They presented her with a doll at her bridal shower.
It had a splintered wooden head with crossed black eyes and ears that jutted. The hair was painted on, black with random bald patches. It was dressed up in an intricate lace chemise that looked as if it had seen several generations. But it’s electric-blue silk trousers appeared new and showed off an apparent bulge in the crotch. The women made a big deal out of it, pointing at it and giggling like a bunch of illiterate buffoons.
They said the doll was a family heirloom, an antique worth its weight in gold. It was a little too heavy for a doll, and at two feet long, a little too large, and with its crossed eyes, a little too ugly. As it lay in her lap, mimicking the presence of a baby, she thought that for an inanimate wooden object, it was a little too warm. What she hadn’t bargained on was the sheer revulsion it caused her to feel.
It seemed to stare directly into her eyes, and even when she looked away, she could feel it scrutinising her mind. It seemed to get progressively heavier, numbing her legs, pushing them down, making her sink deeper into the couch. She wanted to snatch it and hurl it far away from her. But her arms had lost their strength. She felt limp and powerless.
The ceremony began to speed up. They garlanded her with lilies and lotuses, roses and marigolds, rows upon rows of flowers snaked around her neck, fell in swathes on her chest, and coiled in layers in her lap. Yet none covered the sly look on the face of the doll.
They unravelled her long black curls. They slathered her scalp with coconut oil and anointed her forehead with sandalwood paste. They rubbed turmeric with mustard oil on her arms and legs. The pungency of the unguents began to make her head throb. Everyone and everything had begun to dance around her. The light streaming in from the window was blinding. But wait, wasn’t it late evening? It couldn’t be the moon. The light was hot on her skin.
Nausea made its relentless way up the back of her throat. Her gullet felt like someone had rubbed sandpaper inside. She wanted a sip of water, but in the frenzy of dancing women she couldn’t find anyone who met her eyes. She was among strangers.
Was that her mother-in-law? Why had she turned blue? Was that a garland of skulls around her neck, each skull undulating to the beat of the tribal music? Where were her clothes? Why did she look like the Goddess Kali on a rampage? What was she destroying?
What was wrong with her sister-in-law? Sitting on the ground, hair swinging, mumbling something incomprehensible and throwing fistfuls of ash at herself? Why were the other women chanting, what were they chanting? What sort of a ritual was this? Was she going mad? Had everyone gone mad? This was meant to be a celebratory occasion, not this bizarre orgy of demented women.
Things began to slow down, the ladies dropping to the floor in humbled heaps of panting flesh, but the music was still thumping away. She thought she knew that beat. She had begun to feel that time had sucked her back into some dank and putrid past. She felt herself melting into a glutinous gloop. The drums thundered on and around the collapsed women and the sound shattered her ears and took over her senses. Her head exploded in a riot of colours.
Then there was silence.
The wedding had gone off well. Everything was just as her parents had desired and organized. The guests blessed her with the age-old maxim of ‘Be bathed in milk – be showered with sons’. She had never quite managed to get down to the bottom of that. As a child, she had often wondered, that if everyone wanted male offspring, there wouldn’t be mothers to give birth to them. But her logic wasn’t acceptable even to the most erudite, so she had left it there. She stood beside her new husband smiling benignly and hoping she would have daughters, so she could thumb her nose at them all.
When she miscarried her first born, they said it was common. They said it was ok. That it was just the body getting ready to bear the burden of childbirth. She withdrew to her bedroom for months after, tears soaking her pillows, her throat keening with agony.
When she miscarried her second one, she darkened her room and stayed in bed, refusing to meet anyone. Her husband left meals by her bedside and caressed her burning forehead each time he entered the room, trying to reduce her unhappiness by sharing it with her.
After the third loss, when they began to question her fecundity, she took to numbly staring out of the bedroom window, her stillness sprawling like graffiti on the walls around her.
They began to talk of getting her examined by the family witch-doctor. They began to suggest that she leave her husband or allow him to take another wife. They said anything was possible these days. They said that for an heir, a male heir, they would do anything.
It was then that she too had begun to wonder, because the miscarriages were all female foetuses.
The morning right after she returned from the hospital after her fourth miscarriage, she went up to the attic and opened the gargantuan aluminium trunk they had gifted her. It was packed with extravagant linen and lace, silks and satins she would never have any use for. And as she had conjectured, lying innocently underneath, was the doll. She brought it down and sat it on a comfortable couch in the corner of her bedroom and stared at it. Nothing had changed, it retained its old crafty grin, if anything, the grin had turned malicious. It stared back at her as if daring her to do something, anything.
Later that month, as her husband panted over her supine body, each thrust felt like an iron rod tearing into her viscera. He gentle husband seemed to have changed. His eyes were crossed in concentration, and they seemed to glare at her. She lay there waiting for it to be over.
To the exact date after, with an easy pregnancy carried to full term, her son was born. When she looked at the doll again, it seemed to have lost its malevolence. She wondered what had made her hate it so. She caressed its painted head with her palm, a spot of black paint coming away in her hand.
Anushree Prashant has been published in the Fib Review, with Ink Pantry Publishing and in The Northern India Patrika. She has an M.Litt from the University of Glasgow and an M.Sc. from the University of Mumbai. She is currently working on her collections of Flash Fiction, Poetry and Lyric Essays. She lives in Dubai.