Little Plastic Man had always been different, and he knew it. All the other toys had some speciality or quirk to them. Cars, Trucks and Rickshaws had motors and wheels, and ran about all over the nursery floor, with squealing children right behind them. Yellow Telephone knew to speak in ten different languages (though he was now facing stiff competition from the newly arrived Flip Mobile). Drummer Monkey knew how to belt out the music while jumping around. And then there were those three dogs, seven bears (including Big Teddy, so large that she was rumored to have swallowed a child whole when she was younger), and one octopus, all of them stuffed with sponges and cloth; soft to touch, kiss, cuddle. Everyone else was fun.
But Little Plastic Man was as his name said. He was little, made of plastic, and looked like a man. Whoever had made him, by a stretch of artistic licence, had decided to paint him entirely in a very unnatural shade of green, sparing not even his eyes. The only variation was his black hair, black belt and black shoes. He had sharp edges, and was hard to touch. But worst of all, and this was the most crushing of them all for Little Plastic Man, he was hollow inside.
He didn’t remember when it was that he had first discovered this terrible secret about himself. But he did remember all the self-pity; wave after wave of it. Hollow. Empty. The inferiority complex was a killer. When the children had all gone home, everyone else would hang around, cracking jokes, telling stories, laughing. But Little Plastic Man would stand in a corner, trying to look as if he was busy with himself, and not interested Military Truck’s umpteenth retelling of how he had once jumped out the window and flown around the world (he had landed in the sand pit after an especially naughty little girl had thrown him out). Aloofness was Little Plastic Man’s shield against the Big Bad World, but in reality, all he ever wanted was to be a part of it, to listen and laugh with the others, and maybe one day even tell a story himself. Every once in a while, someone would try to involve him in the conversation but Little Plastic Man never seemed to know what the correct thing to say would be, and after a few awkward silences, would make an excuse and leave, loathing himself for it.
He felt hollow inside too.
It was just like any other day at the nursery. Everyone was all busy helping the children have fun. Little Plastic Man’s favourite partner for the past few days had been a little boy named Jerry. He would come and pretend that Little Plastic Man was an army general. He would make Little Plastic Man march about, shouting out orders, leading valiant (imaginary) armies against the hordes of enemies, and ultimately (imaginarily) heroically be felled by the (imaginary) villain. But even as he would be (imaginarily) dying, Little Plastic Man would take one last (imaginary) aim on his (imaginary) gun, and the (imaginary) war would be won by that one (imaginary) bullet. Little Plastic man loved it.
But today Jerry hadn’t yet come. Little Plastic Man stood alone on the shelf and looked at all the fun the children and toys were having. He felt lonely.
Big surprise there, said the Voice.
Shut up, said Little Plastic Man.
Little Plastic Man wasn’t sure whether he hated Voice. There were three or four of them in him, always sarcastic, always pessimistic, giving his entire life a running commentary. There was no hope trying to talk sense into them, as Little Plastic Man found out the hard way a long time ago, and thus his stoic reply every single time was shut up. But then again, Voice was his one true companion, only Voice actually knew, and understood, Little Plastic Man. At his nadir, Little Plastic Man knew that only Voice would stick with him.
Suddenly Little Plastic Man heard it. A dull Tuk. It was an unmistakable sound, the sound of hollow plastic hitting the floor. The sound Little Plastic Man produced every time he fell. He looked wildly about for the source of the sound. There might actually be someone else like him here, someone with whom he could identify! There might actually be someone who can understand him, other than Voice!
Yeah……right. Then we can hold a hollow people convention for all your new found friends.
Why do you keep telling me to shut up? I have a constitutional right not to. I demand absolute….
Little Plastic Man was sure he hadn’t imagined the sound. No, there it was again. Tuk. One of the children, called Christina, was standing of to one corner, her back against Little Plastic Man. Little Plastic Man watched as her hand went up and down, and there it was again. Tuk.
Turn around, Little Plastic Man urged silently.
And there you have it folks! The great telepathic Litt….
