Broken Toys15 mins 167 15 mins 167
The street was a hot mess of vegetable vendors, rash taxi drivers, screaming children, lazy dogs, and sneaky crows. It reminded Timoh of his childhood. He had grown up in a similar street. In fact in the street that was just a 5-minute walk from this one.
But Timoh did not have any time for nostalgia. As a senior reporter for the local newspaper Majhi Boli, Timoh Tryambake hardly had time for anything. A child of an Assamese mother and a Maharashtrian father, Timoh had never really been sure of which culture he belonged to. Now a 45-year-old father of 2 teenagers, he was still unsure. Not just of identity but increasingly, of purpose.
He had gone into journalism with the intent of understanding the world. Maybe even saving it. But the more he understood the world, the more he doubted whether it was worth saving. So two decades later, here he was, very much part of a system that had gained in ad revenue what it lost in ethics.
Timoh noted that the roads in this locality were filled with potholes. That wasn’t his business. Timoh had accepted his inability to cover meaningful news. Though today he had the opportunity to do something that wasn’t half bad.
He would be meeting the old toymaker of Saki Naka. Nagma Khan was a 68-year-old lady who had spent most of her life making toys for children. If they couldn’t afford it, she’d give away the toy for free. As most of her customers had empty wallets, she certainly did not have an overflowing cash register. She only had a small chaotic little toy shop somewhere at the end of this street.
Burning in the heat, Timoh scratched behind his ear. The triangle-shaped birthmark always itched in the heat. Through the crowded street, Timoh managed to walk around the vegetable vendors, the still screaming children, and a passionate bhajan group. Finally, his eyes found the toy shop.
Our Toys. A straightforward name for a straightforward place. Hesitantly Timoh stepped inside. He immediately felt like he had entered a musty, dusty space that was still somehow quite sacred. The shop had a narrow corridor for customers and across the counter sat a strangely serene old woman in a fading bluish salwar kameez.
A few kids and their parents were browsing through the many shelves of toys in Apne Khilone. Timoh noticed that the people in the store included a bubbly little girl with her father who was fiddling with his construction helmet while she played with a doll, an impatient woman telling someone on the phone that she’d soon be over to clean the dishes while her son still struggled to choose between a football and a toy car, and a Burqa-clad lady with a child who was quietly playing with a little damru. A young shop assistant was patiently interacting with all of them. Amidst all this, Nagma Khan was completely engrossed in the process of making a wooden toy soldier.
Waiting for Nagma to notice him, Timoh caught his reflection in the glass shelves containing various broken and newly made toys. Between a fire engine and a wide-eyed doll, Timoh saw a man with a few wrinkles, close-cropped greying hair, and stubble that would soon become a beard.
Getting older would be easier without mirrors, he thought.
Finally, Nagma looked up and smiled at him. She had a pleasant round face with sharp eyes and a prominent nose.
‘Beta, you look too young to buy any of my toys.’ She chuckled.
‘Uh yes. Nagmaji I’m here for your interview. I think my editor spoke to you about this last week.’
Carefully placing the toy soldier in a drawer filled with other unfinished toys, Nagma walked up to Timoh.
‘Ah yes! Pramod Bhai naa? Yes, I did agree to an interview. But beta you look like such a senior reporter. What will I really say to you now…’
‘Nagmaji I’ll just be asking some general questions about the work you do. So it shouldn’t be too difficult.’ Timoh tried to smile in a reassuring manner.
‘Well, beta after making toys for these last forty years I really don’t prefer getting into complicated things.’ Nagma spoke with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
‘But why are you standing there? Come let’s sit in my workshop. You know besides toys I can also make some chai!’
Nagma opened a flap in the counter and a door behind her. Timoh followed Nagma through the narrow door into a small room filled with bright sunlight filtering through the many cracks in the roof. Settling into a creaky but comfortable wooden chair, Timoh waited as Nagma prepared tea on a small stove.
Though not an investigative journalist or a civil engineer, Timoh felt like something was wrong with the dimensions of Apne Khilone. Could it really contain this room? From the exterior, it seemed that the small space could hardly even contain the main store.
