For many, the story of Himal and Nagrai is a memory of being tucked beside their grandmothers, taking in the warmth of the kangri on a cold, winter night, as it snowed outside. Soon, they are transported to another world where Saddaram, who lived in Shopian, longed for a child and feared the wrath of his displeased wife. Till one day, while resting near a naag, he bagged a serpent who turned into a beautiful boy, who was in fact Nagrai, the king of serpents. He grows up to fall in love with Himal, the daughter of king Balaveer.
The story that is full of romance, drama, conspiracy and sacrifice, and has caught the imagination of generations in Kashmir, is being retold, alongside many other folk tales, by writer-anthropologist Onaiza Drabu, in the book The Legend of Himal and Nagrai: Greatest Kashmiri Folk Tales (Speaking Tiger; Rs 350). “These stories have been a part of the nightlife in Kashmir, especially when the nights are long and cold. They are traditionally the oldest form of entertainment. I have many memories of them being told over and over again,” says Drabu.
In the 29 stories that make the book, there is one of a shikaslad (pauper) on his way to wake up his luck, which is deep in slumber and lives in Kaminis Zuh, a place of trials and tribulations; another one of Shishrum Nag and his daughter’s broom, which turns everything golden, and the story of ishq between a shepherd girl and a wan mohniyu, a human-like creature with a thick layer of fur on his body, who has long been used to create fear among women.
There are stories that explain many popular phrases and idioms in Koshur, like hapath yaraz, which literally means a bear’s friendship, and is used to describe a friend who does more harm than good, or harmukhuk gosain, the ascetic of Harmukh, which is invoked for someone who has terrible memory. “Kashmir is a culture that is full of stories. It has great storytellers, and the way they talk is full of metaphor, theatrics and exaggeration. The language is rich and full of visuals. I’ve always been interested in knowing the fantasy, the folklore, and what it is trying to tell us,” says Drabu, who studied anthropology at University of Oxford, and runs an online newsletter called Daak, on South Asian literature and art. Her book, Okus Bokus, which released last year, familiarises children with different aspects of Kashmiri culture.
The folk tales in the book, also give an insight into the cultural potpourri that Kashmir is, debunking the one-dimensional view that it is seen with nowadays. “There is so much mythology around Kashmir, it’s very syncretic, with Sanskritic traditions and Persian dastans that are enmeshed together, or tales from the Panchatantra told in a Kashmiri context. The folklore has legends from the Buddhist times, Hindu period, and the Persian and Afghan rules.
So it was a larger element of nostalgia, of understanding the language better and seeing these different traditions alive that got me interested in folk tales,” says Drabu. The collection also gains relevance as “it is a reminder of the magic that exists in Kashmir, its layered past and is also an exercise in documentation”.
However, a lot gets lost in the process of translating these oral tales from Koshur into the written word in English. “I don’t think much was found, except a hope for posterity. The only purpose English serves is that it gives the new generation of Kashmiris and a wider audience access to these stories. But a lot is lost in writing them down. There is a certain interaction that takes place between the teller and the audience, which cannot be replicated in writing down the tale,” says Drabu, who has used many Kashmiri words and phrases to recreate how the stories would have sounded originally in Koshur.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines