If you rummage through the dustbin of history for leftovers of the British you will come up with scraps of nursery rhymes about Tom, Tim, Peter and Johnny. The last-mentioned is the most popular, in my opinion. Ask your domestic worker's toddler who goes to “English medium” what she learnt in school and she will promptly trot out “Johnny-Johnny-yes-papa”. I'm guessing, however, that this is not a Colonial original but an Indian cousin's invention.
It was not Johnny the sugar-eater who came to mind when I stared up at the monsoon sky but a dimly remembered, pre-Independence Johnny who walked into our convent school primers with his head firmly tilted skyward. Little Johnny-Head-in-Air was what people called him disparagingly, and he appeared to be a daydreamer who ended up falling into a ditch or something because he didn't look where he was going. The moral of the poem (for it wasn't only stories but also poems that carried those ghastly morals) was that one should not have one's head in the clouds.
Codswallop, I say. What would the world be without its woolgatherers? I think Johnny comes off as a paragon when compared with Tim. The illustration of Poor Tired Tim, in my English textbook, showed a downcast figure with a head that permanently inspected the feet. A modern day Tim would perhaps be a schoolboy with a seemingly brick-filled backpack, or a worker who slogs unreasonably long hours for unreasonably high wages. (Tim would be the ideal name for such a worker; the name works better than Thimma, in a globalised Bangalore.)
Tim should try being Johnny for a day. It would do him a world of good. In fact, Tim should adopt Johnny as his guru. Here's what they would say:
Johnny: Come with me to the rooftop. This is the ideal season for sky-watching.
Tim: Bah! Rains spell wet and grey, wet and grey, nothing else.
Johnny: You have tunnel vision. That's why you see only gloom and doom. Widen your vista. Secure an unimpaired view of the horizon; that's why we've come to the rooftop. Or go outdoors to where you can find a vast swathe of sky. In summer the sky gets bored and cranks out white and blue endlessly; in winter it gets really lazy and produces only a stark cerulean; but in the monsoon it works overtime. Like you, Tim, but with a difference — it's more vibrant and inventive.
Tim: How d'you mean?
Johnny: Look up right now. It's 4 p.m. and it isn't raining and what do you see? For a start, at least six different shades of blue, which makes you realise that the adjective sky-blue is a misnomer. Baby blue, powder blue, I don't know if they even have names for some of those hues. That blue looks like a bird's eggshell.
Tim: And that one's like my grandfather's shirt. Oh, I don't like that bit there: it's the colour of white cotton clothes when you add indigo to them.
Johnny: Moving on, observe the greys. Ash, slate, cigarette smoke…
Tim: The colour of my girlfriend's nylon dupatta…
Johnny: And that greyish white is the exact colour of the pale smoke that would billow out of the engines of the old steam locomotives. Look at the unusual beige. And the cream, like the woollen scarf I once bought, or thick cream that floats on milk. If you wait here till sunset the coppery pinks will come along, bringing with them, if you're lucky, cerise.
Tim: Oh look, high up there's a half-moon already!
Johnny: Observe the infinite shapes. Like cars, guitars, forests, shaving foam…
Tim: Like someone has taken a large wad of cotton wool and torn it in two so that the edges are wispy…
Johnny: Like someone has stretched a photo on the computer, distorting the face, flattening the head…
Tim: Like a row of grey ducklings following the mother duck…
Johnny: Ducklings? Sshh! Don't let your colleagues hear you or they'll tease you for the rest of your life.
Tim: I suppose it boils down to nothing more than condensed water vapour.
Johnny: Nothing more? It can be anything you allow your mind to think it is. And even as you watch it, the picture changes.
Tim: Like those hoardings made of rotating metal prisms so you see three different pictures on the same surface.
Johnny: Only, this surface has an infinite number of pictures.
Tim: How long have we been here?
Johnny: Just five minutes. I could stand here forever.
Tim: I've set my email page to show a background image of the local sky. Let me go look at it.
Johnny: But nothing like the real thing, eh?
Tim: I agree. But I don't have the time.
And Tim says goodbye to Johnny and is soon beavering away at his desk. And Johnny stands on the rooftop, contemplating eternity.
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Keywords: nursery rhymes