It is winter or what is better described in Kashmir as chilai kalan — the harshest 40 days of the season — and siblings Billa and Munni don’t have school. Sometime around noon, they ask their grandmother, who they lovingly call naen, if they could have some kahwa and girda — the traditional tea and bread combination. It is then that their naen explains to them that while girda, a tandoori bread, is to be had during breakfast, it is czochwor that is had in afternoon. It is a bagel-shaped bread, sprinkled with sesame seeds, that people like dunking in a cup of salted tea or nun chai. Writer-blogger Onaiza Drabu’s first book — Okus Bokus (Rs 600, Sonth Kashmir) — is making an attempt to introduce the A to Z of Kashmiri culture and lifestyle to children. At the moment, it is available for sale on Koshur Lifestyle, an all women-run e-commerce enterprise engaged in creating contemporary products with a Kashmiri twist.
“The book is the result of reflecting back on my childhood to find aspects of Kashmiri culture that fascinated me while growing up. These bits of history and culture, often intangible, are mostly lived and, therefore, slowly losing relevance. This book is a small attempt to change that. Although not exhaustive by any means, I have tried to capture the A to Z of being Kashmiri by bringing in aspects of language, food, music, arts and crafts, flora and fauna of the region, as well as some folklore,” says the writer, who has borrowed the titled Okus Bokus from an age-old lullaby in Kashmir.
She had started discovering the quirks of the language through her writings on Lipton Chai Blog, where she would explain proverbs and words in Koshur. In this book, she mentions a saying in Koshur — boy chu kaen and beni chi daen (the brother is hard like stone and sister soft like butter). “I thought that if I had children’s books and literature from Kashmir and not from a faraway land while growing up, how I perceived my language and my culture would have been very different. So I decided to change it,” she says. The book opens with A for Al-hatchi, which is dried gourd and illustrates the practice of drying vegetables for food to be available in the winters. It follows with B for Booyn, Kashmiri name for the iconic Chinar, C for Czunth, the popular apples and D for Dal Lake.
“I didn’t grow up reading and writing in Kashmiri. I could understand it, growing up all around it, but was only receptively bilingual. I remember at school once, one of our teachers would tell us that the definition of literate is that person who can read and write in her mother tongue. This hit hard. I could barely speak mine,” says Drabu, who started working on the book five years ago. While Drabu wrote the book, the illustrations have been done by Ghazal, who also goes by the pseudonym Alif. “I waited to illustrate this book for too long and then found Ghazal. Together we worked on the concept for each page and these moments were beyond exciting — right from getting the accurate representation for grandmother’s clothes to what they were eating. So this book is truly a childhood dream come true,” she says.