I have never thought of myself as a girl who played with dolls, but over the years, if you count bears, a handful of them have been dear to me.
Susan—or Undé, as I called her—was my first, the ur-doll in my life. As early as I can remember, we were speaking of Undé in the past tense. She was gorgeous when she was new, almost as big as I was, with a celluloid head, real teeth, hair resplendent, and a body with movable limbs that jointed into it and allowed her to stand up. Susan was one of those dolls that grown-ups make children keep in their original plastic for fear of damage; not my parents, though. I played hard with her, I’m told, projecting everything onto or into her, with the result that I worked out all my frustrations, but poor Undé didn’t last very long, certainly not past my fourth birthday. I remember her head, completely bald, with the teeth rattling loose inside it, impossible to retrieve, along with other dessicated objects. Apparently I fed Susan all the food I didn’t want to eat, stuffing mashed banana into her mouth, and standing her in the corner to be punished whenever I had been naughty. When I returned to India at four, what was left of Undé was left behind.
Brownie was a small, short-haired bear who was with me at least until I was six, perhaps even longer. He was loved, but he was also a constant reminder of Pinky, his counterpart whom I lost on the Deccan Queen, a train that ran between Bombay and Poona, on a cross-country visit with my Dad to the family home in Ratnagiri. I was disconsolate at the loss of Pinky, until my father suggested that the conductor’s daughter was probably playing with him now, and was glad to have him. This cheered me up, and I clutched at the idea of that conductor’s daughter loving Pinky. Still, for years his loss stayed with me, Pinky for whom his lone brother Brownie pined, but bravely carried on.
The fame of the Barbie Doll even reached us in Greece in the early sixties, sheltered though we were from the mass media. Of course I wanted a Barbie for Christmas, but my mother said that it was out of the question. It wasn’t healthy, in her opinion, for little girls to play with dolls whose feet were molded to fit into high heels and whose bodies were distorted into wasp-waisted figure eights. As a consolation, she gave us a doll with a girl’s body, not a woman’s, with a dense rubber torso and moveable limbs, and a beautiful head of thick, curly hair that could actually be styled. In defiance, I named her Barbara; I didn’t dare call her Barbie, but I thought that the name Barbara would make it clear that she was a mere substitute for the real thing.
Sally and I weren’t all that interested in hair-styling, but Yianni was; he used to spend hours at our house, painstakingly pinning up twists of Barbara’s yellow hair, releasing them into tight curls, and then combing them gently out again. Yianni wanted to be a hairdresser, but we guessed that his family were not supportive of his desires, so he spent hours at our house, a slim, shy adolescent boy playing with two 8- and 3-year-old girls.
Barbara was a well-made doll, even though she had been unwanted; she lived on for years, traveling back to India, and even to America with us, long after we had stopped being interested in dolls.
I have forgotten when Teddy came to me. Perhaps he was a belated replacement for Pinky. He was a classic Teddy Bear, standing eighteen inches tall, with tawny-gold fur and mild brown eyes. I took Teddy to bed with me every night and said goodnight to him as part of my bedtime ritual; he was tucked tightly in on one side of me, as Susan was tucked in on the other.
Susan, ur-Susan’s namesake, was a beautiful knitted doll almost two feet long, filled with pieces of foam rubber. She had long, jet-black hair made of yarn, braided in two thick braids, green embroidered eyes and an embroidered rosebud-red mouth. My mother made her for me as a Christmas present when I was eight, and dressed her in the height of fashion, with narrow knitted pants and a turtleneck. Mum knitted Sally a counterpart called Beatnik, with yellow braids and a jazzy striped turtleneck.
I took Susan to boarding school with me when I was eleven, and she kept me company in my dormitory bed for three years, through homesickness, a plague of giant moths, and the mating bats that flapped through the dorm after Lights Out. In 1968, when I was told we were leaving India, I packed Susan into my big green trunk along with all my other belongings, to be shipped back to Kharagpur, where we would pack again for our trip to America. But that trunk somehow went astray, and I never saw any of its contents again, including my beloved Susan.
Of all the dolls I have loved, only Teddy remains; long-suffering, bedraggled, sawdust spilling out of a tear in his foot, he still looks out with his mild eyes and a faintly reproachful expression. It has been years since I paid any attention to him. Perversely, it is those I have lost whom I remember most—Pinky on the Deccan Queen and Susan in the green trunk.