Rings of roses

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By Indranie Deolall

We played endless outdoor games as lithe children in South Georgetown, running around in the setting sunshine with our bare hands and feet blackened from hours of slicing worn bicycle tyres into jagged joined lengths for Chinese jump rope and skipping.

With no televisions nor gadgets to confine us to a screen, our mixed bunch would spend spare time screening the kitchen, jostling for tidbits, and recycling materials such as matchboxes and bottle caps, for crafting into wheeled toys. We indulged in physical activities like hopscotch, leaping one-legged through the chalk lines on the warm concrete with its crazy network of clay-crammed cracks.

“Gam” was a strategic sport of marbles but pitched with the fat seeds of the juicy “awara” my favourite fibrous orange-hued palm fruit or its more-prized giant cousin, the yellowish-green “kuru” that bore a leathery coat and the subtle scent of sweet coconuts. From the Astrocaryum vulgare family, the trees are native to the rich Amazonian areas, so the harvest of heavy bunches often came by boat to the coastland’s markets.

Depending on the season, we haggled fiercely over coloured rubber bands currency also used for stringing the stretching rectangles of Chinese jump rope, trading the finest palm seed specimens that had survived our daily battles. We polished away until the tough cores sparkled in the light, only to experience early heartbreak when a particular beauty shot from the hole and broke into milky pieces, felled by a competitor’s deadly aim.

Hit by another prolonged blackout, books spent, and nearly impossible to re-read against the thin, tired flame of a slumping paraffin candle or flickering lamp, we would sigh, remembering the expensive batteries being too low to power Radio Demerara as the music sputtered into smoking silence.

If our security-conscious parents heard us and took pity, we would race into the yard, to compete in “Dog and the Bone,” to scream limericks like “Ring a Ring of Roses,” or scatter in the darkness to the elusive search and find challenge of “Hot bread and butter”/”Burn House” and the adrenaline race and rush of “One, two, three … Redlight.”

Gathered under the stars, my father would point out the “Three Wise Men,” other constellations, and if we were lucky the glowing streak of a short-lived meteor, to admire and make a secret wish. We would hold hands tightly in a circle, to dance and sing with the uninhibited gusto and lusty lungs of the carefree young, “Ring-a-ring o’roses, A pocket full of posies, Atchoo. Atchoo! We all fall down,” demonstrating the last part with such excess that we would roll around in mock ritual agony, loudly feigning the Black Death’s painful stranglehold, until one of us rudely reincarnated and burst into an uncontrollable and contagious fit of the giggles.

Urban legend claims the composition originally described the 17th century-Great Plague of London, but many experts now reject this as unlikely. A common nursery rhyme or folksong, it appeared in print around 1881, although versions were popular in parts of Europe earlier. Some liken the “roses” to the tell-tale red blotches on the skin, while the “posies” are the sweet-smelling flowers people carried to try to ward off the sickness. “Atishoo!” or in our Guyanese case ‘Atchoo!’ refers to the sneezing fits of the sick, and “We all fall down” is a euphemism for them dying.

The American version omits the sneezing for “Ashes! Ashes!” signifying cremation, while the Indians reportedly recite in a strange role reversal “Husha busha!” and the Maoris exclaim, “Kohuru! Kohuru! We all fall down.” The last two lines are sometimes varied to “Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! We’ve all tumbled down.”

Snopes.com, the online fact-checking website cited the view of Canadian Folklorist Philip Hiscock that the more likely explanation is to be found in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the 19th century, in Great Britain and North America.

“Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the ‘play-party.’ Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too. Some modern nursery games, particularly those which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games,” he said.

My two children are adults so we can no longer play “Ring of Roses” and the rhyme games they loved as youngsters, choosing instead to linger over Monopoly, cards, and gardening in this terrible time of the latest plague pandemic the COVID-19 virus and compulsory lockdown. Over 3.2 million individuals are infected worldwide, nearly 230 000 dead, and about a million recovered, as figures climb daily.

Even as the Trinidadian authorities are on the lookout for COVID-19 “play parties” of the worst kind following the charging of several people apprehended at a guest house, nine persons have been detained for gathering in a group that exceeded five, at the funeral service for a murder victim.

In Guyana, “V” is for virus and vote-rigging, with prophets and politicians warning about the dearth and death of democracy. Another recount of March 2, 2020, GECOM-botched poll-results is to be observed from a still-unannounced date by an unnamed group of poor CARICOM election observers picked from several island states, expected in the country soon on a special charter, according to media reports.

Given the aborted previous mission which was subjected to the sudden fumigation of the Arthur Chung Conference Centre and a surprise court challenge, we can but look to the heavens and pray there is less “play partying” and games as the two major political rivals continue to try running rings around each other and the exhausted nation.

We have long become the election laughing stock of the region, including for the latest estimate of a minimum 33,000 scarce face masks required for the extended recount, among the guidelines imposed by the National COVID-19 Task Force. Personnel would have to wear a new mask every 30-60 minutes. Just ten counting stations have been approved using a total of 132 persons working 10-hour days.

Somehow, many seem to hope in manifest optimism, that with the same key figures in charge of the overdue operation, we will have a different final result from the disastrous display of March madness, when there were more rings than local and international observers could count, and viruses, old and new waited to spread distrust, dismay, and death.

*ID is looking in vain for “awara” in the twin islands. The seed is used by indigenous Amazonians to make simple rings that are a symbol of resistance to the established order.

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