Monday, August 04, 2008


'Hickory, dickory dock
A mouse ran up the clock.'

My neighbour's grand-daughter is practising her nursery rhyme, in a sing-song style.

My mind takes me back to a wintry Sunday afternoon seventeen years back in Patiala. It is our first winter. We are sunning ourselves in the lawn in front of our house in Punjabi Bagh. We are all busy in our own pursuits: Hari and Gautam are at play and my mother is tending the plants; Bhawani is giving the finishing touches to the navy blue cardigan and I am trying my hand at the crossword puzzle.

A sudden and hearty 'Hullo!' makes us all stop on our tracks and look up. Beyond the high wall, we can see only the golf cap, grey eyebrows and beady eyes of the owner of the gruff voice with a thick Punjabi accent. We return the salutation and stand up.

The sprightly old gentleman, in a sports jacket, black trousers and sneakers opens the gate and strides in, his wife in tow. The couple presents a study in contrast. Tall, swarthy and well-built, he is every inch the rugged Jat. Petite, frail and fair, she is exquisitely beautiful, though a bit sickly.

'I am Prem Bhasin. And this is my wife, Ava. Moved in recently?' the gruff voice again.

I nod and introduce myself. And then my family.

'We live on the next road.'

'We've been here in Patiala for three months, but haven't seen you so far.'

'Been away in Bangalore with our son for the last three months.' Ava's accent was impeccable and her sweet voice stood in stark contrast against that of Mr Bhasin. Her diction reflected her cultured upbringing.

After spending half an hour with us, they get up to leave. 'Drop in some time, the house number is 153.'

'We will, Mr Bhasin.'

'See you later, then. By the way, call us Prem and Ava.'

I found it odd to address these octogenarians by their first names, but they insisted.

We found Prem and Ava great company. We would meet every week, mostly on Saturday evenings: either the Bhasins would drop in or we would go over. All those evenings were greatly entertaining. Nursing a stiff shot of whisky, Prem would regale me with stories about his young days in what is now Pakistan. Ava would take us to her childhood. She was an instant hit with the kids.

She was the only daughter of an ICS Officer, an Englishman who had married an Indian. Her mother had inherited the family business of supplying coal to the Indian Railways. Born into such an affluent family, Ava had nannies to look after her, charged with the responsibility of grooming her.

The nannies who were in charge of the children had learnt the nursery rhymes from the British women they had worked for. They had their own versions of the nursery rhymes. Some of them were Indianised. Ava would recite them:

Hamti-Damti chadh gaya chhat,
Hamti-Damti gir gaya phat.
Raja, paltan, Rani ke ghodey
Hamti-Damti kabi na jode.

If that was Humpty-Dumpty, see the transformation that Little Miss Muffet undergoes:

Mafiti Mai
Dal main malai
Ghaas mein baithke khai.
Jab bada sa makra
Uski sari ko pakda
Bhagi Mafiti Mai.

Well, I almost forgot the 'Hickory Dickory Dock' one which triggered this piece. It was rendered as:

Dekho-re, dekho-re, dekh
Ghadi pe chadh gaya chooha.
Jab ghanta hua
Ghadi bajayi ek.
To kood pada chooha.
Dekho-re, dekho-re, dekh.

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