Kusumita Datta: Kashmir and its Story Tellers
Changing Climate of Storytelling
Ruskin Bond’s stories, illustrated by Prasun Mazumdar, evoke the idyllic and fantastical, satirical and moral stories of Kashmiri life. What strikes the reader in this 2011 collection are a series of dislocations ingrained in the very framework of the text. The stories told to the children are set in Mussoorie in the Garhwal hills, where Bond had spent much of his childhood. The storyteller however is an old Kashmiri shopkeeper, who as Bond informs us, ‘on a winter’s evening, would light his angithi and entertain the children who came to his shop in the Landour bazaar’. Even as we cozily sit down for a round of storytelling, we become aware of the dislocated ground where we have settled ourselves. Bond subtly hints at the dying art of storytelling in its most organic sense – a distancing and detachment from the land and soil which has nurtured it. Hence, he emphasises that the ‘Kashmir in these stories is long gone’. If we must understand Kashmir’s dying art of winter storytelling, when the storyteller would come to the village during winter months and begin his stories that would revolve around fairylands, love-smitten princes, demons, mythical birds that would take him to the ‘Koh-e-Kaff’ (A far-off mountain), we must confront such a world as bygone. The short stories in Kashmir make us conscious that the beautiful landscape which remains is one fraught with the smoke of bombs and sounds of pellets. The glistening sun is darkened by the shadow of the gunman. When storytelling makes an attempt to invoke the beauty of those snow-capped mountains, it may as well acknowledge that the snow is now absent, if not melting fast. By the last story ‘The Mountain Lake’, Bond presents the changed climate of storytelling – summer, as the busy season, when there is hardly time for storytelling. As tourists throng the public spaces, storytelling as a public art takes a backseat. In the words of Kamal, the young listener, the author sums up the new attraction – “When the tourists come, you will find no time for telling stories”. The landscape has become a site of trade and resort culture, where the tourists’ aesthetic curiosity is served by the artificial products of mass industry, devoid of wonder and imagination. The stakes against the storyteller are quite high, which Arundhati Roy presents in her allegorical story that provides a metaphorical interpretation of climate change, the war on terror and the corporate raj.i Though the tone of parody in the depiction of ‘snow wars’ by Roy is not to be found in Mohi-ud-din or Bond, yet the threat looms large equally.
Transitional Geography of the ‘Story-scape’
The development of the short story in Kashmir has been closely allied with the geography of the region. In the extreme cold, the only source of recreation was to listen to adventurous tales of Arabian Nights, Persian heroes and tales of legendary heroes of ancient Kashmir. Bond’s stories as folktales retain a more universal appeal. Though the element of the fantastical and the absurd remain, they are not to be identified clearly with particular folktales of the region, even as the tales are situated in the far-off hills of yore. As the art of the short story develops in Kashmir, it becomes increasingly dissociated from its geographical space and radically interiorised. Through the changed topography of his tales, Bond makes clear the ground which has resulted in this transition. In his last tale, Javed Khan begins a story about the hills to which he is going. Thus, the world of the hills is not only an obscure world of the distant past. It is a vital present, which has been revisited and re-invoked, made into a palpable reality through the narrative journey undertaken with the audience, as well as by a real journey undertaken to the exact place. As the journey began, Khan had alluded to his valley in Kashmir, especially a lake to which is attached a legend - of a prince and a fairy queen. The geography of Kashmir is thereby imbued with mythic and folkloric imagination to make it akin to the landscapes which haunted the narratives of the storytellers of yore. Yet these utterances take place in the real location of the marketplace, especially as the shopkeeper and storyteller, Javed Khan makes a quick buck from some of his audience at times. With the conscientiously reimagined geography, the writer creates scope for such a vision of flux in his tales, a change already haunting the ground reality. From the mountains to the marketplace, the importance of the storyteller and his oral art has not only dwindled. It has acquired a different nature. The short story becomes a narrative which contends with other ventures; losing out or dramatising a vulnerability which is setting in.
