The Browless Dolls

By S.Ramakrishnan, translated from Tamil by B Chandramouli

S Ramakrishnan

S. Ramakrishnan is an eminent Tamil writer who has won the Sahitya Akademi Award in the Tamil Language category in 2018. He has published 10 novels, 20 collections of short stories, 75 collections of essays, 15 books for children, 3 books of translation and 9 plays. He also has a collection of interviews to his credit. His short stories are noted for their modern story-telling style in Tamil and have been translated and published in English, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada and French. 

The Browless Dolls

Hasan Sikari’s house was the scene of a strange incident that seemed impossible.

 Real-life is always more fascinating than fiction. The impossible happens more easily in reality than in fiction. Such an incident occurred at Hasan Sikari’s house.  

We do not notice oddities until they are over. We only examine how they happened afterwards. Strange things happen only to show us we are not in control. What exactly happened at Hasan Sikari’s house?

Two dolls have come together. 

One might wonder what is surprising about that. 

That is because you have not known about these two dolls. 

These were hand-painted white ceramic dolls. They said that the Chinese dolls were a gift to Hassan Sikari at his wedding; one is a man and the other a woman. The male doll wore a round cap. Around its neck was a handkerchief. A small belt circled its waist.

A red robe adorned the female doll’s body. Its left hand was visible in front, but it had the right hand hidden inside the robe. The woman’s hair bent forward like a crescent. Neither doll had eyebrows, giving them a distinct look. The doll’s expressions were alive, showing that the maker of these dolls was a gifted artist.

Those in Hasan Sikari’s household said the dolls were of a husband and wife. The dolls appeared normal, but a strange belief accompanied them. These dolls reunited by themselves if they were ever separated.

You must wonder how lifeless dolls could come together. Maybe, these dolls had fate as well, just like humans. If not fate, it was strange the way they stayed by each other’s side.  

No one at Hasan Sikari’s house tried to test this theory by separating the dolls. Hasan Sikari was a silk merchant. Their family had moved to Burma from India to trade silk only. His family had been in the silk business for generations.

One of Hassan Sikari’s ancestors bought silk wholesale directly from China. The friendship that began then continued during Hasan Sikari’s time. Hasan Sikari is now eighty-six years old. However, he still visits his shop every day. The silk business still fascinates him. They no longer go to China to buy silk. They buy silk from Kashmir. Hasan Sikari would sometimes lament that artificial silk has ruined the greatness of silk.

Hasan Sikari was 18 when he got married. Quen Lee, a Chinese merchant, gave him the dolls as a wedding gift. Quen Lee, a family friend, was married to an Indian woman. While he gifted the dolls, he said nothing about their strangeness. Three months later, when Quen Lee came to me to tell Hasan about the flood in the Irrawaddy River, he said, “These dolls are an inseparable couple. They will definitely come together again, even if they are somehow separated” 

Hasan Sikari’s response was sarcastic, “Even humans find it difficult to come together when separated. So why do you spin such a yarn about dolls?”

Quen Lee said in a firm voice, “No, what I say is the truth. They do not make these dolls anymore, but four centuries ago, the bride’s parents would give them as a wedding gift. These are also four hundred years old and have been in my family all this time. They are a gift of love from me.” 

When Quen Lee said this, Hasan Sikari’s wife fell in love with the dolls. She cleaned them and placed them on a pedestal next to their bed. The doll husband and wife appeared meek. Touching the wife doll’s cheeks felt like touching a rose petal.

“Quen Lee was right. These dolls are strange,” Hasan Sikari’s wife told him one day.

“What happened?” he asked.

“The dolls are too shy to see our intimacy in bed. They turn their faces away by themselves.”

 “No way it can happen. Why should dolls be ashamed?” Hasan asked.

“How can the dolls see our intimacy? You’re confused. Tell me what happened.”

“I’ve watched them for the past few days. The dolls look at the bed during the day but turn by themselves around at night.” 

“Lie. I’ll hug you now and see if these dolls turn around.” 

“Oh. Not now… you don’t know the time and place,” said Hassan Sikari’s wife after shyly shaking off his embrace. Both dolls remained motionless.

When Hasan Sikari went to bed at night, he noticed the dolls were facing the bed. He got up early in the morning and turned on the lights. All he could see were the dolls’ backs. The dolls had turned their faces. What a surprise! They were in fact, embarrassed to see our privacy, thought Hasan Sikari. He woke up his wife and told her so.

“At least now, do you believe what I said? The dolls are watching us.”

“Do you think they will hear what we’re saying?” 

“I don’t know. There seems to be some emotion in the dolls. Your friend was right. These are not ordinary toys.” 

Hasan Sikari’s wife blushed and transferred the toys from the bedroom to the hall showcase. The dolls stayed there together for twelve years.

One day, Hasan Sikari’s wife said, “These dolls have not aged at all. Same smile. Same youthful look. The same glowing blue eyes. Only we have grown old.”

Upon hearing this, Hasan Sikari said, “It is like our marriage happened just yesterday. But already marriage has become boring.”

Before he finished talking, she exclaimed in false anger, “A man who dislikes marriage should go into the forest. He has no business in the bedroom.” 

Hasan Sikari laughed and said, “These dolls don’t even pick such petty fighting Shamima. Age is the gift of human beings. Age makes a guru out of a man. It is your age which makes you mouth off like this Shamima. The woman I married never used to argue.”

“I am like this because of habit,” Hasan Sikari’s wife laughed. Hasan Sikari believed they were as happy as the dolls given by Quen Lee. A bomb hit Rangoon during World War II. On the night Hasan Sikari attempted to leave the house and return to India, he missed the male doll from the pair.