And what was that trap door? Did the shop also contain a basement?
Nagma placed a cup of tea in front of Timoh. He noticed that her hands certainly did not waiver.
‘Chalo beta. Pucho! Ask me your general questions.’
Timoh opened his diary and referred to his notes.
‘Nagmaji we all know that you have been running this charity toy shop for so many years. What inspires you to do this selfless work?’
Nagma gave Timoh a hard look.
‘This is no charity beta. It’s not selfless work at all. I like to know that children love playing with toys made with these old hands.’
‘And if they can’t pay for them, well so what? I don’t need a lot of money. But I do need my work to be loved.’
The silence in the room was broken only by the cawing of the crows.
Nervously Timoh spoke ‘Okay got it Nagmaji. I am really sorry if I offended you in any way…’
‘Arre no-no! I just speak like this beta.’ Nagma chuckled.
‘See maybe Pramod Bhai told you that you’ll meet some sweet dadi. If you have sipped some of this chai, you will realize that I don’t like too much sweetness.’
‘I prefer to be honest. But my daughters tell me that I am more blunt than honest. So perhaps it is me who is sorry beta.’
Nagma sipped some of her own tea, looking encouragingly towards Timoh.
He realized that like the store, its owner too had many dimensions. Timoh smiled and replied ‘Ok then let me get on with the rest of my questions.’
Nagma was working on a toy. A really special toy. Was it a toy? It certainly seemed like one. Suddenly she looked up.
‘No beta. This is not for you to see.’
With a start, Timoh woke up. The fluttering pigeons and distant traffic brought him back to reality. In the hall, Nithi was practicing a dance choreography for a school event and Bantu was on a video call with his friends. Timoh’s wife, Sai was still finishing her bath and the maid was busy with breakfast preparations.
What a strange dream, he thought. It had been over six months since he did that interview with Nagma Khan. Yet time and again she crept into his dreams. Sometimes she was welcoming, sometimes like today, she was distant.
After a hurried breakfast, Timoh hurried towards his office. But not before a quick word of encouragement to Nithi (she had been working so hard on her dance routine) and a quick goodbye to Bantu (who managed to do well in all his exams without Timoh ever seeing him really study anything).
Waiting for a train from Santa Cruz to Churchgate, Timoh noticed an old man carrying on his back a wooden stand filled with many toys.
What a strange sight, he thought.
The old man expertly held a bhavra between his two fingers and with a deft motion of the thread that held the bhavra, he whirled it in the air, and lo! The bhava was now gracefully spinning in the palm of his hands.
In a moment, decades can fade away. Or sometimes in a single spin.
A 10-year-old Timoh was trying to spin his bhavra in the small square of the chawl. But the bhavra kept tumbling into the potted plants. That’s when the smiling lady walked up to him.
‘Beta, having trouble with your bhavra? Now let me see…’
The curious lady took out a pencil knife from her purse. Peering at the bhavra, she carefully traced its curves with her hands. Then with a quick movement, she chipped away one corner of the bhavra. Taking the string from Timoh, she wrapped it around the bhavra and spun it into the air.
Much to the wonder of little Timoh, the bhavra landed in the palm of her hand and began to spin energetically. He clapped and cheered.
There was a loud horn and a 45-year-old Timoh realized that the train had arrived. Looking back at the spinning bhavra in the old man’s hands, Timoh got into the crowded train.
As the bhavra and the platform sped away from Timoh, the memory refused to fade. The face of the lady refused to fade.
Serene, playful and much younger, Timoh was certain that it was Nagma Khan.
It was a small apartment filled with countless signs of gentle family life. Groaning doors, jittery ceiling fans, and the true heart of the home, two energetic little grandchildren.
Timoh felt that Nagma Khan’s apartment like her toy store, somehow made him feel at peace with the world.
The lady herself was fussing over her grandchildren while being fussed over by her daughter. Nagma caught Timoh looking at her and smiled.
‘Beta I am always happy to give more interviews. But you do have to first ask me a question!’
Timoh smiled uncertainly. How would he go about this?
