Mahabub Mere

I was on election duty to Mahabubnagar quite a while back, and still carry the taste of its tangy cuisine on my tongue! Memories of another day…..

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The second-largest district of erstwhile, undivided Andhra Pradesh–after Ananthapur–Mahabubnagar was formerly known as “Rukmammapeta” and “Palamooru”. The name was changed to Mahabubnagar on 4th December,1890, in honour of Mir Mahbub Ali Khan Asaf Jah VI, the Nizam of Hyderabad [1869-1911 A. D.]. The name is apt. It is easy to fall in love with Mahabubnagar’s laid-back lifestyle, its rugged terrain and its serene ambience, which seems untouched by the march of centuries. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that the area had acquired notoriety for being a hot-bed of extremist activities. In subdued tones, people recall how the then Superintendent of Police, Mr. Pardeshi Naidu, was killed in a land-mine attack in 1993. Policemen prefer to move around in “mufti”[plainclothes] and try to be as inconspicuous as possible. Violence lingers under the deceptively calm surface. Luckily, during my visit, the district shows us its happy and carefree face. Hakuna Matata!

Mahabubnagar yields its charms reluctantly. “But there is nothing to see here”, is the general, almost plaintive, refrain. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt. For a mere three kilometres from the town centre lies the sylvan retreat of Pilalla Marri. Pillala, the locals inform us, stands both for branches and children, while Marri means banyan.

At this scenic locale sprawls a seven-hundred -year old majestic banyan tree, which has spread with joyous abandon. How many lovers’ trysts it must have witnessed! How much it must have enjoyed the chatter of naughty children! History’s companion now stands silent. Sombre and brooding, it guards its secrets well. The silence is punctuated by birdsong; the green, in a myriad shades, soothes the eye; and the dappled sunlight and pure air rest and refresh the senses.

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It is time to venture further afield. Sixty kilometres, to be precise. Here the Jurala dam strives to contain the swiftly -flowing and turbulent waters of the river Krishna. With some trepidation, we board a coracle, having heard of four schoolchildren who were swept to their deaths when their fragile and rickety craft overturned. This basket-shaped boat, constructed of leather and bamboo, proves to be sturdier than it looks and no mishap occurs. A-sailing do we go!

We next turn our attention to that most alluring and frustrating of sports: fishing. The scene is idyllic but there is one major snag: the fish are in no mood to bite! In desperation, we ask the local fishermen to pull in their nets and loan us their catch– that we may strike fake poses for the camera!

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Our angling expedition having ended on a decidedly fishy note, we put that disappointment behind us and head for the hills.

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The road unwinds straight as a ribbon through fields of gently-swaying cotton before it reaches the quaintly-named town of Achampet. Scarcely ten kilometers later, it veers sharply to the right and climbs steeply to a wooden retreat which houses the temple of Uma-Maheshwara. The “aarti,” or prayer service, amidst the peal of temple bells, offers moments of peace, serenity and reflection.

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We move outside, where a group of excited, chattering monkeys compete for the gram which we offer them. They keep a wary eye on the two Alsatians, belonging to the tea-stall owner, whose sudden, sharp attacks on the fleet-footed apes has all the makings of an enjoyable comic opera.

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By now my hosts, who had begun with a ‘nothing to see here’ sentiment, had also warmed up to the idea of showcasing their region. They enthusiastically whisked me off to Gadwal, about 15 kilometres from the Jurala Dam project site. Little could I have imagined the treasures this dusty town held. It is home to the weavers of the Gadwal saree. I am awestruck by the beauty of their craft. I learn that the speciality of a traditional Gadwal saree is that the body is woven in cotton threads, while the border and ‘pallu’ are in vibrant contrasting coloured silk with ‘zari’ designs, woven separately and then attached to the saree using the traditional ‘Kuttu’ technique. Unable to stop myself, I indulge my shopaholic instincts and buy a gift for my wife–a beautiful, rust-coloured cotton saree with a purple silk border glittering with its intricate “zari’ pattern. Significantly lighter in the pocket but happy and satisfied, I decide to head home. The smile on my wife’s face on receiving the gift– priceless!

