was born and raised here. This house, in truth, this house…was mine.’

At once, all the sounds ceased.

A few minutes passed. I was simply standing there, looking inside—I do not know for how long. Standing like an intruder in one’s own house—that pain cannot be described, it has to be experienced. I cursed the moment I decided to get out of the hotel and visit this neighbourhood.

Just then, a well-built middle-aged man hurriedly walked out.

‘Come, come! Just see who has arrived! So, this is our house owner! Kalicharan, right? I know everyone.’ He came towards me, smiling broadly as if we had known each other for a long time. Hugging me with his huge arms and taking me by the shoulder, he led me inside and gathered the whole family around.

Within no time, many people from the neighbourhood came in seeking me out. I knew a few of them. News of my arrival seemed to have spread like wildfire. Everyone was exhilarated—the children tugged at my clothes; the elders asked after my father and mother; they brought out eatables that I had last tasted as a child, pressing me to eat; in a flash, I was transformed into an esteemed guest of honour in their midst.

‘I’ve never had anything as tasty as the food I ate that night—not in the five continents I visited, not in the fifty-five countries I stayed in. I ate so much that I felt stuffed. In between all this, the host secretly took me away to his room and poured me a whisky; he had a drink as well. He said that given that it was such a special day, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and declared, ‘You are not going anywhere tonight; you will stay here, in the room on the top’.

Later, he showed me some photographs that he had kept safely. We had forgotten them in the house when we left the country in a hurry. ‘We did not throw away anything. We wanted you to have them in case you ever returned.’ he said. I took the photographs.

Thus, after years, I once again stayed in my old room as a guest. My host and I kept talking very late into the night. After he left, I lay alone in my room. I could not sleep. The past rushed in from all directions, and sadness eventually overwhelmed me. I buried my face into the pillow and sobbed.

The next day, as I got ready to leave, my host presented me with a pair of dolls, the first ones in this collection. ‘They are not the dolls you left behind. Those went missing over the years,’ he said. ‘The dancer and danseuse of Lahore,’ Mukherji said, pointing towards the showcase.

‘I can still recognize them,’ Mrs Mukherji called out loudly from the other room. I was amazed that she was listening to our conversation all this while.

‘Yes, yes,’ Mukherji smiled. ‘The Punjabi attire is easily recognizable. But what do we know about the others?’

Since then, whenever he went abroad, he made it a point to buy a pair of dolls—a male and a female in traditional costumes. In the initial years, he visited only a few countries, and only four or five pairs of dolls reached home. Their children were very young and were given the dolls to play with only once in a while, and that too only if they threw a really big tantrum and cried. Once their excitement died down, the dolls would be returned to their proper places.

‘By the time our children themselves had children, the number of dolls had increased. About twenty-five to thirty. Luckily, all our children were abroad. They returned to India only after their children had somewhat grown up. After they reach a certain age, kids are no longer fascinated by dolls, right? They do not reach out for them. And even if they did, it was only to return them to the shelf after finding out the country of origin from the tag.

Eventually, Mr Mukherji retired from all professional assignments. By that time, the number of dolls had crossed forty. But despite that, his passion for visiting foreign countries had not decreased. Every year, he would visit a country or two along with his wife. They would stroll through the streets in the evening, taste the local cuisine, dress themselves in the local costume, and buy a pair of dolls before they return. This became a ritual.

‘Have you been to Lahore since then?’ I asked.

‘No. No official trips came up. Not only that, getting a visa also became very difficult. But I remained in touch with the family there, getting news about all the major happenings, the weddings, the deaths. By and by, though, the calls became fewer. And finally, they stopped altogether. We lost touch. That is how it is, isn’t it?’

‘Also, even if we visited a country a second time, there was no question of getting another pair of dolls. Only one pair per country. Otherwise, there would be too much chaos.

By that time, Mrs Mukherji had wheeled herself into the living room.

‘Oh, you have come here. You could have called me.’ Mukherji asked.

‘I can now get into the wheelchair on my own. I got fed up lying alone there,’ she said.

‘Until recently, all the pairs of dolls were precisely arranged,’ Mrs Mukherji said. ‘That used to be my job. In the chronological order of his trips abroad. I would attach a tag with the name of the country and the date of visit. Cambodia, 1994-March; Egypt 1979-December; Italy, 1983-June and so on…’

‘True. If it were me, I would have missed many,’ Mukherji said.

‘And all of it has come to nothing!’ Mrs. Mukherji smiled. ‘Now one can’t connect the dolls to the countries.’

‘All of it is the handiwork of the children!’ said Mukherji.

It is only recently that this happened. Until then, all the dolls were perfectly tallied. One of their grandchildren had come down from Canada. He is a university teacher. He has married a local girl. When they came down for an India trip, they decided to spend a week with their grandparents.

