Vishwa sat on his bedroom floor redecorating his Barbie dollhouse, which was as high as he was tall, rearranging the furniture—a velveteen sofa set paired with two side tables and the dining set piece. Grandma would be proud of his skills. She often said, “You can tell a lot about a person from the shoes they wear, and you can tell even more from how they keep their home.”
All Barbie wanted was a laid back summer break, and her home ought to reflect that.
“Just a little while now, Barbs,” he said to his friend who lay sunbathing by her backyard pool with Ken. “Neat,” he added, picking them up and walking them through the back entrance.
“Your house looks great, Barbs!” Ken said, jumping on his feet for some reason.
Barbie blushed, batting her long lashes. “Oh, thank you, Ken, you’re the sweetest.” Ken gave her a twirl and they briefly kissed. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she cooed, looking around.
“It can never as beautiful as you, sweetheart,” Ken said, making her blush again.
Vishwa smiled to himself, happy for his friends. “How about some TV?” he said, making them comfortable on the sofa that now faced a wall-mounted flatscreen.
Mother walked in carrying a set of his folded clothes. Vishwa looked up at her, and she smiled. “How are Barbie and Ken doing today?” she said.
“Pretty good,” Vishwa replied, unable to stop grinning and feeling giddy. “They’re having a great time watching TV. They also enjoy the new setup.”
“Oh yeah?” Mother said as she arranged his clothes in the wardrobe. “Well, let them watch TV. Let’s get you some lunch in the meantime.” She shut the wardrobe door and tilted her head to beckon him after her. Gathering her open hair, she rolled it into a bun and made a crude knot.
Vishwa keenly watched the back of her head, deciding that he’d later style Barbie’s hair in a similar way. Ken would like that, too.
As Vishwa followed Mother into the dining hall out of his bedroom, the door opposite his room creaked open and out stepped Father, rubbing his hands. “Something smells great!” he said, bearing a smile that looked incomplete. Usually, his smile cut prominent dimples, but they were visibly absent now. Vishwa had come to pick up on that to mean Father didn’t quite mean it.
Vishwa washed his hands in haste, sensing Father approaching closer. There were times he felt like Father loved him, but in moments like this, when he forced a smile and acted like someone he wasn’t, Vishwa couldn’t make sense of it. Drying his hands on the towel hanging by the sink, he turned to find Father staring into his room—at the dollhouse.
The look on his face said it all. The sealed lips, the flaring nostrils, the sharpness in his gaze when he panned it towards Vishwa; the latter was like he wasn’t looking at but through him. A wave of numbness washed over Vishwa as he stood under the burning spotlight of judgment. He swore Father even muttered something under his breath. Vishwa charted a wider path around him and hurried to the table. For a while, silence lingered as Mother set the table with steaming rice, fresh lentil soup, and skimmed buttermilk. Father helped her by fetching the eating plates and a jar of pickle, and refilling water.
Vishwa served himself some rice, and upon Mother’s insistence, scooped more onto his plate. Then came the lentil soup to be mixed with the rice.
“How’s it going buddy?” asked Father, tossing him a brief smile sans the dimples.
Father was mad. Taking a shallow breath, he said, “Good.” He swayed his legs that dangled from the chair. Mother forbade him from doing it, but it helped ease his twisting stomach.
Father cleared his throat. “Hema, isn’t there a cricket match today?”
Mother scoffed. “Yeah, but it’s a boring test match.”
“But it’s India versus Pakistan, correct?” Father said in an abnormally loud voice.
Mother frowned at him, chewing her food slowly. “Anyway, we have to do some grocery shopping today. Don’t forget that.”
Father looked at Vishwa again. “You’re coming too, right Vish?”
Vishwa looked from his plate to Mother and back. He knew Father was tough. He didn’t tolerate mischief or nonsense at any level, and Vishwa knew Father didn’t like him playing with dolls. He couldn’t understand why but considered he might as well spend time with his parents since Barbie and Ken would have to get some sleep now. He nodded, nibbling at his food.
Vishwa lingered after lunch. Normally, he’d be expected to clear his plate and wash it, but Mother had given him a pass today. “Go play, I’ll take care of this.” The softness in her tone from earlier in the bedroom was gone, and she didn’t meet his eyes while speaking, which was a sign that she was angry. The way she clattered the utensils in the kitchen sink only confirmed it.
And so, Vishwa didn’t skulk back into his room but hovered about in the hall pretending to drink water. He must’ve downed three glasses of it when he heard whispers from the kitchen. Vishwa stepped to the threshold and listened, hiding beside the massive refrigerator.
“What was that while eating?” Mother said in an icy voice.
“We’ve talked about this, Hema,” Father said. “He’s not a girl to play with dolls. I’d be fine if he played with toys like GI Joe or something, but dolls? Really? He’s not a baby anymore. What will happen if other boys see him play with dolls meant for girls?”
