What The Childhood Game Of ‘Marriage Of Dolls’ Told Me Of Indian Marriages!

A poignant and insightful account wherein the writer reminisces the childhood game of 'marriage of dolls' and realizes years later that it was not just a silly game but an emblem.

A poignant and insightful account wherein the writer reminisces about the childhood game of ‘marriage of dolls’ and realizes years later that it was not just a silly game but an emblem.

Transcribing and translating an interview of a partition survivor, now past her seventy-fifth birthday, for an academic article, a wave of nostalgia swept over me, as she described her favorite childhood pastime: organizing the marriage of dolls.

Sometimes it was a friend or a cousin, who provided the bride-doll and sometimes it was she. The same went for the  bridegroom-doll. She recounted how ‘real’ these marriages felt, since they were elaborate affairs that were meticulously planned, well in advance. The attending guests were offered an interesting array of foods, for which special cooking provisions were made by the marriage-hosting family, whose bride-doll it was, in accordance to real marriage customs.

Attending guests from both sides- the bridegroom-doll’s mother’s friends, and the bride-doll’s mother’s guests, would bring along their own dolls as attendees, and everyone played typical marriage games, sang songs and smeared the palms of their hands with henna designs according to the custom. Important rituals like the bride’s departure from the mother’s home was performed to the hilt, as the bride-doll’s mother wept copiously and in earnest.

Honour was important even in ‘make believe’ games

Sometimes a fight broke out between the two parties, as the bridegroom-providers attempted to physically hijack the bride-doll, claiming that she should now go home with them, like in a real marriage. Such bride hijacks were subject to ‘inter-clan’ battles among friends, as the bride’s side attacked the goons from the boy’s side, and rescued their beleaguered bride-doll, who by then, looked a little worn-out and pulled-around, especially as many a bride rescue missions ended in angry skirmishes. These performed marriages, rituals, celebrations, battles and rescues were dramatic events. They proved that children are completely capable of adult emotions of ‘honor’, even as they revealed how childish, so-called adult emotions of ‘honour’ really were.

The saddest part of this memory for the lady, whose interview it was, was the fate of the dolls after their rescue. These were mostly discarded, since they looked a little worse for wear after the festivities and the ensuing skirmish, their plastic faces beyond cleaning, that had been made up by felt-tipped pens. They looked increasingly ragged, and with time, once they fell under some bed or behind some wardrobe, they were mostly forgotten.

When I attended my first ‘marriage of dolls’

Her story made me recollect the first ever and only doll’s marriage I had attended. I was seven at the time and a girl from my neighborhood (called Mouri), who was about eleven, organized a doll’s wedding for her bride-doll. The groom-doll came from across the neighborhood and belonged to another girl (called Pinky) who was of Mouri’s age. The wedding was organized by Mouri’s grandmother, a matriarch who dominated the neighborhood and picked fights with others for imagined slights. I was asked to attend the wedding procession with my doll by Mouri’s mother and to join the guests. My mother acquiesced even thought I was much younger to Mouri. But, we were neighbors after all and it was considered rude to say no to a wedding invitation.

On the wedding day, I wore my favorite red frock that had blue striped pockets in the front. I did not wear any special footwear, since the event was in the neighborhood after all. In those days, my mother cut my hair really short, since I tended to contract head-lice in school. On the morning of the wedding, my mother helped me choose the doll I would take to Mouri’s place, and I finally chose my small, favorite teddy bear. He was the best looking out of all my toys at the time, though he had many repairs and patch-marks on him. His name was Bhalluk.

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I was the odd one out!

I was however, in for a rather nasty surprise. Astounded,  I felt a sinking emotion in the pit of my stomach. I saw my poor rubber slippers in a new light as soon as I reached Mouri’s house. They looked dusty and stained in comparison to the fashionable silken and sequined sandals of the other girls, lined-up outside the main entrance to Mouri’s house.

My horror deepened, as I entered. The other girls looked unrecognizable and gorgeous, decked-up in brocade saris, complete with jewelry and make-up. Pinky I remember, was wearing a pale silver sari of some gauzy and beautiful material. She was the most glamorous of them all, and she knew it, from the victorious gaze she regularly shot around the room that almost demanded acknowledgement. The room was full of polite and murmured conversations, as the girls, their long hair coiffed fashionably in an adult way, covered their mouths delicately with their hands, as they threw back their heads and tinkled in graceful laughter.

