I remember, I remember
A little girl I used to know
She was bright-eyed and joyful
Her spirit had a special glow
She was filled with compassion
And a courage that fairly roared
The world was her oyster
She had found her wings and soared
But then I lost sight of that
Special one when I left home
To let marriage settle me
In its no nonsense folds
Time went on as it does
And more and more I found myself
Thinking of the little girl
A tender nostalgia for a friend
I looked for her on winter trips
That I occasionally made back home
But she seemed to have melted
Into the fading mists of dawn
When life came full cycle and
My youngest daughter was wed
I came back to write and roost
To my childhood homestead
There one balmy summer day
As I began to write
The story that had been hiding away
In the tumultuousness of life
The little girl peeked out at me
Not from behind the door
But from the page that I was writing on
From the ink on it that flowed
That day I met her again
Her happy laugh warmed my heart
Even as she flitted in and out
Of my vision at the start
But then she gently held my hand
As I wrote page after page
And I remembered, I remembered
As I found myself again.
I look at his face. Now lined with deep wrinkles; each one a surly witness to a deed committed a long time ago. Deeds? How many of his perverse thoughts had he acted out since then?
I look at his face as he smiles. The gleam of his sins unhidden, unbidden, pierces the atmosphere like flying shards of broken glass. They fall everywhere – treacherous, menacing and so sly. Of course, no one sees them but me. I see each insidious piece as clearly as I remember what happened so many years ago.
I look at the face of the old family retainer. The man who has spent over twenty five years in my parents’ home. My home. The man I have known since I was seven years old. The man who I now detest. But my hate is private. Painfully private. It roils and screams in the most secret recesses of my mind. And my heart keeps pace. Racing, pounding, pulsing with revulsion and frustration. That combination is such an odd one. It sucks the essence out of you. It saps you of your sense of self and leaves you feeling hollow and wretched. You try and pull yourself together and then you’re knocked down again by a flood of ugly memories. The deed was singular, the one and only. But the memory has multiplied, spread like a fungus around the edges of my hippocampus. After thirty years, most times now it lies quietly, unobtrusively. At other times, it flies at me taking over my being. Like now. Because he’s here. In my home.
He has come to pay his respects to my parents. He has done this periodically since his retirement twelve years ago. I look at his face. I look at the ugly caricature of a smile pasted on it. I look around me at the faces of my mother and my father. They are smiling back. I look away. I pull myself together and while I look back at the scene, pretending to not remember, pretending to play along – I have perfected this dreadful deception over the last three decades – my mind is assaulted, attacked with a force that is visceral and raw. The multiplied, grotesquely teeming memories of that day march in with their battering rams.
I was eleven. My young body was just budding. I became aware of that fact on that day. He said he wanted to show me something. He took me into the kitchen. That kitchen is also embedded in my memory like a gravestone. He squatted on the floor and pulled me close. Then he showed me pictures: Naked men and women entwined with one another in black and white, stared back into my bewildered eyes. He pulled me closer. He was saying something to me.
I suddenly became aware of the weight of his arms around my waist. Just a minute ago, he was the trusted old family retainer, a protector, another father figure in the house, someone who was still watching me grow up. Someone who, in our household was given all the respect one does to an older relative. Even in my all-cloaking innocence, I suddenly felt anxious. Afraid. Even though the figments of my apprehension were like unclear wraiths flitting about in my mind, intuition had kicked in. I knew this was not right. And yet, he was Kabeer chacha*; the man who served as the ward and protector of the children of the house – me and my brother – when my parents were not at home. The man who was the embodiment of paternal care and concern. He was now also the man who had in the last few minutes molested my young mind.
I pulled away. My instinct told me to do so. I also somehow knew that I had to behave normally. I asked him where he had got the photos. I remember, he smiled then. Now when I am assailed by the memory, I can see the ugly perversity under his saccharinus smile as he said he had many more that he would show me. I also remember the one and only thing I managed to say to him then: “I don’t want to see any more. I don’t like them”. And that was it. I’m not sure if my sense of being violated could be any more tormenting or distressing if that initial predatory act had been followed by more. I’m not even sure if I consider myself lucky that that was the extent of the ravagement. The only thing I am sure of is that I still carry the brutalising memory and also the overwhelming burden of keeping it a secret.
I look at his face now. I feel an acid revulsion. But I can’t show it. The whole family treats him like one of their own. I’m repulsed by that realization but I can’t show it. I was too young, too naive, too unprepared to have processed the vile act when it transpired. And now, thirty years after it happened, the burden of tradition, shame and the messiness of an aftermath has further paralysed me.