And ever so slowly, Christina did turn around. Little Plastic Man went absolutely still, straining his eyes, and daring not even to breathe. And then he saw her for the first time as Christina bounced her. Tuk. Inflatable Plastic Ball. His hollow soulmate.
Where have you been all my life?, thought Little Plastic Man as he watched Christina bounce Inflatable Plastic Ball, We could’ve been together for so long by now.
Everything has its own time, Little Plastic Man, said Voice, and everyone has that one perfect day.
Yeah, you are right, replied Little Plastic Man without taking his eyes off Ball, surprised at the sudden overflow of philosophy from Voice.
And today definitely isn’t yours.
Little Plastic Man watched as Christina bounced Ball all around the room. Not once did Ball look at him. She was busy making each and every bounce of hers as graceful as physically possible. Every time she felt she had made a perfect bounce (though all of them felt equally perfect to Little Plastic Man) Ball would smile, a small held back sort of smile; a fairy’s smile. It made his heart melt every single time. After what seemed to Little Plastic Man like an inexcusably short period of time, Christina left the room, taking ball with her.
I would like to point out that it is not physically possible for your heart to melt. Because you have none. But nah… I’ll let it drop. For now.
Little Plastic Man sighed. Half in desperation at Voice. Half in anguish for Ball. He had fallen in love, hard. It was a new emotion for Little Plastic Man.
He began to notice Ball from that day on. Standing at one corner of the nursery, he would watch as the children bounced, threw and kicked her around. Many more balls had come into the nursery room after that day, apparently one of the parents had donated them. But Little Plastic Man cared about The only one. The more he observed her, the more he identified with her. She too was always silent, seemingly self-absorbed. She too had the tendency to stare off into nothingness and remain oblivious to the world around her for hours on end. And at night, when everyone else was talking and laughing and telling stories, they two were the only ones who didn’t join in. they were most certainly made from the same clay.
Or plastic, reminded Voice.
Never once did Little Plastic Man show any visible signs that he was in love. As much as he didn’t want it, his Aloofness Shield refused to budge even for Inflatable Plastic Ball. Little Plastic Man was afraid to lay himself bare, to come out and talk to Ball in the face; but he didn’t know why (Voice never lost an opportunity to dissect him for that). For three months Little Plastic Man continued to be a silent observer, assuring himself, talking himself into believing it even, that Inflatable Plastic Ball was the one for him, that she too knew it, that they were meant to be together, that one day he would talk to her. And in all this while, the only time Little Plastic Man made an (accidental) eye contact with ball, he had immediately averted his eyes and tried to decipher the patterns of a cobweb in the corner for the next two hours. Even Voice was too stunned to talk for those two hours. After all, Voice was ultimately Little Plastic Man himself.
But though externally he remained unchanged, in his own little internal wold, everything had changed. Life had always seemed damp and dull, overcast and unfair. But no longer. It had suddenly become a very colourful and very loud place to be in. It was a thousand festivals rolled into one. Little Plastic Man couldn’t find words to describe it; it felt like a rainbow on fire, an unicorn on drugs. Little Plastic Man felt like a firework inside.
One night, after all the socialising had been done, and everyone had gone to sleep, Little Plastic Man woke with a start. He had just had a dream. He had seen Ball, teaching three other little balls the nuances of a perfect bounce. And all the while Little Plastic Man had stood at a corner and stared, not making a sound. He didn’t know if the dream held any significance, but it still depressed him.
I have been meaning to ask you this a long time, said Voice.
This is a joke, right? You can’t seriously be considering a future with Inflatable Plastic Ball.
Why Not! My dear little Little Plastic Man, you are a doll. And she a ball. Dolls are supposed to be with dolls. And balls with balls. The society will never accept a ball and a doll coming together. That is assuming she wants to be with you too, highly unlikely as it is.
I’m not sure I care about society, Voice. It’s not like I’m a big part of it anyway, replied Little Plastic Man.
But that’s not the point.
My love for her is greater than all the points you make, Voice.
Yeeaaahhh, riiiggght, drawled Voice.
Little Plastic Man ignored him.
