Mother Goose Goes to India: Culturally Diverse Nursery Rhymes

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…


Pirate Stew: Neil Gaiman Updates The Cat in the Hat

Pirate Stew, written by Neil Gaiman and exuberantly illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a new addition to the corpus of quirky stories about adventures in babysitting.  One of the funniest is  Alan and Janet Ahlberg’s Burglar Bill (1977), the tale of a housebreaker who accidentally pinches a baby.  Melinda Long and David Shannon may have been the first to cast a bold buccaneer as the antihero of Pirates Don’t Change Diapers (2007).

Gaiman gleefully exploits the idea that pirates have to be among the most unsuitable of all possible childminders.  Those running away from home to lead a life of crime on the high seas make dubious role models with their wild hair, bad teeth, huge hoop earrings, and ill-concealed sharp weapons.  No one expects much in the way of nurture from pirates, mayhem being their stock in trade.    Even if they stayed in one place for long, what would move them to register on Which raises the unanswered question in Pirate Stew:  how did the parents hire Long John McRon, a pirate ship’s cook to take care of the children for an evening?   He has the requisite peg leg and crutch plus a hook for one hand, but is too roly-poly to pull off the feats of strength Stevenson’s Long John Silver was capable of.  This Long John comes prepared to fix the children dinner, with  a map rolled around a wooden spoon stowed in his enormous hat and apron pockets bulging with what look like bottles of spirits. Doomed indeed.  Their parents might have well as picked the Cat in the Hat out of the lineup on Babysitters Registry.  Shortly after they leave for an evening out,  someone knocks at the door.  Thing One and Thing Two?

Worse.  A crew of blithe buccaneers, among them a granny with blue-rinsed hair, a comely queen with a diverse court of fair maidens, a fiddler, and two that look like Smee and Captain Hook.  There’s also a chap got up in makeshift deerslayer’s cap looking for a Sherlock Holmes story.Dinner preparations founder when the crew decides that beans on toast, spaghetti, or scrambled eggs are beyond them.  Long John quickly takes charge and declares that they will all feast on pirate stew, guaranteed to chase away the blues.   Simmered in a large container like  stone soup, it calls for indigestible things made of wood or metal  like figure heads and doubloons, thickened with parrot seeds, and seasoned with limes and mermaid’s tears.

Although no magic was used in the test kitchen, the uproarious song that accompanies the addition of ingredients to the pot sounds suspiciously like something a coven of witches would chant brewing up a potion.  The last line, “You’ll become a pirate too” makes little sister, who is no fool, put two and two together.   They prudently go without dinner.

Now fortified with bowls of steaming green goo, the crew commandeers the house, magically transformed into a flying ship, for a trip into town, where they swagger into the local donut shop prepared to steal the makings for a party.  Tattooed Sally the proprietor proposes to let them have the day-old ones for free instead of throwing them out.  The pirates graciously pay for dessert and the famished children fill up on the junk food which is their right any night a babysitter takes charge.

Long John drops the crew off at the Saucy Treasure Chest for a nightcap and steers the vessel back home with a few minutes to spare.The parents are so delighted with Long John’s report that the kids were good as gold that they overlook the state of the kitchen.   Still hungry after an unsatisfactory meal out, the mother spots their children’s untouched bowls of pirate stew and she and her husband dive in, deaf to their children’s pleas to find another midnight snack.

  And that is how those two old heads on young shoulders come to be pressed on board the pirate ship…

Chris Riddell’s exotic but adorable crew of age, gender and race inclusive misfits  give the story its swagger as well as a counter narrative provided by the children’s refusal to be play along, from when Long John McRon hands them his card, to when their father, now captain of the ship, gives the command to set sail.   Gaiman’s serviceable verse just enough “mateys,” “aaar,” and  “me hearties” to qualify this picture book as obligatory reading for International Talk Like a Pirate Day.   Pirate Stew would have been a better yarn if it had stirred up any sense of urgency or danger, like that nail-biter The Cat in the Hat where it seems all too possible that the mischief-maker will not be able to turn the house right side up before the children’s mother walks through the door.