Such is the double edged sword that is the south Asian equation between the young and the old. The right to speak and to be heard is the absolute privilege of the latter. The dutiful acquiescence, the respectful submission of the young, to the gracious, the bizarre and even the evil inclinations that the respected elder might bring to this equation is also absolute.
He suddenly takes my eight year old niece’s hand and pulls her to him. He is sitting on his haunches just as he had done thirty years ago and he’s holding her close, just as he had gripped me thirty years ago. I freeze. But only for a few seconds. The bile rises to my throat followed by the tightening noose of a sob. I choke back both. I can feel my eyes stinging but I smile at little Sania and tell her it is time to bake our brownies. I take her hand and pull her away. Even as I walk away with her, I feel the hot tears as they spill down my face. I wipe them away as fast as they come. No one should see. No one can know. It is still my private affliction and I will live with it as best as I can. But I also know now that I can protect the rest of the children of the family in our home.
I feel a blaze in my heart – cleansing, renewing and strengthening. I look at Sania’s lovely little face shining with excitement and the pure joy of childhood and I grin at her. I kiss the top of her head and we take over the kitchen.
* Chacha: An Urdu term meaning uncle. Also used as a term of respect for an older man.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!
A lovely old quatrain, filled with the promise of blood and gore (or at the very least, massive quantities of ill-fated yolk!). Or how about:
Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.
And down will come Baby, cradle and all!
The doomful melodrama spanning from the cradle to the grave was never more succinctly played out than in the above poem. Or then:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after!
Another rhyme, another disquieting tragedy at the heart of which are the children – always the children, as its main characters. The more of these nursery rhymes you recall, the more you’ll be reminded of the copiously sinister top note in almost all of them. Ranging from racism to bigotry to plain old sadism, these rhymes from our childhood embodied them all. Try reciting a few others like, Eenie meenie miny mo”, “London bridge is falling down”, “Sing a song of sixpence”, “Little Miss Muffet”, “Old Mother Hubbard” and “Goosey goosey gander” – all straight up threatening or woeful or just plain evil! Some of them are actually pithy, blackhearted little odes to actual personages and their peculiar quirks, like Mary the 1st’s religious malevolence – (Three Blind Mice), King Edward the 1st’s cruel avarice – (Baa Baa Black Sheep), the wonton love affairs of the royal European courts and its many colorful denizens; and also a myriad plagues, witches and famines. These rhymes were akin to recording history for quick, unprejudiced recall. And so, what better way than as a child’s beloved refrain, repeated ad nauseam, passed on from generation to generation; the rhyme and meter keeping it true to its original foreboding self.
Indeed, for many of us, nursery rhymes were probably the first few words we ever uttered with any pleasure after the general familial ID allocations of Mama and Papa. I still remember the infinite pleasure, comfort and toddler-centredness (there has to be such a thing!) I derived from repeating these much-loved childhood rhymes. And once the novelty of “she already knows all her nursery rhymes” or “tell aunty what happened to Humpty Dumpty” wore off, the adults also became innocently, resignedly tangled in our whole love affair with these refrains. The slightly disturbing thing is, had they known of the morbid origins of the rhymes we were so lovingly taught, how many would have still thought, let well enough alone; if it makes the kids happy, let them sing of old men being thrown down rickety stairs and babies falling out of their tree top cradles. And they wouldn’t be entirely to blame. Generations of painting the malignant with the brush of hunkydoriness quite entirely dilutes outage and indeed, skews the moral compass itself: Atrocity takes on a happy vagueness; racism becomes invisible; patriarchy adroitly sits atop any semblance of gender equality, and so on. And so now we are all quite happily complicit in perpetuating the crazed ramblings of 400 years ago, cloaked as they are in the rhythm of rhyme and meter. The nursery rhymes of our childhood, thus made eternal, are now forever rolling and roiling in the ether.
The attached link details some of the social madness that inspired many of the most beloved nursery rhymes that we grew up with: https://www.vagabomb.com/10-Dark-and-Disturbing-Origins-of-Popular-Nursery-Rhymes/
Now that we know, seems like it may be time to change the lyrics at least, while keeping the nostalgia-laden tunes/ meter alive. That too requires a break from the inertia of tradition. I’ll begin the Great Re-hash with the below rendering of a favourite. Any other shakers of the status quo, give your favourite a go.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great thought:
What if all the kings horses
And all the kings men,
Danced a nice foxtrot
Across Goblin’s Glen!