“Once more he stept into the street,
And to his lips again
Laid his long pipe of smooth straight cane;
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.
All the little boys and girls,
With rosy cheeks and flaxen curls,
And sparkling eyes and teeth like pearls,
Tripping and skipping, ran merrily after
The wonderful music with shouting and laughter.” – The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning.
Centuries ago, probably dating back to the middle ages, the lore of the Pied Piper of Hamelin had emerged, finding its place repeatedly in legends, poems, children’s fairy tales. All the tales meant for young kids that are disturbing at their very core are believed to have been based on some distant facts in the ancient past that got distorted with time. The Pied Piper is probably one of the most distressing of these – it is, in fact, frightening.
But why, of all the things in the world, should we suddenly bother ourselves about some ancient folklore about a strange looking man and some rats? Well, simply because it reminds us of a disturbing reality that is not ancient at all. It is, in fact, too familiar, and too close to all our hearts.
The Piper is an odd figure, dressed in colourful, outlandish clothing, who appears unexpectedly to rid the vermin-infested town of Hamelin from meddlesome rats, and gets cheated by the town’s Mayor when the latter refuses to pay him the thousand guilders as promised. He then takes revenge by enticing the town’s children, into the unknown, from where they are never heard of again.
Posited as a story that emphasises on the value of the given word, this is actually a frightening tale of cunning, deceit and treachery, ending on a sinister note, as the children are led away, quite literally into obscurity! Although, as is the nature of most children’s tales, we are left to assume that they passed into a sort of Neverland — “to a joyous land, Joining the town and just at hand, Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew, And flowers put forth a fairer hue” — we can, perhaps safely assume that Neverland does not exist. If the story is grounded in at least some reality (as some reports seem to suggest) then it is possible that whatever fate met the children, was not necessarily ‘joyous’!
Does this tale sound familiar? Is it, in fact, remotely relatable to certain incidents that are happening around us at the very moment, that are leaving us stunned, and not in a good way?
Whether it is the Kathua victim or the nameless, homeless young child on the street, whose body ends up brutalised, sodomised, and lifeless in some trash bin left carelessly in some dark alleyway (and who, by the way, never makes it to the news desk and therefore into people’s hearts even for one day), the Pied Piper is back from the dead, or whatever creepy corner of the world he had hidden himself in. And this time, at least, he seems to have no intention of leading our kids into some heavenly fantasy.
What revenge is he taking this time? Is it because for years, we have ignored violence, allowed the powerful to prey upon the vulnerable, let one section of the society set the rules for the others, and taught our children that it was okay to subjugate the weak, to torment them, and leave them to rot? Is karma, fed up with a society that just won’t learn, finally here to gobble us up whole?
As the souls of these little kids pass into heaven, we can only clench our hands and hope that they are in a happy place, that the barbarism of the world can no longer touch them. Perhaps, they have found their Neverland, and are skipping merrily, hand in hand, along a serpentine river with sparkling silver water. But oh! Please, please, please, let there be no Pied Piper guiding them along! They have been there, done that! Let them be free, let them be free!