The Mother of the Rhymes

Meena’s piece last week on nursery rhymes set me thinking. How is it that one clearly remembers most of the rhymes that one had heard and learnt when one was between 2 and 5 years of age, while many poems ‘learnt by heart’ subsequently do not seem to pop up as effortlessly? Why is it that the minute I see a toddler, I can’t resist the playing the silly  little game of Johny Johny Yes Papa, or This Little Piggy Went to Market? This is not the case with just English nursery rhymes, but equally with the Gujarati rhymes that I heard as a child. We may not have understood the words, (and often the words themselves were nonsensical), but it was the repetitive rhythm and rhyme that frolicked and danced in the head till they were firmly entrenched for life.

Today many studies have shown that nursery rhymes are very powerful influencers in early childhood development and education. At an age when children have limited attention spans, the brevity and repetitiveness make them fun to recite again and again. In the process, children develop the practice of listening and speaking; their ears and tongues become sensitive to the rhythm and patterns of language, and their vocabulary is enriched. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.

Thinking about nursery rhymes also led me to remember that as children our nursery rhyme books were titled Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. While Meena discovered the  curious origins of some popular rhymes, for hundreds of years it was thought that all the popular nursery rhymes were written by an author called Mother Goose. Over the years scholars tried to find out who exactly was this Mother Goose?

Mother Goose is so old that no one knows for sure whether she was a real or a fictional character. There are several legends, dating back to the tenth century, related to this character. One theory is that she was based on an actual person—the second wife of King Robert II of France who was nicknamed Queen Goose-Foot because of her misshapen feet. Her real name was Bertha of Burgundy; she was also known as Berthe la fileuse (Bertha the Spinner) as she was believed to be a wonderful storyteller, spinning tales that enraptured children, though she did not have children of her own. But historians have said that this is but a legend and not a fact.

The character of Mother Goose seems to have made her first appearance when French author Charles Perrault published a collection of rhymes and tales inspired by the old oral traditions of French and European folklore. The collection, in French, included rhymes as well as the classic fairy tales like CinderellaSleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. The book, published in 1697 under his son’s name, was titled Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé). It was subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye). And it became known by this subtitle. Perrault’s publication is believed to be the first authenticated starting-point for Mother Goose stories.

The English-speaking audience was introduced to Mother Goose through the translation of Charles Perrault’s book by Robert Samber.  First published in 1729, the book was titled Histories of Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose. The illustration on the cover of the English edition of the book showed an old woman telling tales to a group of children under a sign that says “Mother Goose’s Tales.” Some say this art is what started the Mother Goose legend. In subsequent editions and publications she was also depicted as a sweet elderly woman who magically travelled on the back of a gander or male goose. Thus the only rhyme in which she appears as a character goes

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Somehow, over time, the sweet old lady metamorphosed into the legendary human-sized goose with thick glasses and a bonnet. 

Mother Goose was not widely known in America until after 1786 when a publisher Maby Isaiah Thomas reprinted Samber’s book under the same title. But this gave rise to another theory that the original Mother Goose was an American lady from Boston whose name was Mary Goose, and who used to sing ditties to her grandchildren and other children. The legend spread and her grave became a tourist attraction, where visitors toss coins, even today, for good luck!

Whether fact or fiction, Mother Goose has been synonymous with childhood rhymes for generations, and remains popular even today. So much so that in America, 1 May is celebrated as Mother Goose Day. This started in 1987 when a book titled Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, tracing the history of the character’s evolution was published. This day reminds yet another generation of parents of the continuing magic of rhymes.

In naming a national day as Mother Goose Day, America has recognised the value of rhymes in child development, and uses this day to remind parents and educators of this. This is with specific reference to the well-known and popular English rhymes. Perhaps we should take a cue from this and also recall, as well as revive, the great wealth of traditional rhymes in our own regional languages. Sadly many of these have been part of the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation; many have not been compiled and published. And with the craze for everything “English medium” our children are rote learning only English rhymes from Mother Goose. In the age of nuclear families and YouTube offerings, it is sad that young children today are missing out on rhymes in their own language. If only every child could have a Nani Goose or Dadi Goose to enrich and enliven their life and language. 

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

 

Srinivasa Ramanujan: A Book and A Movie

April 26th marked the 101st death anniversary of one of 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, Srinivasa Ramanujan. By coincidence, I was finishing ‘The Indian Clerk’ by David Leavitt at just about this time. And then went on to watch ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’.

When it comes to the book, even with its various digressions, the mystic mathematical genius of Ramanujan comes through. The trials and tribulations of lower-middle class lad from the deep South of India, steeped in religious tradition, totally unprepared for the England of the 1910s, are heart-rending. The mathematical genius is an uncomfortable social being–moody, vulnerable, lonely, awkward, under-confident. Never mind food for the heart and soul in terms of companionship and friendship, he does not have enough food to keep in good health. First his strict vegetarian regime and various taboos make it imperative to cook for himself. But more seriously, as the First World War breaks out, he does not even get basic rations, vegetables and fruits. This, coupled with the cold, had lasting impacts on his health, which not only led to serious bouts of illness and hospital stays, but his tragically untimely death at the age of 32.

Away from anything familiar, longing for his wife, and with only a few Indian friends, how lonely life must have been!

But whatever the body, the heart and the soul missed, the mind just went on! And in Prof Hardy who was instrumental in bringing him to Cambridge, England, he had an intellectual companion, albeit they did not always agree on ‘ways and means’. Ramanujan’s refusal to provide systematic proof for his intuitive mathematical assertions led to many an argument. His insistence that his mathematical claims and insights were written on his tongue by the Goddess Namagiri irritated and baffled Hardy.

Ramanujan’s legacy was in the form of 37 published papers, as well as three notebooks and a ‘lost’ notebook (discovered only in 1976) with approximately 4,000 mathematical claims, most without proofs. Almost all of these have now been proved, in the century and more after his death. They continue to inspire modern-day mathematics and expand its boundaries.

I got a sense of all this from the book.

Coming to the movie, starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan, I found it sadly unsatisfying. To begin with, I could not reconcile the tall, debonair and poised Patel with my image of the short, stout, badly dressed and awkward Ramanujan. However good the actor, there have to be some physical similarities. It cannot be that the first Indian at hand is cast in a movie with an Indian protagonist. Ben Kingsley’s looks were as important as his acting, in bringing the Mahatma to life.

And then, small trivial details about life and mores in Tamilnadu of a century ago. Just a little fact-checking could have made it so much better.

Though both are for a general audience and cannot by definition get into too much math, of course a book can deal a little better with math than a movie can. So there is that too.

Both play up the ‘saas-bahu’ drama between Ramanujan’s mother and wife to the hilt, the movie a little more sympathetic to the MIL than the book.

All in all, worth it for anyone to spend some time on. It will surely awaken a sense of wonder about the unimaginable achievements of a short life—not only blazing paths that no Indian had trod, but impacting the course of mathematics for times to come. And give a sense of genius which is beyond rational explanation.

‘Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigal, is a more serious, and hence somewhat heavier read. There is also a movie titled ‘Ramanujan’, which I have yet to see.

–Meena