Only the female doll was in their bamboo basket when they arrived back home by ship. Hasan Sikari’s wife was sad that the male doll had been left behind, but she did not express it.

As soon as they arrived in India, they bought a house in Lucknow and began living there. Only the female doll stood alone in their living room. Six years later, a man trading in old papers came to Hasan Sikari’s house. He bought old papers and empty bottles and left. A few hours after he left, Hasan Sikari’s youngest daughter announced,”The male doll is back.”

 Hasan Sikari could not believe it. The dirtied male doll stood on the floor in a corner. How did the doll materialise? Was it brought by the old paper trader? Did he leave the doll by mistake?

 Hasan Sikari’s wife almost cried when she saw the doll. Grasping the doll, she wiped it with her saree and placed it near the female doll. The male doll seemed to look longingly at the female doll.

Hasan Sikari’s wife said, “Did you see? after traveling here and there for so many years, it has finally returned to our home itself. We should not separate these dolls anymore.” 

The return of the male doll gave Hasan Sikari a new hope, as if he had found all his lost assets. One day he himself wiped the dolls with his hand. Each morning before heading to work, he would stand beside the dolls for a minute, saying something to himself.

All the visitors to Hasan Sikari’s house heard about the dolls looked at them in amazement. A police officer’s wife wanted to buy the doll from Hasan Sikari. He flatly refused.

Hasan Sikari’s family went on a summer vacation to Nainital. The dolls were missing when they returned. Some workers in the house have stolen the dolls. Hasan Sikari notified the police. He questioned the workers and threatened them. However, they could never find the dolls. He suffered a great loss emotionally after losing the dolls and in the following weeks, he fell ill.

 Hasan Sikari dreamt of the dolls one day. He lamented the loss even in his sleep. He spent a lot of money in search of the dolls. Hasan advertised in the paper as well. But the dolls could not be located. Six months later, a railway porter brought the two dolls, apparently found in a railway coach. The male doll had a slightly broken leg. Hasan burst into tears, unable to believe that he had the doll back. He gave the porter a reward of Rs. 2,000.

He decided not to display the dolls outside anymore and made a wooden box and hid them in his money locker. He took out the dolls and prayed every day before taking money. Then he would put them back inside and close the locker.  

Hasan Sikari’s eldest daughter-in-law could not conceive for a long time. In the house, this grievance was discussed as a major issue. One day, in a fit of rage, the eldest daughter-in-law pulled out the two dolls and dumped them outside.  Losing the dolls devastated Hasan Sikari and he fainted. Upon learning that the eldest daughter-in-law has done the deed, Hasan’s wife drove her out of the house. The eldest daughter-in-law never revealed what she had done with the dolls.

Three years later, during the de-silting of the well one summer, they found the two dolls, discoloured and soiled. When they brought out the dolls, washed and held them in their hands, the same blue eyes glowed motionless. When Hasan Sikari’s eldest daughter-in-law was asked about it, she replied: “I just put them in the trash. I wonder how they got into the well.”

It was impossible to determine who took the dolls and threw them into the well.

After that, Hasan Sikari never parted with the dolls. He always kept them with him. He would not give them to his grandchildren even if they asked him. The dolls were near his bed even when he was in the hospital. On the day Hasan Sikari underwent heart surgery, one of the dolls disappeared again. It was the girl doll. Not wanting to make his health worse, the family lied to him saying that the doctor told them to take the dolls home.

Then Hasan Sikari returned home, the first question he asked was, “Where are the toys?”

They brought only the male doll. He stared at all of them, not asking a single question. He told the male doll, “Wherever she is, she’ll come searching for you.”

It did not work out the way he had hoped. When he saw the male doll every morning, he assumed the female doll would arrive that day. But it never happened. That night, he would go to sleep with a heavy heart. Over time, the doll that disappeared became like his daughter. Hasan Sikari acted like a father looking for his lost daughter. The thought of the lost female doll drew him to tears.

One day, after seven years and thirty-six days, the female toy was on their doorstep, with her arm broken. How did it get there and who brought it? No one knew anything; Hasan had no desire to find out. Hugging the doll with the broken arm, he lamented that this had happened. Hasan Sikari’s wife cried also.

The next day, Hasan Sikari adorned the female doll with jewellery and took her to the male doll. He hosted a party at home to celebrate the reunification of the dolls.

Those who came to the party were all stunned by the story of the incredible dolls. A woman looked at the dolls and said,“In the past, these dolls must have been a real man and women who were unable to unite. When they turned into dolls, they will not stay separated”.

Her words seemed true to Hasan Sikari. 

Hasan Sikari’s wife had a sudden heart attack one night, and she passed away before they took her to the hospital. Hasan Sikari, who lost his wife unexpectedly, found solace in the dolls. He kept the dolls by the pillow itself on the bed. Every day, he would tearfully tell the dolls of his wife’s love and their happy days, to relieve his misery.

The dolls seemed to have a sad expression on their faces.

One night, as he told the dolls about the behavior of his newly wed wife, the female doll accidentally fell from the bed and shattered into pieces. As he bent down to grab the doll, he saw the male doll jump out of bed and fall also.

There were two broken browless dolls scattered on the floor. When he saw them, he cried out loudly. Hasan Sikari had never cried so much, not even at the death of his wife.


Dr. Chandramouli is a retired physician.. . He has done several English to Tamil, and Tami to English translations. His Tamil translation of Jack London’s novel, White Fang, has been published recently.   



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