As a kid spending her summers in my grandmother’s drafty old house in a town where nothing ever happened, my one source of fun was my mother’s elder sister. My Auntie S was, to put it simply, awesome.
She taught me to waltz and cheat at cards. She took me to the movies and bought me all the popcorn I wanted to eat without once telling me that it was sure to send me straight to the hospital. She bought me the garish outfits (neon blue spandex cycling shorts! paired with a violent pink boat-necked top!) my mother wouldn’t so much as let me try on. She took me to the beach and bought me hot peanuts from the roadside vendor without loudly imagining his personal hygiene habits in excruciatingly appetite-reducing terms. She fed me with her own hands when my mother would have told me to stop acting like a stupid baby. She would ferry me about on public transport – the joy of those autorickshaw rides till today overshadows any theme park ride I’ve ever encountered. She thought up adventurous meals that ought to have instantly triggered my gag reflex but instead were incredibly delicious especially when served with the air of a forbidden treat. She let me paint her face with the extremely expired make-up (bright, ungodly orange was a hot shade in the 1960s!) she kept expressly for that purpose in an ancient biscuit tin hidden in the cubby hole behind her dressing room mirror.
And she taught me the campfire songs of her youth.
I couldn’t sing a single one of them back to you today but there were summers when my grandma and my mother could have cheerfully chopped her into itty bitty pieces for teaching me those things. I don’t know what kind of songs they’re teaching the young ‘uns these days in Girl Scouts or in the Girl Guides (if they even have them anymore), but in the 1950s, they liked them loud and effervescent. They were songs that you could sing if you were tone deaf and still have a good time.
Whatever music might be about in general, those Guide songs were about the girls and their enthusiasm more than anything else. I can only imagine what it must have been like, to let an entire troop of conservatively-reared South Indian girls loose on rowdy songs amplified many times over by the freedom they must have felt at escaping the confines of their home and its restrictive upbringing. Even if they were in the charge of equally strict nuns. And when my aunt taught me those songs, consciously or unconsciously, she was teaching me the only way she knew to sing them – with a heart brimming with joy! – as much as the music and lyrics.
And boy, did I sing the heck out of those songs! At the top of my voice from sun-up to sun-down you would hear me marching about, singing classics like, “This is the way we play our drums, play our drums, play our drums… ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum, ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum, ba-dum ba-dum ba-DUM!” I serenaded my expressionless grandmother with it. I sang it for my father and my uncles in the evening. I followed my mother around the house, asking her to properly appreciate my skills. I offered to teach it to my older cousins.
I was a one-child Girl Guide slander machine. Seriously. Fifteen rounds of ba-DUMs before breakfast would drive any sane person to contemplate murder and mayhem. Or unkind thoughts about any organization capable of unleashing such horror upon all familydom.
But the song that really got everyone’s goat – the one that finally made my mother beg her sister to leave my repertoire of songs incomplete was a song about a kookaburra.
It has often mystified me as an adult – why would a Guides troop in 1950s South India be singing songs about an Australian bird? But then I figured it must be some kind of colonial hangover (kind of like the Guides themselves, hey?). But as it turns out “Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree” is a song with special meaning for the Guides. And thus my aunt, an active member of the Guides, duly learned it by the campfire.
Now I don’t know if the Irish nuns who taught the song to my aunt had something against the Australians or whether they thought the song lacked pizzazz when transported to its exotic new home in the south of India – or if my aunt just thought I would like it better if she doctored the lyrics a little. In any event, when I went searching for the song today, it was definitely missing its most important lyric – the infamous chorus that rendered it so hideous to my family and cemented it in my own memory as the ultimate childhood song:
“Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, hee-hee, hee-hee, Hoo! HOO!”
What’s truly weird is that as I look at the lyrics of the actual song, I recognize the words and the tune comes very naturally to my lips. It’s definitely the song I used to sing all those years ago. And I can see that there isn’t a single place in there where that chorus could possibly go.
And yet…! Curses! That kookaburra is laughing at me now!