Mr Mukherji and his wife became very attached to their great-grandchildren—one five and one six—telling them stories and joining them in their play and games. When their parents went sightseeing in Calcutta, the children stayed back home.

‘The children were fascinated by the dolls and wanted to touch them. We let them play on the condition that they handle the dolls with utmost care, and they did so. We felt proud looking at their discipline and obedience. Not only did they not harm the dolls, they wiped all the dust and made the dolls squeaky clean.’ Mukherji said.

‘But they were not as innocent as they seemed,’ Mukherji’s wife said. ‘They were very crafty. Without our noticing, they deliberately interchanged the names of the countries on the dolls.’

‘In some cases, they completely wiped off the names of the countries,’ said Mukherji.

‘My God, what mischief! We did not notice it at first. We don’t always read the names on the back, right?’ wife said.

‘It is not that I did notice one or two labels lying on the floor; I did.’ Mr Mukherji said. ‘But I thought they had come off accidentally. I just let it be, thinking they could be re-attached easily.’

But that was the problem. All the names were thoroughly mixed up. They even mixed up the pairs! Just imagine—a German female doll with a Sri Lankan, a Nigerian dancer along with a female doll from Bhutan!’

‘Apparently, children interchange the coats, umbrellas, and shoes of adults. Some game, it seems!!’ I said.

‘This is also a game, what else?’ Mrs Mukherji said.

‘But a silent revolution!’, Mukherji smiled. ‘The kids did not feel that they had turned everything upside down. After they left, we thought we could peacefully rearrange everything as they had been before. And that is when we realized that everything was altogether haphazard—the years and the countries were all mismatched. If you observe closely, you will see the confusion even on the faces of the dolls, too, no?’ Mukherji stared at the dolls. ‘Maybe each doll is in search of its former mate…Maybe each doll is eyeing its new companion with mistrust…As if everyone is trapped in a crowd of unknown people.”

“They are kids, no. They are just finding out about countries and all!’ I said.

“If it’s like this even before they know things, then by the time they are grown up, I think everything will have come crashing down.’ Mukherji’s wife said.

“Even when we were growing up, things were more or less like this. Borders were redrawn overnight. People separated,’ Mukherji said, ‘Some countries whose names are written on the tags no longer exist on the face of the Earth or were merged into another country. In that sense, I can understand the dilemma of the dolls from those countries.’

‘You may not believe me,’ Mr Mukherji said in a guilty tone, ‘things got worse within a few days. On certain days, I’d go to sleep after arranging the dolls as best as I could. But when I woke up in the morning, I’d find that many of the dolls were in the wrong place.’

‘Wrong place?’

‘Yes. I mean, I would not find them in the spot I had placed them the night before. Initially, I thought I was imagining things. But then we started observing it together. We would take great pains to arrange them in a very specific sequence. Yet, by morning, we would find them misplaced and scattered all over the place…’

‘But who would do it at night?’ I asked.

‘That was my question too. At first, we suspected each other. In fact, we even quarrelled over it. We then spied on the watchman and the cook.’

I waited for him to tell me what happened.

‘It was none of them. But the dolls were indeed changing places. That was for sure. All we had to do was to take our eyes off them, and one of them would move from one continent to another. If we set that one right, another one would make a similar move,’ said Mukherji.

‘We got tired and fed up with endlessly arranging them’, Mrs Mukherji pushed her wheelchair, getting away from all the dolls.

‘Will anyone believe us? But that was what happened. They behave as if they have got independence or freedom or something,’ Mukherji smiled, betraying his incomprehension.

“Don’t speak so loudly,’ said his wife. ‘My feeling is that these dolls can now understand what we say.’

‘This is all the handiwork of the kids. Who knew this would happen!’ Mukherji sighed.

‘Better not talk about those kids!’ there was hostility in her words. ‘Tell him what they asked also?’ she looked at her husband.

‘Oh! That was a joke,’ but there was not a hint of humour on Mukherji’s face. “When they were leaving after wrecking everything, those smart-alecs asked, but why do you need all of these dolls, great-grandpa? You are not a child, no. Why don’t you give them to us?’

‘What did you say, Sir?’

‘Great-grandpa will take care of all these dolls until he dies. After that, you can come and take them. What else could I say?’

Mukherji went silent. I could sense what he was feeling—his mind was drifting through those five continents, those fifty-five countries.

‘And they haven’t forgotten about it,’ Mukherji’s wife said.

‘Yes. That’s true. The two of them had called the other day from Canada and asked me, ‘When is great-grandpa going to die?’

‘They got a sound scolding for that. Mukherji and his wife could hear their parents admonishing the kids and telling them that they are not supposed to ask such questions “Leave it, leave it,” we told them. Don’t scold them. They are only kids! They do not know anything!’

‘Anyway, we are completely lost! We start in the morning and struggle all day—looking up old books and now the internet to match each doll with its country—matching the costumes, the ornaments, and the headgear. When we feel that things are more or less in order, we find that a few pairs have again gone their own way. If I had known the year I had gone, it would have made things a lot easier. But even that is gone.’ Mukherji’s voice was filled with disappointment.

