Nursery rhymes are popularly considered as a type of universal children’s literature. Like folk and fairy tales, they belong to a genre that can be compared across countries and cultures because of their distinctive structures of combined motifs and themes. They are presumed to be timeless because they are anonymous, their origins misty, and meanings mysterious. Any child, regardless of origin, race, and gender, is welcome in Mother Goose’s realm.
The English-speaking world has inherited one of the most robust corpuses of children’s lore in Western Europe, a merry, ragtag mass of ditties, characters rhymes, lullabies, tongue-twisters, counting out rhymes, singing games, riddles, mixed up with tags from songs, ballads, plays for adults. Many are not as ancient as popularly supposed and rarely is there hard evidence that they allude to horrific events like the plague. Since the publication in 1842 of James Orchard Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England, traditional oral children’s lore has become an English genre of poetry in its own right because of all the illustrated anthologies and picture books of rhymes that have been published.
Because collections of English nursery rhymes have dominated the market for so long, and there has been a movement to acquaint children with oral lore from different cultures and languages. A picture book of culturally diverse nursery rhymes caught my eye in Barnes & Noble last week. Mother Goose Goes to India was compiled by Kabir and Surishtha Sehgal. Surishtha’s parents read them to her growing up in India and in turn she introduced her children. The mother-son team have given their beloved rhymes an Indian twist by substituting key English words with Hindi ones, glossed below. Details from Indian folk are incorporated into Wazza Pink’s vividly colorful illustrations to be discovered.
All the warm good humor radiating from the pages can’t quite compensate for the shortcomings of the concept. No changes were made to “Humpty Dumpty” beyond substituting “raja’s” for “king’s” in the third line, so it was left up to the illustrator to give the rhyme more Indian flavor. The rajas in the lower left are so light-skinned that they could be Europeans, when surely they are not. The other characters are clothed in Indian garments, but no notes explain who is wearing what. Humpty wears a belt around his waist as if he were a hard-boiled egg decorated for a holiday meal, as he takes the tumble to the ground. To his left, Mother Goose in a sleeveless jacket and skirt claps her wings and to his right a man who might be a dancer in an unusual hat strikes a pose.
One of the most successful transformations in the collection is “Jack Be Nimble:”
Jai be nimble, / Jai be free, / Jai jump over / The mombatee
“Jai,” a boy’s name in Hindi that alliterates with “Jack,” nicely preserves the original’s punchy rhythm. He vaults over the lit candle in a lavender kurta with a stand-up collar and loose trousers. The second line has been rewritten so that it rhymes with the Hindi word for candle, “mombattee.” Chanting the rhyme out loud would probably delight a small child too young for an explanation that probably came from candle leaping, which was a game and a form of fortunetelling in England for centuries, although the text did not appear in print until 1825.
“This Little Pig Went to Market” is still the best known of all the toe or finger rhymes, but it seems an odd choice for this collection. Here is the Indian version:
This little sooar went to bazaar, ‘ This little sooar stayed home. / This little sooar had roast gosht,/ This little sooar had none. / And this little sooar cried, “Wee-wee-wee,” / All the way home!
Thinking about the English piggy gobbling down roast beef may make a reader feel squeamish, but it is even more gross here, given the pig’s status as an unclean animal to Hindus and Muslims. Presumably people born into those faiths who are no longer unobservant may not feel bound by the taboo, but as an outsider, it feels wrong or even insensitive.
Can the Sehgals’ experiment with Mother Goose be described as culturally diverse? Are the resulting illustrated rhymes to be considered subversions of English nursery rhymes, as the Kirkus Review suggested? The edited versions respect the originals too much to support a such claim, in my opinion. The Sehgals did not set out to turn this imaginary world upside down while trying to create an enjoyable introduction to Indian culture through rhymes very young children can be presumed to be familiar. Still, “Garam Cross Buns” are neither authentically Indian or English… Or is that a pedantic quibble, when any child will recognize it as a delectable sweet pastry?
Mother Goose Goes to India could easily be used in a story hour, with a related activity of teaching Hindi words to a multi-generational audience. But unless the facilitator is South Asian or has some real knowledge about modern Indian culture, it is hard to go beyond that. Without glosses at the back of the book providing some context for the adult reader, the mass of details impress chiefly through the colors and patterning, which says “exotic” (minus the sexual overtones), a way into a culture we are now consider suspect. If I were reading the book with a child, I would be hard pressed to anticipate questions or pick out things to explain what’s “Indian” about them. Cobbling short answers of dubious accuracy about the lotus or paisley or the griddle for baking naan obviously does not to justice to the culture which the Seghals and Pink are offering a portal. This has always been the dilemma of writing and illustrating introductions to non-Western countries and people simple enough for a little child to grasp. With a nearly impossible task, the best intentions in the world go so only far. Figuring out ways to do better are elusive indeed…