All the dolls brought by the guests were lined up around the bride-doll and groom-doll, as the wedding ceremony commenced. My Bhalluk was graciously asked to join too. However, sitting there with the other doll guests, he looked out of place, ragged, moth-eaten and somehow masculine, amidst all the pretty pink plastic faces of the other dolls.

Their wore smart dresses, had chubby arms, beautiful golden hair, and deep-blue beautiful eyes with black lashes that shut and opened automatically, depending on whether the dolls were laid flat, or made to sit. One doll even said a metallic kind of ‘mamma’ amidst whirring sounds emanating out of her, when her stomach was pressed. The doll was appreciated and cooed over by others. Also, the small receptacle for pencil batteries in its back was displayed, as the special ‘mamma’ doll was passed around. Some of the ‘mamma’-doll’s mother’s friends were allowed to squeeze the doll’s stomach, while others were asked to abstain, lest the doll ‘break’.

Out of place amidst the splendour

I remember sitting at the back of the group, feeling poor in my red frock with its striped blue pockets and my cropped hair. I kept an eye on Bhalluk, who was as forlorn as I was, sitting on the edge of a party of dolls that was intensely beautiful, sophisticated and self-assured.

Mouri’s mother was very kind and gave me a plateful of food. I ate quietly in my corner, keeping a close eye on Bhalluk all the while. He was the only one I was familiar with in that wedding party. Soon film-songs were played, and some of the girls danced delicately to the beat of songs, accompanied by the chorus of encouragement shouted by others, who egged them on, to dance to faster beats. The dancers blushed and acquiesced in a show of performed modesty, all the while pretending to dance only because they were asked to, by friends, and not because they really wanted to.

The Marriage party had everyone glued

After the marriage ceremony, it was decided that the bride-doll and the bridegroom-doll would be paraded through the locality by their parents, accompanied by the other invitees and their dolls. It was decided that we would specially go to those homes, where girls hadn’t attended because they were too young. So, Mouri, Pinky and the marriage party went to these homes, cooing and playing with the kids who were too young to attend, and who in turn goggled at them in disbelief.

Their amazement made Mouri and Pinky laugh happily, even as they graciously accepted compliments from these kids’ parents, who served ‘campa-cola’ and sweets. Their silk saris swishing, Mouri, Pinky and some of their friends even touched the feet of grandmothers, who had wandered outside the neighboring houses, squinting at the wedding parade in myopic inquiry.

There was especially one girl in the neighborhood (Priya), whom Mouri and Pinky wanted to visit as part of our parade. All the girls felt a mixture of awe, envy and fear for Priya, who though slightly older than Mouri-Pinky at twelve or thirteen years of age, had ignored the wedding invitation, or rather the wedding summons issued by Mouri’s  matriarch grandmother. Mouri and Pinky had felt insulted that Priya had ignored the wedding and decided to go to her home to ‘show’ her. What they really wanted to ‘show’ Priya was as yet abstract and undecided, since they definitely did not have the courage to challenge her directly.

The ‘firebrand’ Priya !

Priya was a firebrand. She laughed loudly, she chewed gum, talked to boys and played football with them, and said exactly what she thought; irrespective of the gender and age of the person she was talking to. This was something any of us girls wouldn’t dream of doing, and thinking back now, I consider Priya really brave. The late 70’s was still not an easy time for girls, and Priya was definitely ahead of her times, as she went about unembarrassed of most situations, chewing her gum and blowing bubbles from it. Most importantly, Priya was unembarrassed of herself and her own opinions.

The neighborhood girls (Pinky-Mouri and gang) gossiped endlessly about her and ripped-apart, analysed and criticized every move she made in detailed and descriptive discussion. Even if Priya raised her hand to adjust her hairband or drink a glass of water, they would fly animatedly to each other and discuss Priya’s activities. At the same time, they stammered if she spoke to them. I don’t remember Priya ever having even looked in my direction, and I was happy to escape her attention, since I believed I would freeze-up and choke, if she ever noticed me. Moreover, Priya owned real sports shoes, unlike us, who only had canvas shoes, especially meant for Physical Education classes in school.

That day Mouri and Pinky were angry with Priya for rejecting them and treating the wedding as unimportant. They decided to “show” Priya how much fun she had missed at the wedding party. And debating hotly on the way they could strategically express their disapproval in a dignified manner, so as to make Priya look small and foolish, and make her feel bad for missing the wedding, they rang her doorbell. Priya herself opened the door, and at first stood there nonchalant, dressed casually in jeans and t-shirt, her hair tied high on her head in a casual ponytail, characteristically chewing her trade-mark gum. There was a stunned silence for a few seconds.