A gorgeous Gadwal saree.

A week has flown by. All too soon, it is time to leave. But something in my heart whispers, not “goodbye”, but “au revoir”. Till we meet again!

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Kuta Beach, Bali

After a long hiatus, a short and sweet poem which takes you to Bali in these housebound times!

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The surf, sandy beach, mild breeze and the sun,

The ocean yields its treasures, one by one,

I am a child once again , who can still,

From picking coral and shells, get a thrill,

Like a mother’s bosom, the sea swells and,

Embracing me tenderly, takes my hand.

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I feel young, and in love with everything ,

I have seen, with pleasure my heart does sing,

The sun takes an orange dive into the sea,

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Where children tame the surf with water-ski,

On the moonlit beach, in each other’s ears,

Lovers whisper, as they have done for years,

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Under coconut palms and wide blue skies,

I found my soul in this paradise!

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IF IT IS MARCH, IT MUST BE MARRAKECH

Could not resist recycling this article, which first appeared in March, 1997, in the Lucknow edition of “The Times Of India”.

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If it is March, it must be Marrakech [also spelt as Marrakesh]. For Morocco, in 1997, played host in the second week of the month to the first World Maternal Mortality Conference. A ten-member Indian delegation, comprising administrators, doctors and representatives of NGOs, arrived to find the walls of the town splattered with blood! Not literally, of course. The big red blotches appear on posters for the Congress, with the caption: “1,000, 000 lives a year! No.” It is time to break the culture of silence and push the issue of maternal mortality centre-stage.

Marrakech itself is a bundle of contradictions. Imagine an oasis–if you can–at the base of the majestic , snow-capped Atlas mountains. Where beggars rub shoulders with the super-rich.Where conservatively clad and even veiled Arab women stroll the streets in the company of hep and stylish teenagers. Where the neatness and order of the New Town contrasts with the wild exuberance of souks, or bazaars. Marrakech is a meeting-ground–where East meets West, to the benefit of both.

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We have two clear days for sightseeing. First on the agenda is a visit to ‘Le Menara’, one of the city’s famous gardens. It turns out to be a tranquil little lake in a grove of olive trees, with a small monument in the foreground. We move on to the exquisite Bahia palace, constructed between 1894 and 1904 by the then Prime Minister. Our articulate and knowledgeable guide tells us that it is named after the Prime Minister’s first and favourite wife. Each room has three well-marked features–tiles on the floor, stucco work on the walls, and painted woodwork on the ceilings. The work and decorations become progressively more intricate and dazzling as one proceeds inside the palace. The crowning glory is the Prime Minister’s living room, where stained glass creates brilliant effects on the walls. There is also the “riad”, or courtyard, with orange and palm trees, flowering bushes and a fountain to quench the thirst of birds.

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The next day is devoted to sampling the pleasures of the Ourika valley. The rugged landscape appears to be a straight lift from “The Ten Commandments”.

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Impromptu shops have sprung up by the roadside, selling quaint souvenirs from fossils to stone-masks. There is an enormous amount of haggling to be done, a pastime at which the Moroccan is quite adept and from which he derives a great deal of pleasure. Without batting an eyelid, he will inflate his selling price [the actual price remains a matter of speculation] by as much as five or six times and then cheerfully haggle with you for a”good price”. Today a young lad of barely ten summers offers a Berber tribal knife for a thousand dirhams. After a frenetic round of bargaining, lasting a good fifteen minutes, I clinch the deal at 280 dirhams, not knowing whether I am the victor or vanquished! Subsequently, we motor down to Tahanoute, where a gurgling brook at the foothills of the Atlas quite fills our cup of happiness.