The Borderland Story
The dynamics of space in the short tales in terms of contending geographies is all the more pertinent for the people of a land which is thriving on ever-changing borderlands, where spaces are being divided in terms of multiple segregations. Being in Garhwal, the Kashmiri storyteller in Bond’s tales locates his adventures in Kashmir. His narration thus embodies narrative displacement. However as he returns to those hills to replenish his “stock” (of both select goods and assorted tales) he returns to the oral roots of the art of storytelling. His narration then embodies a narrative emplacement. The story of the borderland society of modern Kashmir lies in the ‘in-between space. Debidatta Mahapatra explains the nature of the displacement in such regions:
Border residents in Kashmir get displaced whenever the border is disturbed due to wars, war scares, heavy firing, shelling or even the mobilization of security forces on the border […] it is temporary but recurring […] sometimes for few days, sometimes for few months and at times even for years. Displacement, thus, is a part and parcel of the life of the borderlanders as they keep shuttling between their native place and the shanty camps, whenever the border is disturbed or even it is apprehended to be disturbed in the near future. Not only wars but also war scares lead to displacement of these people.ii
The modern short story writer of the borderland has to locate his work of storytelling in the world of the created hills and the real market, each time encountering new paradigmatic shifts of displacement. To negotiate with this shift in the fictional world, the writer creates a space which will be interiorised – like the regions of the mirror which Mohi-ud-din dramatises in the story ‘Maet Kath’iii, flattering and betraying, brutally manipulating and howling with terror when punished. He also has to include the rhythms of history, like Bashir Akhtar captures in the mode of Kashmiri ‘Afsana’ writing - real stories with fictitious names. The stories thus become snapshotsivof the interpenetrative realities of borderlands, indifferently categorizing and capturing.
The storyteller of the borderlands undergoes an acute predicament – not an erasure but confusion of identities. To identify a particular space and its dimensions would enable a particular response. In the short story entitled, ‘I Can’t Tell’v, the storywriter advises the reader against needlessly identifying the Police Force which quells opposition in Kashmir, because all the Indian States have sent forces to teach the anti-national elements a lesson. Responses have been stigmatized; the opposition only working in the mode of impersonation (in this story the Central Reserve Police Force impersonating as the Kashmiri Additional Police). Any attempt at identification is deemed irrelevant, as the people move ahead with careful avoidance rather than confrontation. In Kashmir spaces have been easily appropriated by many, whilst the natives lose their lives in the struggle for ‘azaadi’ (freedom). In an essay written in 2008, Arundhati Roy quotes an old man attending a meeting of Syed Ali Shah Geelani:
“Kashmir was one country. Half was taken by India, the other half by Pakistan. Both by force. We want freedom.”vi
When the borderland population inhabit this contentious site the role of the sensitive storywriter is imbued with desperation and helplessness; a confusion so divisive in nature that it retaliates against the sensitivity of the self. Both Mohi-ud-din and Bond faced it and presented it in their distinct and somewhat complementary ways.
Predicament of ‘apour ti yapour’ (between the border and fence)vii
Ruskin Bond does not present us with the saga of a professional Kashmiri storyteller but the anecdotal tales of a shopkeeper of Kashmir, who points out that adventures may be found in the mountains or in the home, in being young, in growing old, in living each day. As the children enthusiastically commit themselves future listeners of his tales after his return, we cannot but remember Bond’s words in the Preface:
Little Vijay’ is now in his fifties, while pigtailed Shashi is a grandmother. I wonder if they tell stories to their children and grandchildren, or do they just leave them to their laptops and TV sets?viii
Here the modern storywriter has little to do. Bond’s storyteller has communicated tales of morality and heroism, and stories of conflict which have relevance to the situation in Kashmir. Bond himself encountered these fissure of identities when his friend Omar feared a breach of identity during the eve of Partitionix. Issues of caste and creed doggedly haunt ‘The Friendship of Hira and Lal’x. Lal, gaining human form from a beautiful ruby fell in love with Hira, run away together and overcame various obstacles. Yet Hira finally succumbs to the temptation of the knowledge of caste. She continues this query as Lal sinks deeper and deeper into the water, until there appears a lily and a ruby in its stead to only disappear again. Lal never returns and the beauty of the human relationship Lal and Hira shared is lost forever like the sparkling ruby. Bond’s folk story is not a neat narrative of contrived reconciliation, and the storyteller is only left to warn the young ones of such inevitable realities. This tale is unlike the final sealing of love and affection in the aftermath of death in Mohi-ud-din’s ‘Stain’:
The people in the hospital were stunned. A purdah lady and a Sikh were weeping together over the dead child while far away in Punjab it was said that Sikhs and Muslims were murdering each other like wild beasts.xi
Mohi-ud-din contends for a singular space of humanitarian love amidst a surrounding chaos while Bond has foregrounded the continuation of the social malaise across generations. Through these two instances we realize that the world of the folklore has to contend with castigations, and at times succumb to it, and the modern story writer therefore needs to formulate a new version of the mythic imagination. For Bond the moral claim provides a tentative protection within the realm of the short story. For Mohi-ud-din, the stain of the pervasive reality is too overwhelming, desperately contending against erasure, which cannot hold onto older versions of the myth anymore.
Origins of the Short Story in Kashmir and its Voice
The short story in Kashmir originated in the ancient sagas but made a distinct generic claim with the Progressive Movement voicing social conflicts. Infact the researcher, Farooq Bhat, in his dissertationxii, points out that professional folk performers served as reliable informants for the ‘Sarkar’ by highlighting public grievances in a dramatic manner. The history of Kashmir is often a history of its saints and sages. T N Dhar points out Mohi-ud-din’s reference to the verse of Lal Ded, the legendary poetess and seer of Kashmir in his 1995 book A French Approach to the History of Kashmir:
“In time past, we were
In time future, we shall be
Throughout the ages we have been”xiii
With the establishment of the Kashmiriat as a distinct cultural heritage, the modern storyteller seeks to restore a world made spiritually redundant; emerge as an immortal social voice demanding change. However the trajectory of the artist in Kashmir tells a different story.
Mohi-ud-din’s credible success came later when he associated himself with the Kashmiri Cultural Congress, translating into Kashmiri Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Miane Tajruban hinz Dastan). He returned his Sahitya Akademi award in 1984 in protest to Muhammad Maqbool Bhat’s hanging in Delhi’s Tihar jail, awarded in 1958 for his short stories, titled Sat Sangar. Later, in early 1990s, Akhtar returned his Padma Shri award bestowed on him in 1968, in protest to Gaw Kadal Massacre (January 20, 1990). In this “worst massacre in Kashmiri history” nearly fifty civilians were killed. On the other hand Ruskin Bond feels that in an age of worldwide intolerance such steps would hardly matter. The artistic recognition is respected and is upheld by him. Repeated anonymous calls to give up the award make him act in the contrary. We recognize the easy streamlining of oppositional voices to render them ultimately ineffective. In their distinct ways these writers force us to not indulge in a mere stance of rebellion. The roots of artistic creation lies in a far more subtle subversion.
The Story as the Site of a New Myth
In a two-day national seminar on the focal theme of ‘Folklore of Kashmir’, organized by the Centre for Kashmir Studies, Professor Shafi Shouq in his paper ‘Kashmiri Folklore: A Language with a Thousand Dialects’ presented the thesis that folklore is not some phenomenon that belongs to the past of a society. He contended that folklore provided a “workable lingo”xiv to the individual, even at the age of three or four. For the modern short story writer in Kashmir the development of the “workable lingo” in turn enunciates a social myth, where the lines of morality and temptation are so easily blurred. If the future storyteller of Ruskin Bond’s tales would have found a voice in Mohi-ud-din, he would define the premises of culture retained a folk literature in a new manner. Innocence itself would have to be defined in a new manner. Mohi-ud-din tells Ajay Raina, a Kashmiri Pandit filmmaker based in Mumbai in the latter’s film, Tell Them the Tree They Had Planted Has Now Grown, of his mini short story entitled ‘Terrorist’. A woman named Farz Ded is walking down a narrow street when a police patrol approaches her. The commander thinks the child is scared and tries to reassure him, when the mother says that the child is crying only because he wants the gun. The reply of condemnation is part of the accepted response towards militancy in Kashmir. Partha Chatterjee comments on the need of a new meaning of this myth:
The truth is that the entire state order in Kashmir has lost moral legitimacy.