And then the unbelievable happened!

Plans to ‘show her’ were left awry

At first Priya’s laughter came in small gurgles and hiccups, and then as her smile broadened to fill her face, she hooted with laughter, pointing at us girls, almost doubled over in mirth, thumping the door in glee. She did not say anything, and she did not need to say anything; she just screamed with laughter at us, tears rolling down her cheeks. The girls leading our parade-procession (Mouri-Pinky and gang) froze in their tracks. No-one dared to open their mouths and nobody knew what to think. Some shorter members at the back of our group, who couldn’t see what was happening at the door, wondered aloud whether Priya had started weeping out of remorse, since her laughter sounded like yelling to our confused lot. Nobody answered, as gales of laughter continued to emanate from Priya into the air.

A ripple of jostled confusion ran through our group, as Mouri and Pinky squirmed with confused embarrassment and humiliation. Not knowing what to do, they looked back at the other girls behind them, suddenly unsure of why we had all come here. Backing out of Priya’s front gate would be abrupt, and besides, this would signify our defeat and humiliation openly. We shuffled our feet uncomfortably. I now remember that I had wanted to cry or run away right then, but I stood rigid, gripping Bhalluk tightly, my hands cold.

The tense situation was eased by Priya’s mother, who rushed out, hearing the commotion that included Priya’s near-hysterical laughter. Pushing Priya aside, she ushered us into the drawing room and complimented Mouri, Pinky and their friends on their beautiful clothes and make up. She listened attentively about the doll’s marriage, clucking appreciatively and apologized for Priya, telling us that since Priya did not have a doll, whom she could bring along to the marriage, she had decided against attending. Priya herself, who was momentarily forgotten in our rushing gratitude for her mother, and our relief at being retrieved from horror and embarrassment, now sauntered out, clad in a tracksuit and sports shoes, swinging a badminton racket in her hand.

Looking balefully at Pinky, Mouri and the other vanguard girls, who looked daggers at her in return, she stood there in open defiance, slowly blowing a large bubble from the gum in her mouth. Fixing her defiant and smoldering gaze squarely on the girls, Priya then sucked this bubble in, back into her mouth, and bit down hard on it. That bursting sound was audible- it was something between a loud plop and a fart-sound. Her mission accomplished, she walked out of the house, racket still swinging, humming a tune. She had just let us know what she thought of our doll’s marriage, and our desire to ‘show’ her anything.

Someone from the past…

As I transcribed and translated the partition-lady’s interview, her description about the doll’s marriages of her childhood, reminded me of a later meeting with Mouri at Pinky’s daughter’s wedding (a real wedding this time). I was, at the time, visiting my parents and still smarting from a rather painful divorce that had overwhelmed me with depression and loneliness. Sitting in the wedding-hall awkwardly and hardly dressed for the occasion, since I was only visiting my parents briefly and unprepared for marriage festivities, I absently swirling a freezing glass of coke in my hand that had gone watery and flat, looking around for someone I could recognize.

And then, suddenly, I saw Priya saunter in. I don’t know how I recognized her, since she was completely transformed from the time I saw her last. But yet, like old times, my heart skipped a beat, as I felt her powerful presence, even without recognizing her face. She walked by casually holding an enormous gift wrapped in sparking paper, her unseeing eyes passing over me without recognition. She towered over even the men in the hall in her impossibly high heeled shoes that glittered and peeped out from under her sari.

Utterly graceful, her head held high and flung back at an angle, her hair tinted and resplendent in its styled waves that cascaded over her squarely held, muscled and smooth shoulders. She wore an undertone designer sari elegantly draped over an iridescent blouse. An almost physical stab of fear mixed with excitement hit me, as I remembered the familiar chocked and dry-mouthed feeling. I could not take my eyes away, as I watched her long and perfectly lacquered fingernails combing through that lion’s mane, and her absent but dexterous adjustment of the expensive diamond jewelry that gleamed on her.

Soon, her old laughter rang out, and I saw with a mixture of horror and recognition that Priya was helping herself to a glass of whisky, and high-fiving the man, who had apparently made her the highball; perhaps a childhood football buddy.

