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Songs and Rhymes from Childhood

A few years ago, my youngest son Nitin (now 6, then 3) was ready for pre-nursery school.  In north India in general,  some form ofp pre- nursery education is necessary, as the children have to face a tough syllabus once they join school.  So I went down the the local nursery school where all my children with the exception of Neil, the eldest, have received their nursery education.

Mrs. Radha Agarwal (Radha Ma'am!), the proprietor of the school, was only too happy to  welcome Nitin into her school.  She also suggested that I also join the school as a teacher.  How could I teach, I asked, with no training.  It was, she assured me, the easiest thing in the world.  All I had to do was teach nursery rhymes to three to four year olds(the pre-nursery class)  in perfect English.  For me, that should be no problem at all.  I went home and thought about it.  I always said that I'd like to return to work when the children got older.  This might be a very good opportunity. Yash was totally against it; said I wouldn't be able for all I had to do at home as well as going to work.  But I was keen to give it a try - so in the end I decided to do it.

There was, it turned out, a bit more to do than just teaching the children nursery rhymes.  The children were off at 12 midday.  But I had to serve the full school timing, and say until 2 o'clock.  During this time, I had to prepare lessons.  I had to draw pictures of nursery rhyme scenes and write the rhyme on the back.  I had to tear, paste, colour!  Now for someone who is into art and crafts, this would have been a dream job; for me, it was brain-numbing boredom.  I had to paste cotton wool onto sheep and paste tiny pieces of coloured paper on to trees.  Basically, I would have never made a crafter.  I was fond of knitting at school, however,  basically, I am all thumbs.  But making a bunch of lively kids stand in line and recite rhymes!  It was extremely difficult and tiring.  I tried to do my part and make them speak the Queen's English, and I must say, I lived up to my own expectations in this respect.  But the more I recited these rhymes for the children, I thought, what an unsuitable way for a child from a Hindi speaking home to learn the rhythms and cadences of the English language.  How can they make sense, for example, of Humpty Dumpty, Hey Diddle Diddle and Hickory Dickory Dock?  Now these rhymes might make perfect sense to a person growing up in England, I mean, if you are a child in London, then "London Bridge is Falling Down" would have a lot of meaning, but otherwise.....

However, one of the first nursery rhymes that north Indian children learn in English is one I had never heard before I came out here.  Does anyone know it?

Johnny Johnny?
Yes, Papa !
Eating sugar?
No, Papa!
Telling lie?
No Papa!
Open your mouth!
Ha! Ha! Ha!

Well, it might sound a little bit simple, but it is quite suitable for Indian children.  I think it is one rhyme to which they can relate.  Lots of Indian children call their father Papa (mine do!).  Lots of them like eating sugar too, but that's a universal thing.  Kids everywhere love sweets.  This rhyme seems to have an Anglo-Indian connection, because the name Johnny is as English as can be.

I don't remember learning too many rhymes in school when I was a child.  Maybe I have forgotten them.  I remember singing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and "Jack and Jill", both to exactly the same tune.  I remember seeing the rhymes mostly in books I was given as gifts when I was a child.  I loved the rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" and used to laugh at the blackbird perching on the poor maid's nose!

When I was a child, I was a confirmed book lover.  I started seriously reading when I was around eight years old.  But sending the kids "out to play" was the only way the poor mothers could get a bit of a break, and my mother used to shove me out every so often.  My sisters and I used to play with other children on the same road.  We lived in a small cul-de-sac with a green open space opposite the houses and my mother could see us easily from there.  We didn't go to playgrounds much as there wasn't one nearby.  We used to use a large rope for skipping; one child at either end and someone skipping in the middle, all the kids lined up to take their turn.  Sometimes the rope turners would tease us and turn the rope really fast.  For some reason these fast turns were called 'peppers'.  I have no idea why.  We used to juggle small balls up against a wall - I was no good at this - all thumbs, remember?  We often used to tie the skipping rope around the lamp post and make a makeshift swing.  We used to chalk out 'piggy beds' (hopscotch) on the roads, and run when a car came.  Many of us used to chant local rhymes when turning the skipping rope or juggling those balls.  I remember a great skipping rhyme went "Vote, Vote, Vote for De Valera!"  Now De Valera was the President of Ireland when I was a child; he had previously been Taoiseach (that's Prime Minister in Irish) and a great freedom fighter who had escaped being executed by the British because he was born in the United States.  This was an old election slogan of his from back in time, obviously.

I remember another old rhyme we used to say:

Janey Mack
Me shirt is black
And what'll I do for Sunday
Go to bed and cover your head
And don't get up 'till Monday.

I love that rhyme; it captures the way Dublin people speak, saying 'me' instead of 'my'.  I never learnt it in school, it was part of daily life.