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That evening we have an appointment to keep at the casino. It is interesting to learn that Moroccans of Muslim faith are debarred from trying their luck at the casino. Located in a plush hotel, the casino is divided into two sections. One has pinball machines, and then there is an inner sanctum, where formal dress is required. Here, games of roulette, poker and other forms of “serious” gambling are in progress. With much trepidation, I insert a few coins in a pinball machine. Beginner’s luck–I hit the jackpot!! With an investment of six dirhams, I am able to rake in a hundred dirhams. They say that nobody walks out of a casino a winner. Resisting the temptation to play on, I swagger out, feeling thrilled at having cocked a snook at a hoary adage!

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No mention of our trip can be complete without a reference to Girish Babu, a polymer engineer from Karnataka, and the sole Indian resident of Marrakech. His family consists of his charming wife, Gayatri, precocious daughter, Meghana {mistress of three languages} and one-year-old son, Manjunath. We bump into each other in a supermarket. Girish Babu’s jaw drops. “I have been three years in Morocco without seeing a single Indian. This is a festival for us!” And, without further ado, the family opens its home and hearts to us. They are disappointed at having met us late–only two days of our stay remain. But those two days are made memorable by the sincerity of their welcome and the warmth of their hospitality.

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All too soon, the week has flown by and it is time to bid adieu to Marrakech. But in my heart, I feel that I will revisit this city–of palaces and gardens, haggling shopkeepers and one warm-hearted Indian family –quite often, even if only in my dreams!

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CRYSTAL BALL GAZING

This book review first appeared in an online exclusive of the “Open” magazine, dated March 08, 2021.

BOOK REVIEW–India 2030—The Rise of a Rajasic Nation- Edited by Gautam Chikermane

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  In his article on “Futurology”, Max Saunders, Professor at Birmingham University, writes, “From shamanic ritual to horoscopes, humans have always tried to predict the future. From the weather forecast to the time the sat-nav [satellite-navigation] says we will reach our destination, our lives are built around futuristic fictions.” Scientific forecasting really started in the 1920s, with the over hundred “Today and Tomorrow” books. Indeed, as early as 1924, Archibald Low had predicted the mobile phone! It is entirely apposite, therefore, that nearly hundred years later, Gautam Chikermane gathers twenty thought leaders to put together a 360-degree forecast of India’s trajectory in the 2020s– a “hazardous and embarrassing task”, as Devdip Ganguli, one of the contributors, puts it. Let us put the book–“India 2030: The Rise of a Rajasic Nation”-under the lens of a SWOT analysis. 

STRENGTHS: The core strength of the book lies in the number of important subjects it covers and the depth of the intellectual fare it has to offer. One need not agree with everything which is being said–indeed, there is scope for violent disagreement. But there is plenty of food for thought here. And there is something for everybody–from the academically heavy [Economy, Foreign Policy, Defense] to the relatively lighter pieces [Friendships, Soft Power, Spying]. The blurb positions the book  as “a handbook for citizens, a road map for policy makers and a guide for scholars”. That may be pitching it a bit too far, but there is a kernel of truth there. Undoubtedly.

  Another plus factor of the book is knowledge value-addition! The article on health, by Rajesh Parikh, [Health:Looking beyond a Cultural Extinction Event]–brings the reader  up-to-date with cutting-edge developments in virotherapy, bioweapons and antimicrobial resistance. Bibek Debroy weighs in on the economy and elaborates on the journey from wealth redistribution to wealth creation. But for me, the jewel in the crown is Prof. Mashelkar’s “Science and Technology: India Will be a Producer of Knowledge, Not Just a Consumer.” It focuses on three dominant drivers–digitalization, decentralization and decarbonisation, expatiates on fifteen exponential technologies and their impact, especially on education, health and energy, and explores the post-COVID science and technology landscape of India. Simply brilliant! 

