Mother Goose’s nursery crimes

It was my first-ever nursery rhyme. It was in Bengali and I had no clue what it meant but I could get neither the words nor the rhythm out of my head.
Hattimatimtim
Tara mathe pare dim
Tader khara duto shing
Tara Hattimatim tim
When I was a little older, it struck me that Humpty Dumpty sounded a lot like Hattimatimtim and I wondered if one had inspired the other.
Now that my Bengali is fluent, I know that Hattimatimtim is a chicken-like fantasy creature, who lays eggs on the ground and has two horns. It was exactly the magic a child needed to fuel 
their imagination.
I can’t say the same for the English nursery rhymes I was taught in school. If children narrowly escape lifelong mental scarring from childhood nursery rhymes, it is only because they do not dig into the hidden contexts and meanings of these seemingly sweet, simple poems. A pleasing tempo, a lilting melody and euphony is all they need.
But if you just looked a little closer at Mother Goose’s  lyrics, you might be horrified by what you were taught.

Two children, a boy and a girl, are sent to bring water from the well on top of a hill (Think child labour). The boy falls down and has a cranial fracture, probably dying or being rendered moronic for life. The girl’s fate is equally tragic. That’s it. Four lines about two children who suffered a terrible tragedy. I won’t insult your intelligence by naming the poem.
Here’s another: for some reason, a baby in its cradle has been parked high up on a tree on a windy night. The bough creaks and sways, eventually breaking. The baby crashes to earth and dies.
Rock a bye baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
When choosing one option out of many, it was usual for my group of childhood friends to do an Eenie Meenie Minie Mo. Innocent so far, but from the second line it’s an indoctrination into casual racism.
Eeenie Meenie Minie Mo
Catch a nigger by his toe
If he cries, let him go
Eeenie Meenie Minie Mo
We were ushered into the world of child abuse by the old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
The one that still sends chills down my spine is the vaguely paedophilic, incestuous Clementine, described by her father as his darling, pretty, light and like a fairy, wearing number nine shoes and herding ducklings to the pond. One day, she hits her foot against a splinter and falls into the water. We are treated to the image of “ruby lips above the water blowing bubbles soft and fine” as she expired while her father, a 
non-swimmer, watched.
What does he do? Looks for another little girl. In his words, So I kissed her little sister and forgot 
my Clementine.

English nursery rhymes, it turns out, were never meant for children. They coded unspeakable historical scandals and events in language as twisted as crossword puzzle clues, replete with satire, sexual innuendo, ribaldry, violence and insider jokes. 
Some Victorians in the early 1900s were outraged enough to form the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform, bent on cleaning up the act. After a thorough review, they con-demned 100 of the most common nursery rhymes, including Humpty Dumpty and Three Blind Mice, for “harbouring unsavoury elements”. 
Their catalogue of intolerable violations included, according to Random House’s Max Minckler, “scorning prayer and ridiculing the blind; 21 cases of death, notably by choking, decapitation, hanging, devouring, shrivelling and squeezing; 12 cases of tormenting animals; and one case each of consuming human flesh, body-snatching, and the desire to have one’s own limb severed”.

Children need nonsense that rhymes, and when it comes to singing benign gobbledygook to children, every Indian language beats English hollow in content and magic. A Chandamama or Hattimatimtim wins hands down over a Baa Baa Black Sheep (or should we now say Rainbow Sheep in a world where black lives matter?) 
A verse suitable for children should be like the one my mother taught me. Hidden within its lyrics was my introduction to South Indian cuisine, the recipe for dosa, 
unforgettably rhymed and paced.
Dosai amma dosai
Neyyil sutta dosai
Arisi mavum ulundu mavum kalandu sutta dosai
Appavukku naalu
Ammavukku moonu
Annavukku irandu
Enakku vandu ondru
A transliteration would read —
Dosai, sweet child, dosai
Fried with ghee
And a batter of rice and urad dal
Four for father
Three for mother
Two for big brother
And one for me.
Along with the recipe, alas, comes a little patriarchal message giving the man of the house more dosas to eat than the others. 
But that damage is easily undone. After you cross teenage, you realise an important life lesson: the one who makes the dosas is usually the boss in the house.

You can reach C Y Gopinath at cygopi@gmail.com

Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper

Leave a Comment