Mother Goose’s Nursery Crimes

This was my first nursery rhyme. It was in Bengali and I had no idea what it meant, but I couldn’t get neither the words nor the rhythm out of my head.
tara mathe pare dim
Tader Khara Duto Shing
tara hattimtim tim
When I got a little older, I thought Humpty Dumpty sounded a lot like Hattimatimtim and I wondered if one inspired the other.
Now that my Bengali is fluent, I know that Hattimimtim is a chicken-like imaginary creature that lays eggs on the ground and has two horns. It was exactly the magic a kid needed
His imagination.
I can’t say the same about the English nursery rhymes I was taught in school. If children survive lifelong trauma from childhood nursery rhymes, it is only because they do not understand the hidden references and meanings of these seemingly sweet, simple rhymes. They require a pleasing pace, melodious music and euphony.
But if you 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 fetch water from a well on a hilltop (think child labour). The boy falls and fractures his skull, possibly dying or becoming a fool for the rest of his life. The fate of the girl is equally tragic. That’s it. Four lines about two children who suffered a terrible tragedy. I will not insult your intelligence by taking the name of poetry.
Here’s another: For some reason, a baby has been propped up in a tree in his crib on a windy night. The branch creaks and shakes, eventually breaking. The child falls to the ground and dies.
Swing the baby on the top of the tree,
When the wind blows, the cradle will shake,
When the branch breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come the children, crib and everything.
When choosing a choice among many, my group of childhood friends by now have to say eenie meenie miny moe. It was normal to act innocent, but from the second line this is an education in casual racism.
eeni meeni mini mo
Catch a nigger by his toe
If he cries, let him
eeni meeni mini mo
The old lady who lived in a shoe had introduced us to the world of child abuse.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
He gave them some broth without bread;
Then he whipped them all severely and made them lie on the bed.
The one that still sends shivers down my spine is the vaguely pedophilic, incestuous Clementine, described by her father as his darling, beautiful, light and like an angel, who wears number nine shoes and swims in the pond. Feeds the ducks. One day, a splinter hits her leg and she falls into the water. We see the image of “red lips blowing soft and fine bubbles over the water” as she dies, while her father, a
Non-swimmer, see.
What does he do? Looking for another little girl. In his words, So I kissed his little sister and forgot
Mary Clementine.

It turns out that English nursery rhymes were never meant for children. He coded inexplicable historical scandals and events into language as crossword puzzle clues, replete with satire, sexual innuendo, rebellion, violence, and inside jokes.
Some Victorians in the early 1900s were so outraged that they formed the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform, intent on cleaning up the act. After a thorough review, he condemned the 100 most common nursery rhymes, including Humpty Dumpty and the Three Blind Mice, for “harboring unpleasant elements”.
According to Max Minkler of Random House, his list of intolerable violations included, “despising prayer and mocking the blind; 21 cases of death, specifically by suffocation, decapitation, hanging, eating, suffocation and squeezing; 12 cases of causing suffering to animals; And each case is related to the desire to eat human flesh, snatch the body and get one’s body part amputated.

Kids want nonsense that rhymes, and when it comes to good children’s songs, every Indian language beats English in content and charm. A Chandamama or Hattimateem has won a landslide victory over the Baa Baa Black Sheep (or should we now say the Rainbow Sheep in a world where black lives matter?).
A poem suitable for children should be one that my mother taught me. Hidden in its lyrics was my introduction to South Indian cuisine, the recipe of Dosa,
Unforgettably rhythmic and dynamic.
Dosai Amma Dosai
Neyil Sutta Dosai
Arisi Mavum Ulundu Mavum Kalandu Sutta Dosai
Appavukku Naalu
Ammavukku Munu
Annavukku Irandu
Enakku Vandu Ondru
A transliteration would read –
Dosai, dear child, Dosai
fried with ghee
And rice and urad dal mixture
four for father
three for mom
two for big brother
And one for me.
Sadly, the recipe also comes with a subtle patriarchal message in which the male of the house is allowed to eat more dosas than the others.
But that damage is easily repaired. After crossing adolescence, you realize an important lesson of life: the one who makes dosa is usually the master of the house.

You can reach CY Gopinath at

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The views expressed in this column are personal and do not represent the views of the newspaper