‘Well Nagmaji, this may seem a little strange. But for the last few months, I have been wondering whether we have ever met before. In fact, I used to live in a chawl very near to your store. I was just in the second or third standard back then. So I don’t really look the same…’
Nagmaji peered closely at Timoh as he narrated his bhavra story.
‘Yes certainly. I used to go on many rounds in that area before I managed to rent a place and then finally buy it.’
‘Back then I would carry some tools with me to repair any toys and occasionally even a few cycles! My family didn’t mind these trips of mine. See my Abba was a mechanic so somewhere he understood this passion of mine. Though he did insist on me coming back home before sunset.’
‘Yes, those were good times. And I think I just might take such walks again. My daughters keep pestering me to take care of my health you know!’
Soon Nagma was entertaining Timoh with countless stories about her store, her children, and why she loved to make toys. Timoh realized that she was a great storyteller. He found himself immersed in Nagma’s anecdote of using broken glass pieces to make a chessboard.
So he completely missed that Nagma’s hands were trembling.
After Timoh left in about an hour, Nagma for the first time in many years felt a deep sense of exhaustion.
All these toys, all these children, have I done my best for them? Nagma wondered.
Being a Muslim and being a woman had not made her journey any easier. She knew that for many of her first few years people thought that this was all just some trick. The local political party had even accused her of trying to convert the children. It will start with free toys and end with free prayer books, wrote the local paper.
In a few months when they couldn’t find anything wrong with her character or motive, they became suspicious of her very existence. How could a woman really have the ability to make these toys? Where did her talent even come from?
The newspapers were certain that the talent must have been acquired through some dark satanic rituals. Soon Nagma found supernatural abilities being assigned to her.
In a better world, Nagma would perhaps have been called an entrepreneur or a philanthropist. But the local headlines coined a different term for her that was both mystical and demeaning.
Khilonewali Daayan. The toy witch.
The name soon caught on. Nagma was never referred to as a daayan by any child or parent. But that’s what many of them thought, Nagma knew. That’s why when things went really wrong, they finally came to her.
Like when little Parminder wouldn’t speak after watching his drunk father attack the street dog. Or when a mischievous Rinki now refused to play with her sisters and had bruises where no child should have bruises. Or when the otherwise quiet Monu now screamed with rage if anyone tried to come near him.
Parents of all sorts brought their children to Nagma. All of them wanted Nagma to use her supernatural abilities and heal these children. Even when they once may have disliked her, they were now willing to try anything for the sake of the little ones.
For a long time, Nagma did not know how to help these children. Until one day she did.
Making each toy was an act of love. It was an act that demanded patience and practice. Only a toymaker understood the frustration of how sometimes a perfectly made doll does not look like a doll. Or a properly aligned toy car simply refuses to budge. At these times a toymaker is driven by something more than patience or practice. It always comes down to love.
With years of practice, the art of making toys had opened up a door for Nagma. A door that is sometimes forgotten, sometimes locked and in worse cases may even have disappeared.
But the door was now open to Nagma. What’s more, she could open it for others too.
All she had to do was sit with the child. She would then gently place her hands on the child’s head and mumble a few words. Not because she needed a spell, but because the child and the parents needed to believe that she was casting a spell.
While the child was distracted by Nagma’s mutterings, she would gently touch the tip of her finger to the child’s ear.
And then Nagma would enter a place more horrifying, more enchanting, and more fragile than anything in this world. The mind of a child.
Each mind was different. Nagma became better at walking through each terrain. No matter how different the terrain, the healing happened in the same way. A little bit of love. It always only took a little bit of love.
She would radiate a feeling of wellbeing into an often stormy or desolate landscape. Soon the land would morph into something more playful and innocent. The storms didn’t go away but the child’s mind learned to accept them.
So Parminder again spoke to everyone (but never to his father). Rinki played again. Monu became his usual self. As did countless other children including little Timoh.
Nagma remembered him now. It’s funny what time can make you forget. But perhaps it’s just necessary.
It was the only time that Nagma had felt afraid. No child should have had such a thing in his mind. That’s why she did it. She simply wiped the memory away.