WEAKNESSES: Ironically, what its editor touts as the book’s Unique Selling Point turns out to be its Achilles heel. In his “Preface”, Chikermane avers that this is not a prescriptive book but a predictive one. That is to say, it tells us what will happen, not what to do or how to get there. This leads to some sweeping statements  and some spectacular leaps of faith: that India will, by decade-end, become the third largest economy in the world and a regional power. Optimistic, surely? Also, objectivity is a casualty in some of the pieces.  OPPORTUNITIES: There is a renewed interest in India world-wide and the trajectory it is likely to follow in the decade of the 20s. To bring twenty “thought excavators”, as the editor terms them, to the table, with their differing perspectives, is no mean achievement. And an opportunity to cash in!   THREATS: This particular bandwagon is starting to become a bit too crowded for comfort. From the well-known Nandini Nilekani [“Imagining India” ] to the newbie Pramod Sharma [ “India Tomorrow: The Next Superpower”], there seems to be a race to generate suggestions to make India great again. Fatigue is likely to set in soon, if it has not already!   Chikermane explains that rajasic means a ‘guna’ or mode of energy that is associated with action, force and passion. This is a labour of love and a work of passion, which bears reading now and a decade later.

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BRUCE

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A baby spider on the edge,

Of a steep ledge,

Took one look and then shook with fear,

A single tear,

Rolled down his cheek as he declared,

“I’m not prepared,

At my tender age to risk all,

What if I fall,

To the earth and shatter my head,

Ending up dead?

The risks are too great, and so,

I will not go!”

His mother and his brother looked on,

“He’s a gone,

Case!” Exclaimed his mother, “He’s scared!

Son, those who’ve dared,

To set out and conquer the world,

Have always hurled,

Defiance at odds in their way,

Come, make my day!”

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On the mother’s face a wry smile,

Lingered awhile,

Then she became stern and her brown,

Eyes wore a frown.

It was brother’s turn and in low,

Tones, he said, “Go!

From you I learn, you set the trend,

Though it does rend,

My heart to see you suffering,

You cannot bring,

The spider clan to disrepute,

Do execute,

Your jump without a care in mind,

Don’t look behind!”

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Goaded, the spider said a prayer,

Then brushed his hair,

Closed his eyes, took a giant leap,

Into the deep,

Miracle! A thin rope of silk,

As white as milk,

Emerged from his behind and held,

Him up, propelled,

Him to swing in an arc while he,

Shouted with glee,

Then a web took shape and that morn,

A hero was born!

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Flibbertigibbet’s Exploits

Sorry for the delay! Did anyone even notice? Packing up February with a fun poem carrying a message!

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Flibbertigibbet–in short, Flib,

Blessed with a tongue that was quite glib,

For his seventeenth birthday, begged,

His Ma for a pair of skates, egged,

On by his kid brother, who knew

That he would get to use them too!

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“Else our allowance be doubled,”

They said, feeling if they troubled,

Her enough, she would surely yield,

And her fate would be truly sealed.

The two finally got their way,

The pair of skates quite made their day,

Skating is not easy to learn,

Every move, each twist and turn,

Demands concentration immense,

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To persevere, Flib had the sense,

Despite stumbles, falls, broken bones,

Spills and tumbles, moans and groans,

The two brothers learnt how to skate,

Having conquered fear, they felt great!

It seemed they were floating on air,

Leaping and gliding without care,

Next year, Flib’s brother, Harry Ford,

Wanted–what else?–a big skate-board,

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The brothers set pavements afire,

Earning the pedestrians’ ire,

Who quickly chased them off the roads,

Terming them a pair of fat toads,

Flib and Harry sat down to mope,

With this setback they could not cope.

Pa stuck his head inside the door,

His sons’ forlorn looks touched his core,

To the neighboorhood shop he went,

And his hard-earned money he spent,

On a surf-board, shiny and bright,

Made of fibreglass, very light.

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The expense, though, was justified,

Because the children, who had cried,

Buckets of tears in the meanwhile,

Now had reason to cheer and smile.

“We two really must get our act,

Together,” They said; and a pact,

Aiming at excellence was signed,

With victory were they aligned.

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Champion surfers they became,

Bringing their parents glory, fame,

Humble acorns oaks skywards send,

In triumphs small beginnings end.