“Stop saying it like that,” Mother snapped.
Vishwa stared at the floor. Why was he feeling bad about playing with dolls? Weren’t they meant to be played with? Why was it so important that only girls play with them while boys watch cricket and football matches?
“He’s just seven years old, Gokul,” Mother continued. “Look at how happy he is when he plays with his dolls. Just let him get older; he’ll forget the dolls and turn his attention to whatever his friends are doing. This is just a phase, and you know it.”
“Your mother is to blame too, you know?” Father said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mother raised her voice a little.
Vishwa dipped his chin further. How could a topic so silly spawn a huge fight between his parents who loved each other so much? And why talk so badly about Grandma who’d only been kind to him, gifting new dolls and chocolates whenever she came visiting?
He slowly shook his head, clenching his fists, when Mother stormed out of the kitchen. She slowed upon seeing him and sighed. Vishwa looked up at her and curbed his urge to cry.
“You’re doing your grocery shopping by yourself,” she yelled into the kitchen. Tossing at Vishwa a warm smile, she took his hand and led him into his bedroom, shutting the door.
Vishwa perched at the edge of his bed, staring at the dollhouse, feeling the urge to break it apart. If not for Mother who ruffled his hair and hugged him sideways, he might’ve done it.
“That was nothing, okay?” she said, pinching his cheek. “Your father has had a rough day.”
If Father lied with the way he smiled, Mother lied with words. Vishwa said nothing.
“Come here.” Taking his hand, she led him to the dollhouse and picked up Barbie. “Hey Ken,” she said in a shrill voice. “I feel so bored. Let’s do something interesting.”
Vishwa stared at Mother as she passed him Ken and nodded invitingly.
He hesitantly took it and sighed. “I’m not in the mood, Barbs. Maybe another time.”
“Come on, Vishu, can’t you see how disappointed your friend is?” She held up Barbie in front of her face, facing him. “Do you really want to make her feel sad?”
“She might be a doll but to me she’s a human. Humans aren’t always happy.”
Mother set Barbie aside and cupped his cheeks. “True, but as a friend, it’s your duty to make her feel happy when she’s sad and could use a cheer.”
Vishwa fiddled with Ken before setting him by Barbie’s side. What if she wanted to be sad? “Maybe today they need to be in separate rooms, to be alone.”
“Are you sure?” Mother said. “Barbie will miss Ken so much.”
Vishwa nodded with a smile. In the silence, he heard Father gather the motorbike keys and then close the front door. Moments passed before his motorbike rumbled, fading away. “Papa is angry at me for this, right Mamma? I should stop, right?”
“He’ll be fine,” Mother said. “We’re going to be too busy to be bothered by his mood.”
Vishwa arched his brows, puzzled. “Busy doing what?”
“I’ve got a surprise for Barbie and Ken,” Mother whispered, her eyes wide with excitement. “I’m going to build a ship just for them to go on a vacation. You want to help design it?”
The only thing Vishwa loved more than playing with dolls was building a ship out of a cardboard shoebox. Adding decks by gluing scraps of cardboard to the insides of the empty box and fitting different Lego items and accessories salvaged from other collections of toys he already had, the ship’s interior would be finished. Then, replacing the box’s top and using smaller bits of cardboard boxes to act as the superstructure, he’d place more stray toys within.
This time, Mother added her magic, attaching bobby pins and bobbins from her embroidery kit to act as lifeboat pulleys and cranes. Fetching paint, they split the task of painting the hull and the superstructure in a palette of metallic black, wooden brown, cement gray, and a flourish of sunrise gold for accenting the doorway and window lintels Vishwa had cut into the cardboard.
“What would be its name?” she asked when the hull was all painted.
Vishwa considered it. “BMR Willows. BMR is Barbie’s name, and she’s from Willow.”
“BMR Willows, it is,” Mother said, carefully painting the letters against the black hull in white. “There! I think we’re done. Now, let the paint dry.”
In the next fifteen minutes, they established their base of operations in the bathroom where Mother gathered a wide-mouthed tub she often used to rinse soiled clothes and filled it with water.
Vishwa, for his part, ran to the kitchen and returned with the salt jar. Dumping a few scoops in, he dunked his hand to dissolve it. All done, Mother gingerly lifted the decorated and painted shoebox of a ship.
“Are you ready?” she said. The thrill and delight in her voice was unmistakably genuine.
She gently placed the ship on the saltwater, and though its weight submerged a part of the box, they’d accounted for it in design by gluing to the base of the shoebox a padded cardboard base. The pocket of air between the base and the shoebox’s bottom provided enough buoyancy, Mother had said, and she was right. But it looked like she wasn’t done.
“I’ll fetch Barbie and Ken, okay?’ she said.
When she returned, both Barbie and Ken had different clothes on, the fancy ones.
Vishwa grinned. “Of course, they need to come dressed for the trip.”
Mother laughed, placing the dolls on two chairs upon the top deck.