Then little Timoh enjoyed playing with his bhavra.
Timoh walked into the store. Nagma was sitting at the counter making a toy soldier. Suddenly she looked up and smiled.
‘Yes, beta. Perhaps it is time for you to know about certain things.’
She led Timoh to the back room. Timoh’s eyes were soon drawn to the trapdoor.
Nagma opened it and gracefully descended into its murky depths.
‘Are you coming Timoh?’ Her voice echoed.
Hesitantly Timoh followed.
With wide eyes, he looked around. The dimly lit chamber seemed to have no walls or ceiling. It was filled with many shelves that towered over little Timoh. Each rack had countless toys; pink teddy bears, Rubik cubes, chess pieces, little race cars, action figures, snakes and ladders, soccer balls, hockey sticks, mini pianos, dollhouses, and a variety of toys that Timoh found to be unfamiliar.
As Timoh uncertainly walked ahead, it seemed that the toys were looking at him. Finally, he noticed Nagma beckoning him towards a corridor on the left. As he walked up to her he could still feel the toys looking at him. But this did not make him feel afraid. Somehow he felt reassured.
Nagma smiled, holding something in her hand. Timoh realized that it was a bhavra. His bhavra.
‘Beta it was so long ago. Your parents tried everything and then they came to me. You were so young and you saw something that you shouldn’t have seen.’
‘Do you remember? Of course, you don’t. But when you touch this toy you will.’
Now Timoh did feel scared and Nagma seemed to sense it.
‘Don’t worry. It’s a memory. It can’t hurt you.’
Slowly Timoh reached out for the bhavra. The moment he held it, it began to spin.
Timoh was drawn into a memory that seemed at once like a distant land and a familiar street.
It was a child’s memory but it was in no way childish.
Timoh watched himself take a shortcut from school because he didn’t want to miss his favorite afternoon cartoon show. If all the streets seemed deserted, Timoh didn’t notice it. He had also forgotten that students had been strictly warned to wait for their parents.
Had it been a few weeks since the riots began or were they just about to begin? This seemed unclear.
Timoh had only been concerned with quickly running through the alley and getting home before the opening credits rolled. Then there were loud footsteps. Louder cries. Doors and windows began to be shut. As a mob gathered in the alley, a pair of hands shoved Timoh under a vegetable cart.
Hidden there, only to be found much later by a havaldar, Timoh had watched men turn into monsters. In how many ways can flesh and bone be ripped and torn and butchered and burnt? Timoh had never asked himself or anyone such a question. But he witnessed, in graphic and violent detail, how such a thing was done.
A group of men brandishing swords was chasing an old lady and her daughter. Another group of men in different outfits was burning a shop and beheading its owner. Where the two groups clashed, there was chaos in which a few bodies slumped onto the bloody pavement. There were families leaping from their house as someone managed to break in. There were crude threats being made with a modern microphone. The murderous wave of rage left almost nothing untouched.
But little Timoh still had enough sense to stay still and quiet under the vegetable cart. That’s what saved his life.
Even as he witnessed the memory, Timoh felt his fear slowly fade and he was enveloped in a gentle solitude.
The memory came to an end but the feeling remained.
Timoh woke up with tears in his eyes. The feeling was still with him.
It had been two years since the dream. An older (but now in a certain sense younger) Timoh was standing in the currently crowded but always serene interiors of Apne Khilone. He had convinced his new editor for the digital portal Apli Manasa, to let him do another interview with Nagma Khan.
After a few months of in-depth political reports, Timoh wanted to do a human interest story. Or perhaps he just wanted to remind himself why doing anything mattered.
The grand lady soon beckoned him to enter the inner workshop. As Timoh settled in the creaky wooden chair, he noticed the trapdoor.
Nagma casually opened it and took out a can of tea and sugar.
The space under the trapdoor seemed to only contain a few jars and some old toys. But if you opened a certain door in your mind, it contained a lot more.
In between sips of some not-so-sweet chai, Nagma began to speak. The toymaker didn’t reveal her secrets because they weren’t hers to reveal. But she did share many stories. That was good enough for Timoh.