An Indian feminist hated the gender stereotypes in nursery rhymes so she wrote her own- Suneera Tandon

“Mother works away all day…Through the week and all Sunday…She always has something to do…She always has some task in view…She bears the burden all alone…” — Mother by Kamla Bhasin.

In the early 1980s, Kamla Bhasin went looking for nursery rhyme books for her young children. But the Indian feminist and social rights worker was disappointed by what she found: In most books, fathers went to work and mothers stayed at home, while little boys went on adventures, and left the little girls behind.

Bhasin herself was then a busy working mother, employed at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations; her partner was a stay-at-home father. So, she took it upon herself to write her own set of rhymes that reflected the progressive ways of her household. The collection was first written in Hindi in the early 1980s and then picked up for publication by UNICEF in 1982. It went on to be translated into five other languages.

 

“I was sad to see that sexism was rampant in books for little children,” Bhasin later wrote in a preface to a 2014 reprint of her book titled Housework is Everyone’s Work—Rhymes for Just and Happy Families. She noted that “most books were about boys and men, about their brave deeds, adventures, aspirations and ambitions…On the other hand, whenever girls and women found a place in these books, they were housekeepers.”

In contrast, Bhasin’s rhymes told the stories of working moms and young girls who played sports just like the boys. Father figures were shown changing diapers, cooking, and even cleaning.

These rhymes aimed to help kids internalise better ideas about gender roles. But Bhasin remembers that the book caused discomfort in certain households, with young children actually beginning to question the lack of participation of their fathers in household work.

Three decades later, Bhasin’s ideas are still revolutionary in a country where embedded patriarchy still largely defines the social roles for men and women, and boys and girls.

 

“While laws have changed to favour women at a faster pace, at the level of the society and us (as individuals), we are far behind our laws,” Bhasin, who’s now an advisor with the feminist network Sangat, told Quartz, emphasising the need for India’s society to accept shifting gender roles.

And one good way to do so is to rediscover Bhasin’s empowering writing. Here’s a selection of her rhymes from a 2014 reprint published by women’s support group Jagori, trans-created from the Hindi by Bina Agarwal and with illustrations by Micky Patel.

 

Mama Dearest Mama by Kamla Bhasin

Mama Dearest Mama

Mama’s back, Mama’s back

She’s brought me books and toys

She’ll tell me lots of stories

Of distant girls and boys.

She’ll teach me many new things

She’ll take me to the park

She knows how rainbows form and

how cats see in the dark.

When mama comes from office

I want to shout hurray!

For mama, dearest mama

I have been good all day.

Girls and Boys

In singing songs or flying kites

In running fast or climbing heights

At school or home, with books or toys

Girls are no way less than boys

Mother

Mother works away all day

Through the week and all Sunday

 

She always has something to do

She always has some task in view

She bears a burden all alone

She wears herself down to the bone

Not a moment does she stay

Mother works away all day.

Don’t you think this is unfair?

Shouldn’t we help and do our share?

Father’s going to dust the chairs

Meeto will now sweep the stairs

I will help to clean the pots

We’ll all wash the clothes in the lot.

Housework’s everyone’s affair

Let’s all help and do our share.

Bhasin married her “feminist” partner back in the 1980s and her household was a rare example of men and women swapping the traditional roles set out for them. Bhasin’s husband took care of the children while she worked, and this set-up was echoed in her rhymes.

Grow Up Baby by Kamla Bhasin

Grow Up Baby by Kamla Bhasin

Grow Up Baby

Our baby, he’s all soiled and wet

On top of that he’s all upset.

Father changes baby’s nappy

Look at him now clean and happy.

Grow up baby, just a bit

Learn to toddle, learn to sit.

No more nappies no more wet

That’s our bouncy joyful pet.

One of Bhasin’s biggest achievements with her rhymes was establishing the idea that domestic chores are not just women’s work. In Washing Clothes and a number of other rhymes, both parents are shown sharing the responsibilities normally reserved for the women of the household.

Washing Clothes

The clouds are gone—it’s sunshine weather

Let’s wash clothes along with mother

Mother will soap them

Father will wring them

And you and I

Will hang em to dry

When they’re dry and ironed crisp

Let’s dress quickly for a trip

It's Sunday by Kamla Bhasin

It’s Sunday by Kamla Bhasin

It’s Sunday

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

No mad rush to get to school

No timetable, no strict rule.

Mother’s home and so is the father

All of us are here together.

Father’s like a busy bee

Making us cups of hot tea.

Mother sits and reads the news

Now and then she gives her views.

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.