“Don’t they look perfect?” Vishwa said, hovering over them.
“As perfect as my son,” she said, pulling him to a hug and kissing the top of his head. He flinched a little, but she held on, making him sit on her lap so she could rock him.
“What do you think Barbie and Ken are discussing?” she asked.
Vishwa pulled from her hold and leaned closer to the ship again. “They’re thanking us for giving them this gift.”
Mother winked and smiled. “You’re welcome, Barbie and Ken. And Vishu, tell them I said thanks for keeping my son happy.”
The rustle of the front door lock distracted Hema. Gokul had returned from shopping. She wanted to leave the man to himself for the rest of the day, especially so at the sight of the mute fear and dread that warped her son’s face. It wasn’t how she’d envisioned a boy perceiving Father, but here they were. She smiled at Vishwa. “Go on, keep playing. I’ll be back.”
Drying her hands with the towel, she exited the bathroom to find Gokul loading the table with bags of produce and milk, among other things. He was usually thorough with the list, but after their row today, Hema felt inclined to inspect the items to ensure he hadn’t fucked with it to get a rise out of her. Maybe it was her that needed calming down.
Gokul gave her that look, the subtle slanting of his eyes, the flat lining of his eyebrows, and the gentle lowering of his head. He’d had the time and space to brood over this, and sure enough, the words tumbled out of his mouth. “Honey, I’m sorry for reacting that way earlier. I’m just worried what others would think.” Not quite an apology.
“Forget others,” she said. “What do you think? When you see our son playing with a Barbie doll, what goes through your head? That’s all we care about.”
Gokul froze for a few moments. He fumbled for words but cleared his throat in the end. “You’re right; I do feel a little uneasy. I played with toys until I was eleven but it’s not normal seeing a boy his age playing with dolls, still. Right? Tell me I’m not insane.”
Hema crossed her arms. “And how different are toys from dolls?”
Gokul shrugged. “You be the judge. Don’t you feel even a little weird seeing him talking to plastic objects, braiding their hair, dressing them up? I feel awkward even saying it.”
Hema clicked her tongue, shaking her head slowly. “Come with me.” Taking his hand for better measure, she led him towards the bathroom where Vishwa still sat by the tub playing. They lurked by the threshold and watched their son talking with his friends, steering the ship along the waters, piping up commands as he played pretend.
Hema glanced at Gokul. “Does he look happy?”
Gokul’s face dipped further. “Yeah, but—”
“Does his happiness mean something to you?”
“Then let’s get you a little perspective,” Hema said firmly. “Playing with a doll doesn’t make him less masculine and more feminine. If he has a little femininity in him, I’m sure that’ll make him a great dad someday. He loves what he does, and he puts his heart and soul into them. He talks to plastic objects not because he’s lonely or is off in the head but because he’s trying to make sense of our world through them. It’s an outlet, a way for him to express himself and his emotions and thoughts. A way for him to build compassion. Doesn’t that make you proud?”
Gokul remained silent but nodded at length, rubbing his forehead. “Yeah, I can see that.” He sighed and stroked her cheek. “I can see that.” Giving her a reassuring look, he walked into the bathroom. “Hey buddy, what’s up?”
Hema’s heart fluttered at the sight of Vishwa stiffening. Even as Gokul lowered to a squat, Vishwa’s anxiety didn’t vanish. Something shifted in his look when Gokul said, “Can I join you?”
Vishwa’s brows arched. “Really?”
Gokul grinned and nodded. Vishwa shifted, blinking at Hema who smiled to bolster in her son that all was good, that the man next to him wasn’t meant to be feared. That seemed to put Vishwa at ease, for a thin smile played on his lips.
“Wow,” Gokul said, “this is an impressively crafted ship. Look at these pulleys. Creative.”
“Mamma helped me,” Vishwa piped up. “But I designed it.”
Gokul jerked his thumbs up. “You’ve really outdone yourself here, Vish. I mean, look at the trees inside the ship. That’s a cool concept.’
Vishwa grinned. “You know, the water is salty—exactly how ocean water should taste.”
Gokul laughed and patted Vishwa on the back. “Why are there no fish in the ocean?”
Vishwa seemed stumped. “I don’t have any fish toys.”
“I have an idea,” Gokul said. “Would Barbie and Ken be interested in a dolphin show?”
Vishwa gushed and nodded. “Of course! But, how?”
“Watch me,” Gokul said and sprung to his feet. Winking as he passed Hema, he jogged to his study and returned with a few empty plastic water bottles and wooden pencils.
As he got to working, Hema said, “Having fun, Vishu?”
Vishwa looked at her and nodded. “Yes, Mamma, I’m—happy.”
Hema laughed softly. “That’s all I ever want.”
Suraj Adiray lives a double life in the US east coast as a research engineer by day and an aspiring novelist by dusk. He enjoys writing stories around questions that keep him up at night.