“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 the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund 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 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
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 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
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.
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, 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.
This article first appeared on Quartz.