Fritz was an incredibly patient cat. He had such personality and gravitas that, although I doted on him, I had never quite mustered the courage to pet him. One day, our domestic help, who — as we later realized — was about to abscond, carried him away. I wept copious tears that night: Fritz had been my fondest memory of my late great grandfather, whom I hadn’t known for long. Fritz was a big, beautiful cat, made of porcelain, and had silver enamelled fur — my great grandfather’s favourite toy, which he had handed down to me. On my study table, Fritz cut quite an imposing figure; yet, it wasn’t his beauty that made him so precious to me. He wasn’t a mere toy — cute, almost cuddly — he was also wise, old, yoda-like: he had accumulated years of memory. He had travelled in a trunk across the Bangladesh border. It was his age that made him dear. No toy would ever come close to replacing Fritz.
There is something about old toys. First, they have seen one’s mother or father or a grandparent (or at least an elder) as a child; and no one quite forgets the childhood wonder of realizing that elders were little too. Second, they seem to tumble out of either nowhere or forbidden places, such as a loft, where — my mother had convinced me — lived bhawbondola, a crazed spirit waiting to drag little children inside. Or the Belgian glass showcase in our drawing room, which I was not allowed to open since, it was feared, my innate clumsiness and my haste to get my hands on my grandma’s statuette collection would make me a bull in a china shop, almost literally. Third, a mystique, most palpable in the case of toys that no one can remember, is generated. In the backyard of my childhood house, in a hollow bark of a dying jackfruit tree, I had discovered a thimble-sized wooden mortar and pestle, too tiny to be real. No one in the house could remember having owned it. I was delighted; the history-less-ness made it special. There is, of course, also the fact that many ‘old’ toys are of the kind that is now extinct.
One never wants to lose a byang kotkoti (a metal toy that needs to be pressed like a clothesline peg, and makes a sound like a frog’s croak), or inherited wooden boats with wheels so they can be pulled using a string, or plastic dolls with limbs sewn to their bodies — if only because such toys cannot be bought anymore. It is this agedness, its titillating mysteriousness, and the rarity that lend an air of the fantastic to old toys.
Among other things, my two grandmothers bequeathed to me two of my best loved old toys. The first is a little crystal bottle sealed with a suspiciously crimson fluid inside crafted in the shape of the oldest type of Coca Cola bottle (which itself is extinct).
The other is a pair of Kokeshi dolls. I often wonder what I will hand down — ancient and extinct — when I am old. Most of my own knick-knack toys are gone: the little plastic houses and fans and trees and pressure cookers from hawkers at Gariahat (from when the Ruby connector was a desolate stretch), the little bontis from fairs, the doll furniture, the cars (non-battery-powered), the clockwork drummer, horse, hens, the “bioscope” which needed to have a handle pressed so that pictures of lesser Bollywood stars sped by.
I never kept my inherited treasures with my own toys, which is why the former have survived. One evening, I got home from college and found that my aunt, in a cleaning spree, had thrown away the “old, space-hogging” gunny bag full of my own toys. After all, I had grown up. The next day, in an attempt at peace, she handed me my grandfather’s carved ivory cigarette holder.