I grew up in a small city in India. It was hot, dry and utterly boring in a way that only small cities in 80’s India can be. I was born premature which made me pretty sick through my early years and having no brothers and sisters, I was pretty much in my own head. And a bursting imagination often needs outlets and for me, in came in the form of playing with wooden toys. My family did not have a lot of money, so LEGOs, action figures and toys were out. But as a child, who cared? A few blocks of wood, plastic and boxes and you got a castle going! And in 80’s India, no one around me had any expensive, manufactured toys. So, it wasn’t as if I felt the need to have something that wasn’t being given to me. I was pretty happy in my own head until I saw an advertisement for a GI Joe.
GI Joes were probably the first thing I ever wanted. I was entranced and I remember throwing tantrums for having them. My parents couldn’t really afford them so they would try to keep me away but being a male child in India comes with doting grandparents and uncles who would try and cater to my whims. My frustrated parents couldn’t really say anything and in a few years, I had a collection of about 50 of them.
But this is not the story of the GI Joes.
One summer, while spending the summer vacation at my maternal grandmothers place, I came upon a box which had a small piece of velvet, 2 tiny pillows and a small piece of wood. The velvet was bedraggled with aluminum milk bottle caps stuck on it, the pillows were made out of cloth and the piece of wood, was well, a piece of wood. When I asked my grandmother about it, she told me about how that was a bed for my mother’s doll. My family is one that was torn apart from the partition of India and both my grandfathers had to leave everything they knew behind to start from scratch. So, we never had a lot of money and buying a doll was impossible. But that didn’t stop my grandmother and mother. They made dolls from whatever material they could find, built a bed, a blanket and pillows. My mom grew up playing with a stuffed piece of cloth and treasured it long after she had outgrown them. On that summer afternoon, it all came rushing to me about how entitled was I to ask for an expensive piece of plastic which was way above our means but my parents still tried to do the best they could. I felt the insides of my stomach churn and I had no way to understand what I was feeling as a child but that feeling created a sense of gratitude for them trying to do the best for me in whatever way they could. The little piece of velvet became a part of my GI Joe collection. After a long, hard day of fighting, they all were put to sleep under my mom’s velvet blanket. After all, warriors need to sleep. I often wonder what they dreamt of? What would people who fought all day dream of? Do they dream of peaceful times or more war? And under the glittering, shiny blanket, would they be happy? I did not know but it was fun to imagine that.
GI Joes unleashed my imagination. Simulation video games and construction kits later shaped my intellect, thinking and unleashed my ability to make. But my mother’s piece of velvet taught my gratitude, kindness and softness. And for that, I am grateful. Growing up as a man in India, you have a lot of hard edges as a patriarchal, masculine society shapes you to be. But a piece of cloth can round you and round you out like stones in a river. Who could have guessed?