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Covid: Loss and Hope

This book review was first published in the “Open” magazine of February 5, 2021.

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THE LITERATURE AROUND Covid-19—Covid-lit, as I prefer to call it—has been steadily gaining traction, readership and popularity. It spans the gamut—from Coronavirus: A Book for Children by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson et al to Till We Win: India’s Fight Against the Covid-19 Pandemic, co-authored by Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, AIIMS, New Delhi, Dr Chandrakant Lahariya and Dr Gagandeep Kang.

And when journalists gate-crash the party, sparks are bound to fly. Sonali Acharjee, veteran journalist who has worked with a number of publications, including this magazine, and who currently covers health for India Today, jumps into the fray with Life Behind Masks. A collection of twenty-one stories grouped around three themes—Love, Loss and Duty—it is a topical and entertaining read.

As Acharjee says in her introduction, she attempts to distil people’s ‘loss, dreams, confusion and memories’. In this she succeeds. Largely.

It is interesting to deconstruct the book to examine the arsenal of techniques and strategies employed by the author to grab the eyeballs of what appears to be her chief audience—millennials. Right off the bat, she uses intriguing chapter headings to evoke curiosity. Sample these—‘He is My Father’, ‘A Girl and Her Screwdriver’ and my personal favourite—‘Would You Like an Apple?’—about a millionaire reduced to selling fruit to survive the challenge of the disease.

Acharjee’s second device is to keep her stories short and crisp, to cater to the short attention-span of today’s reader. The prose is precise and direct and none of the pieces exceed a dozen pages. Each story is self-contained—which makes the book an ideal one to read on-the-fly.

Thirdly, Acharjee wisely chooses to use Covid-19 only as a peg to hang her stories on. This avoids monotony and repetition. The range of issues tackled by her are diverse and pertinent—from menstrual hygiene to neo-natal mortality, to attacks on health workers and how to sensitise children to the pandemic. There is also a poignant pen-picture of a young Muslim girl caught in the unforgiving East Delhi riots of recent memory (‘The Pages of My Quran’). The challenge of vaccine development is seamlessly woven into another narrative, namely, ‘A Dose of Covaxin’.

Next, Sonali seems to be on a mission to educate the reader. Nothing preachy, just bite-sized bits of medical information, be it about cytokine storms or silent hypoxia. The author makes the virus that much easier to understand.

Finally, the sheer variety Acharjee showcases is nothing short of mind-boggling. Apart from life-experiences this extends to demographics (eight years to ninety-eight), geographies (Shillong to Palakkad), and classes (nurse to millionaires). In essence, the theme of Acharjee’s book is hope in times of terror, ignorance and depression. Many of the stories celebrate the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the pandemic.

Shortcomings? Hardly any. The proof-reading, however, could have been sharper. More pertinently, some of the stories do not work. Obviously, each reader will have her personal favourites. But, for me, the weak links were ‘A Journey through My Journal’ and ‘Me Against the Media’. Surprising, since both dealt with the author’s home-turf! But these are minor niggles. Acharjee deserves kudos for adding to our knowledge of the disease in an interesting way, through heartfelt stories. A classic example of edutainment.

The King Was Mean

This poem first appeared in “The Queen Could Sing”, authored by Lov-Kush, and published by Bharat Book Centre, Lucknow, in 2003. Ever wondered how women’s lib was born?

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I

There once lived a king and a queen,

The queen was kind; the king was mean,

Crazy too–barmy as a bat,

Framing rules at the drop of a hat,

His subjects he wanted to check,

But his schemes were designed to wreck,

Their happiness and peace of mind,

No wonder they called him unkind,

As soon as an infant was born,

From his mother’s bosom was torn,

Sent to a school, there to be taught,

How to spy well and not be caught!

People were told to speak in rhyme,

Violation was a big crime,

Junior would say, ” I would like,

As a birthday present, a bike.”