Well, Nitin passed out of pre-nursery school, and I also did.  I had fallen way behind in my housework and studies and the job was far too low paid to justify that.  But no experience is ever wasted.  I'm glad I did it!

This is my weekly post for the Loose Bloggers Consortium.  We are a diverse group of bloggers scattered worldwide who post on the same topic every Friday.  We are (in alphabetical order) Ashok, Conrad, me gaelikaa, Grannymar, Helen, Judy, Magpie 11, Maria, Marianna and Rummuser (Ramanaji).  If you have time, please visit the other members for their individual approaches to this subject.  I may mention here that Marianna and Judy will not be posting this week for personal reasons.


  1. I had forgotten about the skipping rhymes... they came later. When I was very young there were only boys about for company.

    I am older than you Gaelikaa, yet you brought back memories to me.

  2. I recall the Johny rhyme very well and you are right that it has Anglo Indian connotations. The English soldiers were called Tommies and the Anglo Indians were called Johnies.

    Being in India, you will no doubt know about the movement to replace these nursery rhymes with English rhymes but with Indian background, quite a few of which have been published by Karadi tales. I like the idea as they are more relevant.

  3. Grannymar, you're not that much older than me; the age difference between us is, I think, no more than about 16 years at most!

    Ramanaji, I thought you might remember that rhyme!

  4. Oh, the skipping rhymes came flooding back with your post! Or the rhymes used for 'balls', do you remember? Two tennis balls being hit against a wall whilst a variety of twists and turns ensued; the rhyme that always sticks...
    Before wee Maggie died,
    She took me by her side,
    She offered me a pair of baggy drawers,
    They were baggy at the knees,
    The bum was full of fleas,
    The only pair that Maggie could afford.


  5. A lot of the nursery rhymes I learned as a child didn't make a lot of sense...I think kids just love the sounds and rhythm. When my daughter was young I used to sing Rockabye Baby to her at bedtime. I would ham it up and she would laugh. We never paid attention to the grim words about the bough breaking and the baby falling. The nonverbal fun was a lot more important than the words.

    I still think of the silly song

    Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
    A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?
    Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
    A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?

    If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
    Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

    It still lifts my spirits to think of it. It's only adults that need a lot of meaning I think.

  6. That is a wonderful post. (Boring comment) when there's much to be said, but am very limited in time.

    (I just got back from a lunch at the Senior Center. The woman across from me salted her food heavily, including the fruit salad---3 times. A judgmental thought here.
    Ursula said I divert from the subject. She's a good teacher but I divert anyway. English & Irish say anyways.)

  7. My kids went to a cooperative preschool where the parents have to help in the classroom twice a month. Twice a month of cutting and pasting was plenty, but it was nice to get to know the kids my kids were hanging out with.

  8. Wow! Apparently old Johnny never made it across the pond from EITHER direction.

    We had whole books full of them, but only a few were always in popular circulation, most of them the same ones you sang. Of course, that is no real surprise, because Americans - other than the First People, of course, the ones we had forgotten until they opened casinos! - were originally settled from European stock.

  9. I enjoyed this. My daughter learned those rhymes in her Kindermusik class, and I was so intrigued, I went looking for the back stories. The historical context is interesting--but in India it would seem to be a strangely colonial enterprise!

    When I lived in Belfast, my boyfriend at the time used to call me Janie Mack. He was great for word play. Which makes me think of Brendan Behan, from your home town. such play conveys a tremendous love of language.

  10. Your mentioning skipping and 'pepper' reminded me. We used to skip with the people on the ends of the rope turning slowly to 'salt, mustard, vinegar' and then shout 'pepper' and turn it as fast as they could. Everyone would count to see how many times you could jump over and when you missed that was your score and time for the next person.

  11. Gaelikaa, is there a nursery rhyme - or suitable swearword - to express when one is ever so slightly cross at things not working out as planned?

    I wrote you a considered reply yesterday only to now find that it must have got lost in transit.

    Since I tend to write on the spur of the moment I won't try to reconstruct what I said; just start at the beginning again (some time later today). The short version of my original reply? What you say, Maria, is - in some parts - heartbreakingly touching.


  12. Oh, teaching the wee ones is the hardest! That's why I stick to high school and teenagers. I don't have the patience you have...good for you!

  13. it is amazing the way so many of these nursery rhymes have remained unchanged in English speaking countries.

    By the way, i would have loved teaching nursery rhymes and doing the crafts that went with them. I know however, that it is not everyone's cup of tea. Still you hung in there for a year. That certainly showed a wonderful determination.

  14. What fun to read about your childhood games... so similar in nature but different in words from the rhymes I knew as a child. This had a very nostalgic feel to it. Thanks for that. :)


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