‘In a way, it’s like I have a new job, you know. Now that I am lying unwell, I try to identify each doll from memory. Some of them match, while others don’t. Anyway, if even this wasn’t there, my days would’ve felt lifeless just lying straight on the bed!’ Mukherji’s wife said.

‘That is another way of finding solace,’ Mukherji sighed. ‘There is no point now to stress oneself out over this. I told you, no, the dolls have taken things into their own hands now. Even if we arrange everything, they undo it.’

Sitting there, speaking to the Mukherjis, I had lost track of time. The caretaker would drop in and out, serving us spicy Tibetan tea.

In about three or four hours, I finished the interview, got the photos and went home. At night, I called Sorabji and told him about my meeting with the Mukherjis. I elaborated at length on the now defunct company of his.

‘Oh, that’s enough. That’s a lot of stuff!’ Sorabji said, once again adopting the manner of an old aristocrat. ‘You send me the photos and the notes. I’ll get back to you after going through them.’

Though he was a real pain, Sorabji was very prompt when it came to money. He sent the remainder of my fee as soon as he got my email. And that’s how that project ended. I let go of the story of the firm that no longer exists.

A couple of months later, Sorabji called me once again. ‘I’ve started writing the book,’ he told me, ‘but I have a few doubts about one or two things that Kalicharan told you. I think he is wrong about a date. That’s why I called.’

‘I’ll call and find out,’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s a must’, said Sorabji. ‘But call immediately; he is a man well past ninety!’

When I called Mr Mukherji, I couldn’t get him the first time around. He called back. ‘Sorabji was right. There was a mix-up in the date that I told you.’ he confirmed after checking in some notebook.

Mukherji said that the plaster from his wife’s leg was also removed. ‘The same doctor had relocated to a hospital in Calcutta. What luck! Although it no longer exists, the firm still keeps providing so many benefits, no?’ We spoke about the firm for a while longer.

‘By the way, what about the dolls, Sir? Did you manage to arrange them?’ I enquired while making small talk.

There was silence from the other end.

‘Problems are multiplying,’ Mukherji said after a while, lowering his voice. ‘Now they can get out of their glass cage on their own. They are seen all over the house, even in the rooms on the first floor, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. The house is full of their ruckus. It is as if all borders have been erased. But what can we do at this age? Come to think of it, in the middle of all these dolls, we too have become two dolls who have lost their bearings.’

‘By the way,’ Mukherji added, ‘yesterday the kids had called from Canada. When I told them about it, their reply was, ‘Why do dolls need a cage or a prison! Let them walk around!’ So, what does that mean? The children were deliberately troubling us!’

‘Fortunately, this time, they didn’t ask when great-grandpa is going to die! That was a huge relief. Their parents have forbidden them from doing that. Instead, they asked, ‘When are we going to own all the dolls.’

Mukherji laughed out loud— a laugh suffused with sadness.

When it stopped, I just stood there, holding the phone, not knowing what to say…


A big thank you to Rahul Radhakrishnan for bringing Tony Xavier’s translation to our attention.

Image credits: Bellerby & Co. Globemakers

Bellerby & Co makes globes.  Handpainted globes. Bored Panda wrote a nice piece on the crew with lots of cool photos of their studio. It seems to be a fun job, though it’s hard to understand why. After all, how many times can one paint over the Middle-East? One of these photos depicted cut sections of the globe which were to be assembled onto a sphere. It reminded us of the infernal kids in the story who are forever rearranging the labels and names of Mr. & Mrs. Mukherjee’s dolls so that no one can tell where anything is supposed to be anymore. The kids at Bellerby & Co. are nicer.


E. Santhosh Kumar has published around 25 books, including novels, short stories, children’s literature, essays, translations and travelogues. He has won Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award twice, for the best short story collection in 2006 and for the novel in 2012. Two of his stories have been made into feature films and one received a Special Jury mention for Story in Kerala State Film Awards in 2018. Won Kerala State Children’s Institute Award for best children’s novel in 2011. English translation of the novel Andhakaranazhi (‘Island of Lost Shadows’)  had been short-listed for Crossword Prize in 2016. His writings have appeared in translation in English, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, German and Arabic.

Translator | TONY XAVIER

A teacher by day and a reader and writer at all other times, Tony Xavier is the Chief
Learning Officer of one of India’s oldest test-prep firms. Tony started off as a poet
and completed a cycle of poems titled Songs from a Calling, from which he
performed at spoken word events in Mumbai; his poems have also been published in
the online journal Hakara. Having finished his debut novel, Tony is working on a test-
prep book prep commissioned by Penguin Random House India and translating a
Sahitya Academy award-winning Malayalam novel by E. Santosh Kumar.

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