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II

Father would storm,”Is there to eat,

Enough of salad and red meat? “

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While mother would sigh,” Seems that I,

With my boots on, working, shall die,”

Other laws sprang from the king’s brain,

Till people began to complain,

On odd-numbered days–one, three, five,

And so on, could a person drive,

Children’s names were kept by the State,

Coupled with their birthplace and date,

Names were invented once a while,

Causing some to wince; others, smile,

The queen got fed up and one day,

She seemed to have melted away,

Her dress was by the river-bank,

People dismissed it as a prank.

III

Then whispers started, eyes grew wide,

The question: murder or suicide?

The king bore it well; on his face,

There was no sadness, not a trace,

News from his neighbour spelt danger,

Their king overthrown by a stranger!

Who seemed to have formed from thin air,

Effeminate, devil-may-care,


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Desiring an army revamp,

The new king established a camp,

The air became thick with gunpowder,

The drumbeats of war grew louder,

He then launched a savage attack,

The mean king was taken aback,

His army’d no time to prepare,

Busy they’d been rhyming with care!

IV

Said a soldier, ” Sounds like a gun,

Run for your lives, men, run, run, run!”

In an hour, the mean king was captive,

Imprisoned, rendered inactive,

In the two lands, there was joy great,

At a common ruler and fate,

There was a coronation grand,

Unmatched in any other land,

The event sprung forth a surprise,

Before many wondering eyes,

There came not a king to be crowned,

But the kind queen, so long feared drowned!

“Eves, awake! ” she cried, “You men-folk,

Your livers are rather like egg-yolk,”

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Lest you dismiss this as pure corn,

It is how women’s lib was born!

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TRICKERY AS ART

This poem first appeared in the collection of poems titled,”The Queen Could Sing” authored by Lov-Kush, published by Bharat Book Centre, Lucknow, in 2003. Enjoy!

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I

There once lived a goblin and a gnome,

Whose tricks would fill many a tome,

Life to them was just one big prank,

Regardless of their victims’ rank,

They’d love to play practical jokes,

On simple, unsuspecting folks,

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Like smuggling frogs inside the bed,

Of elderly cousins, well-fed.

Watching them hop and jump about,

In sheer agony, scream and shout!

They’d mix vinegar with water,

Their guests felt hotter and hotter,

Then fireworks burst under their chairs,

Giving them some extra grey hairs,

Their guests would vow not to return,

And wish they had the sense to spurn.

II

Invites from those rascally two,

They shook their heads, “This will not do”,

They broke their friendships, one by one,

Soon friends, goblin and gnome, had none,

Said goblin to the gnome, “Brother,

Now that we two have no other,

There’s nothing left to do but play,

Tricks on one another–what say?”

The gnome agreed, they then retired,

To their homes to reflect, inspired,

On ways to out-think and outsmart,

Each other—trickery as art!!

At night, the gnome crept from his house,

Doffing shoes, quiet as a mouse,

He made his way to the first floor,

Of the goblin’s home, at the door.

III

Of the bedroom, he fixed a string,

A shock on his rival he’d spring,

Smiling inwardly, back he rushed,

Thinking he’d his opponent crushed,

The goblin’s no customer mean,

However; guess where he he had been?

To the gnome’s cottage, to be sure,

He’d hit on a stratagem pure.

He placed, the toilet door atop,

A water-filled bucket to drop,

At the slightest nudge; then with glee,

Chuckling softly, he made to flee,

The two tricks did work like a charm,

Indeed, grievous bodily harm,

Befell both the goblin and gnome,

In the safety of their home!

IV

The goblin tripped and broke his head,

In a pool of crimson, life fled,

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In the gnome’s house there was a bang,

As the iron bucket did clang,

Right on top of the gnome it fell,

Trapping him like a giant bell.

With anger and rage did he seethe,

As he shouted, struggled to breathe,

All to no avail; within an hour,

Death’s dance was complete and its power,

Established over those two,

Lying like puppets, turning blue,

And on their epitaphs you’ll see,

“In whatever place we may be,

By normal rules we’ll not be bound,

We’ll still be monkeying around!”