That is how a new generation of Kashmiri youth makes sense of its condition. These young people are not militants; they do not shoot at the police […] They do not see the continuation of the present order as an acceptable option.xv
The bankruptcy which Chatterjee reveals is the void the writer in Kashmir faces in recent times. The myth he gives birth to cannot communicate a message of social cohesion but one of misplaced innocence. ‘I Can’t Tell’ becomes his final voice. In this story when he goes to meet Qadir Chaan, the tool of the puppet regime who helps create a skirmish every day and escalate it into violence, with which the people engage, and disengage as quickly, Qadir Chaan’s indifference and innocuous suspicion complements the neighbour’s response who apprises the storywriter with a guffaw: “He is that fellow who writes those…those…, he laughed, who writes those things.”xvi Qadir Chaan has grabbed media attention as a hero who would have become a martyr but for the brave action by the impersonating personnel. This blatant falsity provokes the writer to probe the reason behind the false consolation which makes Chaan work: “You will kill who knows how many such persons. Why do you worry needlessly? By God we need Mujahids like you.”xvii As the writer listens to it, he becomes as implicated in this myth of violence.
When Amitava Kumar notes the reference to ‘Terrorist’xviii] and emphasizes the popularity of the tale, especially with video clips of children asking soldiers for their guns, and refusing to be taken away, he too makes clear the working of a social myth, whose working is deliberately propelled, as conundrums of a distorted value system. If myths and folklore has to nurture this new generation it has to unravel the nature of the pain of people who mock others who are suffering, when they have themselves suffered no less intensely. To achieve this the role of the storyteller and the listener should be considered as important a part of the folktale narrative as the content, even as they become part of a dying generation, as Bond has done. The written word is still around. The adventures are ready to be undertaken. The truth is often to be found. Each day is ready to be lived. Each web of magic is ready to enfold us. Only, as Mohi-ud-din would quietly warn us, we should not get entangled in the websxix.
i Arundhati Roy, ‘The Briefing’, Outlook (2008). The snow is melting, the climate is changing; as Roy suggests in her story, it is ‘time to replace the noisy undirected spray of machine-gun fire with cold precision, choose your targets carefully’. http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/the-briefing/238011. Accessed on June 20, 2016.
iii Akhtar Mohi-ud-din, translated by Mohammad Junaid, ‘Maet Kath’, Kashmir Lit-An Online Journal of Kashmiri & Diasporic Writing (Summer 2013). http://www.kashmirlit.org/maet-kath/. Accessed on June 20, 2016.
iv In Bashir Akhtar’s short story ‘Some Tableaux, Some Snaps’, each moment, paltry or gruesome, becomes subject to the indifferent and repetitive shot of the camera.
vi Roy, ‘Azaadi: The Only Thing Kashmiris Want’, in Kashmir: The Case for Freedom by Tariq Ali, et al. (London & New York: Verso, 2011) 42.
vii Ajay Raina, Apour Ti Yapour. Na Jang Na Aman, a film screened at 07:15 pm, 10 September, IIC, New Delhi,
as part of Kashmir: Edge of the Map... Edge of the Imagination by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsXPWU6yOec. Accessed on June 20, 2016.
viii Ruskin Bond, Preface, The Kashmiri Storyteller (New Delhi: Puffin Books, 2011). Kindle file.
ix Debashis Bandyopadhyay, “Self in Abject Space: ‘The Playing Fields of Shimla”in Locating the Anglo-Indian Self in Ruskin Bond: A Postcolonial Review Anthem Press India Anthem South Asian studies – A Postcolonial Review (London & New York: Anthem Press, 2011) 120.
x Bond, ‘The Friendship of Hira and Lal’, The Kashmiri Storyteller.
xiii Prof. S. Bhatt, “A Homage to Saints and Sages of Kashmir, and their role in the Present World Order” in Saints and Sages of Kashmir by Triloki Nath Dhar ‘Kundan’ (New Delhi: APH Publishing, 2004) 181-2.
xviii Amitava Kumar, “Please Prove Your Identity” in Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate (India: Penguin Books, 2004) 161-2.
xix Mohi-ud-din, ‘Magical Webs’, in Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories compiled by Hriday Kaul Bharati (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2006) 11.