Kashmir, from A to Z: Children’s book highlights region’s culture

Sep 16th, 2019 | Category: Articles

Okus-Bokus, by two female authors, comes as fears grow over loss of identity amid perceived attempts to erase culture.

By Sonia Sarkar
Naen, or granny, explains Kashmiri culture to her grandchildren from A to Z in Okus-Bokus [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu, Ghazal]
Naen, or granny, explains Kashmiri culture to her grandchildren from A to Z in Okus-Bokus [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu, Ghazal]

Granny takes little Billa and Munni for a walk in Srinagar, and stops by the tomb of the mother of Zainul-Abidin, Kashmir’s former king, built around 1430.

“Look at Kashmir’s history, you see how tough the people are,” she tells her grandchildren. “They have been ruled by foreigners for long – 700 years of occupation.”

Granny, or Naen, Billa and Munni are fictional characters in a new children’s book, Okus-Bokus, written and illustrated by two Kashmiri women, 29-year-old Onaiza Drabu, and Ghazal, 24.

The story has resonated in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown since August 5, the day India stripped the region of some of its autonomy.

The title of the book is derived from the Kashmiri phrase hukus–bukus, which broadly translates to: “Who is s/he?, who am I?”

In the tale, granny teaches Kashmiri words from A to Z to the children while identifying traditions, culture and food habits.

This book comes against the backdrop of rising concerns that Kashmir’s demography and unique culture will change, with fears that India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party will attempt to “Indianise” the region.

“Traditional ways of being Kashmiri are slowly losing relevance, and this book can tie Kashmiris to their roots,” co-author Drabu told Al Jazeera. “This book could help children of this generation [learn] all that we have in our history and culture, and hopefully set them on a quest for their Kashmiri identity.”

The author of the book [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Okus-Bokus co-author Onaiza Drabu, 29, said her book aims to educate children about Kashmir’s unique culture, which is neither Indian nor Pakistani [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu]

Drabu said the book was written as an apolitical text, but acknowledged that it is not above political interpretation.

“Even though the book was not written consciously to refer to the pain of a Kashmiri, the language in use is alive, sub-consciously in my head too,” said Drabu.

Young Kashmiris related to the “language” Drabu referred to.

For instance, Javed, a 17-year-old from Srinagar, read “E” for “Enz” (goose) who “don’t fly like other birds,” as a metaphor.

“Like Enz, we too cannot fly. Indian forces have caged us,” he said.

In another entry that could be read as having a double meaning, the book refers to “al-hachi”, a dry Kashmiri pumpkin which is prepared in the summer and saved for the winter when it is unavailable.

The book says this helps when supplies are low, when the “roads become difficult to navigate”. 

Kashmiris preserve a range of vegetables, also including turnips, eggplants and tomatoes, so there is enough to eat during sudden curfews.

“At the peak of militancy in the 90s, curfews brought the valley to a standstill for days. In 2016, Kashmir was under curfew for about 99 days. Currently, despite government’s claim of ‘normalcy’ in the valley, shops are shut.

“Over the years, we have learnt innovative ways of coping with the crisis and to not die hungry,” Asiya Mushtaque, a 45-year-old teacher from Awantipora, told Al Jazeera.

US-based anthropologist Ather Zia recently wrote a series of children’s stories titled Gula of Kashmir, about Gula, a young fish who lives in the Verinag spring, that touches on Kashmir’s history and ethos.

She believes short stories can teach children about cultural and political resistance.

Nyla Ali Khan, a US-based author, academic and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, the first Muslim prime minister of Kashmir, said the narrative around Kashmiri identity tends to centre around “militancy”.

“Kashmir has a distinct identity and any attempt to homogenise it and make it part of the ultra right-wing monolithic identity should be thwarted. It is important for people to be educated about one’s culture first,” she told Al Jazeera.

Young Kashmiris allege that the Indian government has long tried to “Indianise” Kashmiri history through textbooks.

“Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India,” 30-year-old Souzeina Mushtaque, who grew up in Bemina, Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

“There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.”

Social scientist Mohamad Junaid, of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believes that attempts to wipe out Kashmiri culture will intensify under the BJP.

In December, in a move that angered linguists, the Indian government withdrew the Kashmiri language from Bhasha Sangam, an online portal it had set up to celebrate the “unique symphony of languages of our country”.

Some Kashmiri Pandits had complained that the version of the language on the website was widely used by Muslims, and therefore ignored Hindus, who according to them, speak Kashmiri differently.

“Some Kashmiri Pandits want to assert themselves politically in all matters related to Kashmir in order to settle the tragedy of their exodus,” M K Raina, a Delhi-based theatre director who has worked with Kashmiri artists for decades, told Al Jazeera.

Several Kashmiri Pandits support India’s move to revoke Article 370, the part of the constitution which had given some autonomy to Kashmir for seven decades.

“There could be a cultural aggression by BJP through imposition of Hindi in Kashmir like everywhere else in India,” feared a former director of education in Kashmir, who requested anonymity.

For now, though, Okus-Bokus is making its way to Kashmir’s children.

On the last leg of their journey, granny reaches the final letters of the alphabet.

“Y” is for “yaemberzal”, the fragrant narcissus flower which signals the arrival of spring.

“Will there ever be another spring in Kashmir?” said Faraz Khan, a 19-year-old from Srinagar, as he flipped through the children’s book. “India is the current occupier of Kashmir. It has paralysed us for 70 years.”

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