Nostalgia peeped in

I saw the old scene reset. All of us older women now, who could only look at Priya’s beauty with envy and fear. We couldn’t even laugh at her beauty, as she had once laughed at ours; Priya’s beauty was real and not effected by adult performance and dressing-up. And this was moreover substantiated by evidence. The eyes of every man in the room was fixed on her; she, the only woman who drank whiskey like men.

Some leered and some were embarrassed, while others looked friendly or curious. Not that this made any difference to Priya. It was as if she didn’t care about who looked, who thought, who felt or who wanted. Nothing mattered to Priya but herself; she was complete unto herself, and made by nobody but herself, like I imagined a goddess to be. Her unseeing and uncaring demeanor only increased her allure and power, in contrast to us girls so many years back, who had so desperately wanted to impress and belong.

I hadn’t noticed Mouri standing next to me. She was also looking in the same direction as I was. But, her gaze was a mixture of spite and gossipy interest as she said, “You know, that Priya is on her third husband by now. Some rich Dubai businessman fellow! Imagine, two divorces, and still, no children! Some people only marry for entertainment and fun!”

When I stood up for her…

I don’t know why I suddenly felt defensive about Priya, who if I guessed correctly, was more than capable of looking after herself in the face of one hundred Mouris put together. This, despite my heart suddenly going out in recognition to the dumpy and grey Mouri next to me, whose hair-bun looked small and thin, positioned precariously at the back of her head. Her eyes had dulled in its outermost circles, and there were crows-feet at its corners. I suddenly said, “But I am divorced too, and I don’t have children and its not always fun”.

There wasn’t much left to say after that, with Mouri and I lapsing into an awkward silence. After a while she made to get up and wandered away to another group of chatting women, commenting that at least I looked young enough to “try” again. Mouri’s eyes had not been unkind or critical, when they had rested on me, but there was no recognition in them either, only vague embarrassment that I had revealed something so personal in our first conversation forty years later, just to defend Priya.

I suddenly realized that the only bond between Mouri and me had been my tacit acceptance about criticizing those, who didn’t belong to their in-group. Without that bond, we had meant nothing for one another. It just meant that I couldn’t be included in the gossip-circle against Priya any longer, since I had allied with her and defended her. Belonging to Priya’s in-group of football buddies and her current Dubai diamond romance was impossible for me as well.

I was suddenly glad to not be part of any in-group, since neither could I share their journey towards belonging, nor imagine their struggle against the claustrophobia of an imposed and pre-decided in-group they hated. For me, the journey was the other way round; in the opposite direction. Feeling myself kept out of in-groups everywhere, since I was somehow different, I had desperately wanted to make my way back into it. Even if conforming was difficult, I at least tried to indicate my non-threatening stance and my willingness to cooperate.

But now I had failed too. Sometimes not belonging to any one group was an interesting position, when it wasn’t too lonely or painful. Being on the boundary helped me reflect on, and understand stuff from both sides. Loneliness and wisdom could be liberating, as a self-imposed choice.

That doll’s wedding, I thought, had been emblematic for me, and I hadn’t even known it back then. I had wanted to belong to the group of insiders, but once inside, I had felt alienated and lonely. Afraid of being thrown out, I insisted on clinging to that inside, all the while knowing that it was empty. Seeking an escape from this inside, and yet building new ‘insides’ wherever I went, I continued to battle conformity. And yet I conformed out of the fear of losing that inside I had so painstakingly built. Never having rebelled, I had loved and admired rebels as leaders. Yet I feared them, since they never bargained for safety like I did. In the face of dangers, these rebels leaped out like tigers hiding in a cave, prepared to battle to the end. And I was no tiger.

I wish that I had had the confidence to walk up to Priya in the wedding-hall at Pinky’s daughter’s wedding. I could have introduced myself, even if she didn’t recognize me. I am sure, she would have been polite, despite her imperious and unseeing gaze, that perhaps watched us all.

But, I was afraid that Mouri would see me. And though I did not belong to Mouri’s in-group any longer, I was afraid of her enmity, especially as Priya remained oblivious of my existence. And this was despite the 40 years that had followed the doll’s wedding – an emblem that I had never known existed, till I translated and transcribed a partition-survivor’s interview.

That day at the wedding-hall I clung to my cold glass of flat coke, just as I had once rigidly clung to Bhalluk with cold hands, transfixed at the confrontation between Pinky-Mouri gang and Priya on the doll’s marriage day.

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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About the Author


Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in India, currently living with her husband in Germany. read more...

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