Come winter and Kashmiris miss their storyteller of bygone days

As winter nights become longer, darker and colder, Kashmiris miss their traditional stories of the abominable snowman, the child-lifting witches, princes fighting demons and tales of Firdowsi’s 10th century Iranian wrestlers, Rostum and his son Sohrab.

Modern entertainment provided by the television and theatre might never fully replace the art of bedside storytelling that was so popular in Kashmir for centuries.

“Children would hardly muster up the courage to venture into the dark after grandmother told them how witches in winter months prowl during dark nights to lift children and lock them up in mountain caves,” said Habibullah, 78, who is instantaneously transported to his childhood when reminded of the good old times when people had lesser amenities, but more contentment than he witnesses nowadays.

“There was no electricity in any village of the Valley when I was a little boy. We would sit with our mother around the warmth of the hearth that was lit with firewood.

“An earthen, oil-filled lamp or a kerosene lantern were the only source of light during the night those days.

“Mother’s face would glow in the light emitted by the burning firewood inside the hearth. In most local homes, grandmothers or mothers would tell fabulous stories of the bygone days when kings ruled countries and princes had to fight demons to impress princesses,” Habibullah recalled his childhood while speaking to IANS.

This patriarch lives in a north Kashmir village with his wife, three sons and grand children.

“I sometimes tell my grand children one of those enchanting stories and believe it or not, they are lured away from the television to listen to my stories”, he said.

Habibullah said that, once in a while, a traditional storyteller would visit his ancestral village.

“The storyteller would come to our village during the ‘Chillai Kalan’ (40-day long period of harsh winter cold beginning December 21).

“His arrival was an event. The most well-to-do family in the village would host the storyteller.

“After the day’s last meal, almost the entire village would go to the house of the storyteller’s host where everyone would be served a cup of ‘Kehwa’ during the course of the storyteller’s unending narrative.

“He would start with a short story like how a prince mounted a wooden horse that would fly to the demon’s cave in a far off land to retrieve a princess the demon had locked in his magic castle.

“And finally he would start with Firdowsi’s Persian epic, the ‘Shahnameh’, that told the tragic story of Rostum and his son Sohrab,” Habibullah said.

It is almost 70 years since this 78-year old villager heard those stories and yet he remembers every small detail of that epic.

“Storytelling was not just about amusing the audience. It was a lesson in moral education that gave one the essential sense of right and wrong.

“However mighty and powerful the villains of those stories might have been, it was always the good that triumphed over evil. Villainy ultimately never pays. That was the moral of all those stories,” he asserted.

The power of the storyteller’s narrative would keep the audience spellbound, he said.

“Never for even a moment did one lose attention as giant mythical birds lifted the princes in their mighty claws to fly over mountains and oceans.

“In his half-worn-out cloth bag, the storyteller carried books containing those fantastic stories. He would remember every story by heart and hardly needed to consult the book.

“However, if anyone in the audience questioned the authenticity of his narrative, the master had his book handy to counter the criticism,” Habibullah pointed out.

Memories of the bygone days always evoke strong nostalgia among the older people in Kashmir who believe that despite its ease and comfort, modern life can never fully rival the simplicity and thrill of the past.

“It doesn’t even snow like the past now. Kashmir would get heavy snowfall in the past. Roads would remain closed for months. The village would become your World. Every home had a cow, a small flock of sheep, a little poultry and enough stocked grain to last the winter months.

“Nobody would cry about lack of essential supplies those days. We had a self-reliant living. Today, even for milk, mutton and vegetables one needs to visit the market.

“Life has become so much dependent on supplies from outside. A week’s closure of the Jammu-Srinagar Highway, which is the lifeline of modern day supplies, is enough to throw Kashmiris into a tailspin these days.

“Life was more relaxed, we did not know diseases like depression and sleeplessness those days.

“One slept like a log on grass mats and today even the softest mattresses and quilts cannot put you to sleep,” Habibullah rued, blaming greed and the modern competitive attitude to life for most of our ills.

Habibullah is just one among many old Kashmiris who believe that losing connect with the past is no way to lead a fuller, happier and contended life.

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