Do I remember nursery rhymes from my past?
Of course I do.
I remember them all… and I also remember all the other tales that I link them up with. I remember the time we had the story of the fox that couldn’t reach up to the grapes and walked away calling them ‘sour grapes’. I asked my mother, ‘Why did she call them sour when she couldn’t taste them?’
I know my mother must have wondered at this sharp conclusion, but she smiled and let it remain there. The next day when my brother and I returned from school, we were immediately escorted to the bedroom of my parents and there on the wooden support for the mosquito net hung two large bunches of grapes. ‘Now imagine you are foxes. Try and reach out to them,’ said mother.
We tried and couldn’t… they were a trifle too high for us and anyway we didn’t want to hurt ourselves in the attempt. So I sat down on the floor and said, ‘I think you will now give them to us. Only after tasting will I be able to tell you if they are sour or not.’ Mother said, ‘I will give them to you because you are not walking away calling them sour without even tasting them.’
So my relationship with these small nursery stories and rhymes has been rather interesting. I also remember the way I was made to fall in love with boiled eggs. I hated boiled eggs… now, don’t ask me why, but I just hated them, just as I hated eating curd. I was, in fact, known as the ‘white food hater’ then… so my mother finally hit upon a plan. She sung the Humpty Dumpty rhyme and we repeated the words after her… then she simply said, ‘Do you know who Humpty Dumpty was?’
‘No,’ my brother and I said in chorus. My younger brother was an year younger than me and simply repeated whatever I said.
‘An egg!’ revealed mother… and then she brought two hard boiled eggs and asked us to perch them on a small wall we had built with our Lego bricks. The eggs invariably fell with a great comical thud and we examined all the cracks too. She then said, ‘And now you can be the King who ate up Humpty Dumpty!’ we immediately did that… and I never realised that I was actually eating something white! But I did it. And I loved it.
Now when I heard the rhyme, I was transported back in time and remembered the way I was connected to it.
As I have said earlier these stories and rhymes are not just words that I was asked to remember, the best were somehow connected to my life. There is another small tale that I remember from my past. The time when I was smart enough to fill a bucket of water and get out of a punishment doled out to me. You see, I was a naughty kid and was forever doing things like throwing slippers out of the window and on the road… and mind you, it was always just one from a pair. The other remained where it was and so the evening was generally full of slipper-search moments and I was left alone without being coerced to study… but on one day when I was in the act of throwing, I was caught and the mystery of the missing slippers finally solved. But mother was sore… very sore. She decided that I was to be adequately punished.
‘You are going to sit here out in the open until the bucket is full,’ she said. The bucket was kept under a tap in the courtyard of our house. The tap was famous to never go beyond a drop at a time even when it was at its most benevolent form. Imagine being asked to sit there in the sun by the bucket that was only a quarter full. Waiting for a small kid is more than hell. The sun doesn’t bother him so much, but waiting does. But then I just got up and began putting in the bucket everything that I could lay my hands on…bricks, small stones, a plastic cup, some sand, and even a few chunks of metal and was actually surprised to see the level of water rise. Soon… and I mean sooner than it was supposed to… the bucket had water that had risen to the top. I rushed in and said, ‘The bucket is full!’
My father, who was arguing with my mother for having being too harsh on the little boy, said, ‘See, a miracle has happened. God has defeated you, Mom!’ Everyone rushed out and they were surprised to see the water level… but they also noticed that the dripping tap wasn’t being helpful at all. On closer inspection, the bricks and the stones and the metal pieces were discovered. Mother smiled and hugging me, said, ‘You little rascal, you are smarter than the crow!’
‘Crow?’ I asked. And then she told me the story of how the crow managed to quench his thirst by throwing pebbles in it. So you see, even this story does put back the clock for me… and I must admit that for many years everyone did call me a crow!
Humpty Dumpty – a nursery rhyme
Let me add here that to a child it is the literal meaning of the story or the rhyme that makes it attractive and memorable. I loved imagining Humpty as a giant egg tumbling off a wall… and it also made me sad. It is only later that I discovered the story behind that rhyme and was rather disconcerted to know that Humpty wasn’t an egg but a cannon perched on a church tower in a city called Colchester. The history of this rhyme places links it to an incident that had possibly happened during the reign of King Charles I during the English Civil War. The cannon called Humpty was finally dislodged from its perch by a rather strong volley and tumbled in the marshland below to become irreparable and useless. This was despite all resources available to the Royals.
Yes, the story does explain ‘all the King’s horses and all King’s men’ and also tells us why they ‘couldn’t put Humpty together again’… but frankly, reading this story did not mean that I think of Humpty as cannon. The truth is that Humpty in my mind is still an egg… and this shows the power that a nursery rhyme has in the mind of a small child.
One writer explains the link of Humpty to an egg to a ‘19th century illustration in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass created this myth. When Alice talks to Humpty Dumpty on the wall, the illustrator – apparently at a whim – made him egg-shaped.’ Like many other kids all over the world, even I, therefore, grew up thinking of Humpty as an egg… and not a ‘a fearsome killing machine’.
The thirsty crow – a story from Aesop’s fables
This fable is numbered 390 in the Perry index and the Wikipedia tells us that the story is all about ingenuity and ‘that thoughtfulness is superior to brute strength’. There are yet others who link the story with the virtues of persistence. However, what I did when I was a kid, is to simply do something to let me escape the blistering heat… and so I was using a creative solution when I thought it was most necessary.
My behaviour was probably comparable to how an unlettered brain would interpret a situation and device an action plan. The truth is that there are times when I like my story better than the fable that is now so famous.
23 November 2014