In the Kashmiri language, the sun is called aftaab, the moon is zoon and wind is hawa. In the opening tale of The Legend of Himal and Nagrai — a collection of Kashmiri folk tales translated into English by Onaiza Drabu — we’re told there was once a star that had three children: Aftaab, Zoon and Hawa. One day, the children’s grandparents invite them for dinner. At dinner, the moon tucks away in a bag one bite of food for every morsel she eats, to take back for her mother. On the way home, her brothers take this bag of food and playfully toss it away. When they return home, the star flies into a “motherly rage”, saying to the sun: “go, may you always burn in the heat of rage”; to the wind: “go, may you never find peace and be caught in eternal restlessness and rush”, and to her daughter the moon, she says, “for this kindness to this mother of yours, may you forever be engulfed in a cool calm.” This is how the three cosmic elements come into being.

In the book’s introduction, Drabu, a trained anthropologist and a Kashmiri, writes: “folklore is a living, breathing entity, and every time a story is retold we perpetuate its existence.” Drabu spent years gathering these tales through conversations with Kashmiri people, in an effort “to preserve time” itself.

Drabu’s endeavour has resulted in a collection of stories passed down in Kashmir through generations, and shows us that, far from being a didactic, outdated form of storytelling, folklore is a rich literary tradition which engages with universal debates about human action, moral responsibility, faith and love.

Often, the premises of the tale are problematic. In ‘Akhanandun’ [The Only Son] for instance, a couple with seven daughters yearns for a son. A hermit visits them one day and promises to grant them a son as long as they return him when he turns 12. Jubilant, they agree and soon have a healthy baby boy. When the boy turns 12, the hermit returns and asks to have the boy back.

With tremendous pain, the parents offer their son to him. In a twist reminiscent of the Quranic tale of the prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of his son on the orders of God, the hermit then reveals that he will not take the boy. He assures the couple that this was only a test of their forbearance and honesty. The narrative compels readers to ask themselves: how far are humans willing to go to get what they want? How patient are we in times of suffering? Would we be able to give up what we loved most, if a higher principle dictated it?

An English rendition of some of the Kashmiri folk tales captures the colloquial textures of the Kashmiri language and brings to the fore the region’s embedded social history

Yet, not all stories are ultimately redemptive. In ‘Tales from the Janawer’ [Animals], a mouse named Gagur and his wife, Gager, are having an intense dispute when the furious Gagur throws a mortar at her, causing her earlobe to be torn off. The wounded Gager runs out of the house, searching for help. In a haunting litany, she cries out: “sew up my ear, for on this fixed ear, some gold I shall wear, and then go back home to my parents.” At the end, left lying alone and bleeding, she dies. I was left moved and disturbed by the story. It simultaneously highlights patriarchal cultural norms and the treatment of marriage as a sacramental institution in South Asia. It is poignant, for instance, that Gager vows to “wear gold” — a historic source of cultural capital in South Asia gifted to daughters upon marriage — as she returns to her “parents’ home” once expelled from her husband’s house.

Many stories begin with the word “dapaan”, a colloquial Kashmiri term roughly translated to ‘it is said’. It becomes a tender and familiar guide as it introduces the reader to many stories. Many more such words and phrases are found tucked away, almost as an afterthought, in what is my favourite chapter, titled ‘The Dictionary of Kashmiri Imponderabilia’.

In it, Drabu captures the colloquial textures of the Kashmiri language and its various dialects through examples of “bol chaal” [peculiarities in daily speech]. There is great pleasure in going through the variety of Kashmiri words describing unique emotional states of being as diverse as “azarwun”, or “the inability to be happy at someone else’s good fortune” and “hatak”, meaning “to take offense to an act or words of another in a quiet manner without communicating resentment, yet waiting for an apology.” The list also contains words for deeply entrenched cultural concepts, such as “pasikdan”, or the guardian angel of a Kashmiri house and “chilai kalan”, which is described as “big winter — the mature months of winter, when frost is at its peak and all one can do is hide.”

Our languages and our folk tales are embedded with social histories. To lose the orality of our stories is to lose all those ways of knowing, existing, of telling stories and of being nurtured by them, that have been handed down through centuries. In an age rife with pervasive political contestation of truth versus fiction, such stories gently lead us to be comfortable with a multiplicity of truths or realities. They allow us to inhabit a discursive and experiential space where we can hone “negative capability” — the sublime ability that the poet John Keats described as an attitude of openness, which acknowledges differences without the simultaneous impulse to resolve the uncertainty or ambivalence they create.

During the 19th century, when Orientalist scholars started studying folklore, they categorised folklore within the broad spectrum of myths. Many historians were dismissive of these stories, labelling them non-scientific and fantastical. Recently, postcolonial scholars have explored how many imperialist regimes stratified knowledge into superior, ‘scientific’ knowledge versus local genres of history and literature which were labelled ‘imaginative’ and ‘magical’. There is a strong corrective element, therefore, in the retelling of these stories by a Kashmiri writer, for several reasons.

One is that these folk tales constitute a literary form that transcends the communal and religious faultlines in Kashmir’s current political climate. They can make the region, its people and its culture more real, complex and heterogeneous in the imagination of readers around the world. On another level, this book is valuable for academics and general readers, as it not only captures the vivid texture of the oral, lived reality in Kashmir passed down through generations, but also the imaginaire and layers of social history embedded in language and narratives.

But if you are simply looking to be transported somewhere else during this pandemic, I highly recommend this wonderful journey. The magic lies in the flamboyant and often bizarre twists and turns in these surprising and entertaining stories. At a time when external conditions severely limit our mobility, these words will carry you to Kashmir, a place where barriers and limitations have been the norm since far before the rest of the world. Perhaps, in stepping into that world, you will find yourself strangely reawakened to your own.

The reviewer holds an MPhil in South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford and currently teaches at Lums. She tweets @AneeqaMWattoo

The Legend of Himal and Nagrai:
Greatest Kashmiri Folk Tales
Retold by Onaiza Drabu
Speaking Tiger, India
ISBN: 978-9389231274

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 19th, 2020