Moonlight was streaming in from the nursery window. One of the children had spilled water in the evening, and it hadn’t been cleaned up. Little Plastic Man went up to the puddle and stared at his reflection. Green Eyes. Green Body. Black Hair. Black Belt. Sharp Edges. And then he thought of Ball. So perfect in every way. So many vibrant colours, so smooth.
You are right, Voice, said Little Plastic Man with a sigh, I am flawed. Too flawed. And she, she is perfect. I mustn’t. I shouldn’t. It’ll be unfair to her. There will be someone more perfect than me for her. I must let go of that which I don’t have.
Little Plastic Man’s heart was breaking, it was agonizing. He wanted to cry out loud, curse the Gods, and end his miserable life. The blackness of his world was returning, he was falling into a depression.
There was silence for a minute. Crickets chirped, Military Truck snored and the moon continued her journey across the sky. Finally, Voice spoke, softly.
Little Plastic Man, you chose to love Ball. You saw that she was hollow inside, you saw that you can identify with her. You didn’t fall for her colours or curves nor for the grace of her bounce. You fell for her Tuk. You fell for her smile. You fell for the way she stared off into space.
Little Plastic Man was startled. Voice never failed to surprise him.
Ball is the closest you have ever come to seeing yourself in another person Little Plastic Man, continued Voice, and thus you fell. Your love for her isn’t of the arbitrary and at first sight sort. Even if you don’t realize it, you love her because deep inside you know you can be yourself with her. Your silences together will be as memorable as your conversations. You can be happy with her. And she, with you. You are flawed, yes. And in more ways than one. But so is she. And everyone else in this world. But as far as this small nursery is concerned, you are as perfect as it gets for her.
A new day dawned, just like any other. The nursery calendar told Little Plastic Man it was February 14. It had been a few days since his dream, and he had been constantly wrestling with himself to pluck up enough courage to talk to ball. He had even almost walked up to her once, but Big Teddy called out to him at the last second to join in on the conversation. He did, reluctantly, but lost all his confidence. If he ever did talk to ball, he told himself, it would have to be alone.
Jerry was back playing with him. This time he wasn’t an army general, but a superhero. He flew around saving everyone and everything that needed saving. After that night’s burst of wisdom, Voice had gone back to harassing Little Plastic Man, almost with a vengeance. Voice made sure he never had a moment’s peace.
Little Plastic Man’s heart skipped a beat. There she was coming. He glanced in the direction from which the sound came. Christina came in, bouncing Ball. Jerry too saw her. He suddenly dropped Little Plastic Man.
“Christina”, called out Jerry. He got up and went towards his bag and rummaged around in it. And as Little Plastic Man, Inflatable Plastic Ball and Christina watched, he pulled out a rose. It was dry, squashed and had a fair share of its petals missing. Clutching it in his left hand, Jerry held it out towards Christina.
“I like you”, he said innocently, “The flower’s for you”.
Still better love story than yours, said Voice.
Christina dropped Ball, and took the rose from him.
“Thank You Jerry”, she said, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Jerry wiped it off.
“Let’s go play outside”, she said.
“Okay.”, agreed Jerry, and followed her out.
The Gods are mocking me surely, thought Little Plastic Man, his heart in his throat. He and Ball were in the room. Alone.
This is your chance, moron, cried Voice.
Yea, yea. I know. But what do I say? I don’t know. This is so overwhelming. Aaaahhh. I’m panicking. Aaaahhhh.
For a change, Shut Up! And try a Hi.
“H..Hi” said Little Plastic Man to Ball.
“Hello” said Ball. Her voice sounded like Chocolate.
“Hi”, repeated Little Plastic Man.
There was an awkward silence, neither of them knowing what to say.
“You know, as you came in I couldn’t help but notice that you are also hollow inside. Like me. Weird huh. Ha ha. So I was thinking, I don’t know, maybe we can, you know, talk about it?” Little Plastic Man said in one breath. He was sure it sounded better when he had been practicing it.
And then, Inflatable Plastic Ball smiled a small smile. Her fairy smile. The smile reached her eyes, and Little Plastic Man saw them light up.
Like a firework.