She had a round face with a smiling countenance. She came dressed in a glittering potloi but later changed into a phanek wrap. She had hands that always remained stretched out but she had no legs. Her home was made of bamboo strips woven together. Every night, she retired into it with all her belongings. She was joined by another one with a slightly long face and a mole near her lips. They would meet others like themselves often during the day. They were my ita laiphadibi – my friends, my companions, my dolls.
They were made of straw and cloth pieces. Their eyes, brows and lips were sewn onto the face of white cloth with black cotton threads. Their hair was a string of black threads knotted together. The torso disappeared into the lower garment. The stiff paper or starched cloth of the decorated potloi allowed them to stand. They looked beautiful in those embellished potloi but they seemed stiff and distant and could not be seated. They did not seem to want to play with me, as if they wanted only to be appreciated from afar. I changed their attires to simple phanek wraps. They could no longer stand on their own now but I could now dress them up myself, sit them down and play with them.
Mid-day, especially during school vacations, were days when I spent a lot of my time with my ita laiphadibi. I would take them to visit my other friends. In porch or in sheds, we would play with our little friends. Using bits of wood, twigs, and other available things around, we would imaginatively use them as props in our doll world. We would make beds with discarded pieces of cardboard or wooden boards left behind in some corner. We would come up with bottle caps as kitchen utensils and collect small wild berries or grasses to pass for vegetables in our doll kitchen. Match boxes were nice storage units. Boot polish containers would be punctured and attached with thread to a twig in pairs to make a weight balance.
The neighbourhood tailor’s workplace was a favourite haunt, after all our little friends’ wardrobe and fashion came from there. We would shuffle through the discarded materials for pretty items for our ita laiphadibi. It came in different shapes and sizes which needed to be trimmed unless you are too lazy to bother with scissors and simply tucked in the wayward pieces. I learnt knitting from my mother and aunts who would knit sweaters every winter season. It was fascinating to watch the unending balls of wool being turned to pretty warm things through two simple rods. So I learnt knitting. Let me make myself clear, I learnt knitting for the heck of it; not because I was hardworking or the work inspired me – i was just happy watching others weave magic through those knitting needles (I have never made a single sweater in my life so far). But yes, I knitted for my little friends with wooden sticks.
As we grew up, my other friends soon gave up their little friends. The time spent with my ita laiphadibi was getting shorter but I was reluctant to give them up. I kept them with me for some time not willing to part with them but it was soon time to move on. The doll house days were getting over; but how do I bid farewell to my beloved nonspeaking companions?
A laiphadibi has to be put to rest properly otherwise it would weep at night, said one of my friends. She told me what she had heard from others. when one parts with her little friend, she should put them to a proper rest by burying them at the foot of a banana plant or pass them on to another girl who would be their new companion. If one simply neglects them or discards them, the laiphadibi cries in her misery. She walks around in her restlessness when everyone is asleep. She laments to the banana plant.
Goodbyes are never easy. Though I was still too young to realize it then, it sounded like a horrible end for a long-time companion. I did not wish to imagine my two ita laidhibi weeping and lamenting because I did not give them due respect; neither did I wished to bury them just because I was done playing with them. I wanted to cherish them but I also realized that it was time for me to move on. I passed them on to a younger cousin who was still in the doll-playing age.