Kashmiri: language of lively wit and earthy humour

Greater Kashmir

At the outset, I would like to thank the readers of Greater Kashmir for their heartwarming response to my last article (my first in this newspaper) which was based on my childhood memories of Kashmir. Some of you prompted me to share some more memories, and so I began rummaging through my mind to fetch out some worthwhile tidbits. In doing so I realised that a very pleasurable element (albeit a very subtle one) during my annual visits to Kashmir was listening to talk in our mother tongue, Kashmiri.

Believe me, it is a real challenge to keep one’s mother tongue alive when one is outside one’s native environs. Growing up in Delhi from the age of four, I have mostly heard a mishmash of Hindi, English and Panjabi. Of course, my parents always conversed in Kashmiri (and still do), but as our (my brother’s and mine) tongues were already used to Hindustani, that language became our convenient lingua franca. Today, most of my professional interactions are in English and my personal conversations are in Hindustani. Moreover, we (that is, the residents of Delhi-NCR) are constantly bombarded with TV news programmes in English or Hindi. So it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to find a ‘context’ to talk in one’s mother tongue.

To return to my memories of Kashmir, I remember how I would stop and listen in childish fascination when I used to hear the local residents talking in Kashmiri. These could be our neighbourhood ‘kaandur’ or ‘daandur’ or the fruit-seller on the street, or even the ‘shikarawalas’ and ‘tangawalahs’ we came in contact with. While Kashmiri spoken by polished intellectuals is the smooth, refined version of the language, the one spoken by the working classes carries the local accent and singsong intonation that is equally attractive. I vividly remember how, once when we were walking leisurely in Srinagar, we came across a couple of urchins quarreling loudly at a street-corner. Facing each other squarely, looking like little adults in their small ‘pherans’, they were hurling the choicest epithets at each other (which of course I did not understand then). But in their childish voices, even the heated exchange sounded sweetly innocent.

If I had grown up in Kashmir, I might have taken my mother tongue for granted, but when one’s exposure to the language is limited, one thirsts for it all the more. At this point, I recall a beautiful television serial ‘Gul Gulshan Gulfaam’ (telecast on DD National in the 1990s), every episode of which was watched by me and my family with the utmost pleasure. Though its linguistic medium was not Kashmiri, the characters were; and that was enough to reconnect us to our roots. The bilingual (Urdu and Kashmiri) title song, written by eminent poet Farooq Nazki and set to music by noted Kashmiri composer Krishan Langoo, was a picture of beauty in poetry:

Dalchyan malryan seemaab deeshith, aaftaab washlaan washlaan draav;

Aalav vanhaaryan hund boozyith, shokhu te bulbul vanvaan draava.

(Seeing the sparkling silver on the waters of the Dal lake, the Sun came out blushing; hearing the calls of the ‘mayna’ the parrot and the cuckoo came out singing.)

And this brings me to DD Kashir. My family and I watch it as often as we can, since it is the sole Kashmiri language television channel that we receive. One programme we particularly relished was ‘Kathan Chhu Maanay’ (anchored by Zareef Ahmad Zareef, in his characteristic engaging style). Not only did I learn much about Kashmir and Kashmiriyat, I added many words to my (passive) vocabulary. Another TV progamme that was watched by my entire family was ‘Kus Bani Koshur Karorpaet’. Informative and entertaining at the same time, it became yet another opportunity to enhance my knowledge of Kashmiri language and traditions.

Speaking of Indian regional languages, while most of them are based on Sanskrit, Urdu is almost entirely based on Persian. However, Kashmiri is a unique combination of Sanskrit and Persian. On the one hand, it contains words such as ‘khir’ (Sanskrit root ‘ksheer’ or milk), ‘chhalun’ (Sanskrit root ‘prachhalan’ or ‘to wash’), ‘kruhun’ (Sanskrit root ‘krushna’ or dark), davun (Sanskrit root ‘dhava’ or ‘to run’); on the other hand there are plenty of words such as ‘koh’ (Persian for mountain). These are just a few examples; of course there are plenty of other words — padaash, tashaddud, tasroof, etc.

The charm of the Kashmiri language is mainly in its spoken form. A conversation between two old-timers is a delightful experience, peppered with pithy sayings and vivid expressions such as ‘thadyan guryan khasyith’ (arrogance of the high and mighty), ‘bonyi muhul taarun’ (so difficult as to be almost impossible), and ‘hoonyis aesas manz zang’ (being under extreme stress). Not being a Kashmiri-speaking person, however, does not deprive me of the enjoyment of listening to the spoken language (as I understand most of it). I remember once, when I was a child, my grandmother describing a rather skinny young man in the words: “Hai, kaav niyas toontyi kyath!” On learning the meaning of the expression from my mother, my brother and I collapsed with laughter as we pictured the poor emaciated fellow being carried away in a crow’s beak. Such are the pleasures of colloquial Kashmiri !

While it is desirable (and even necessary these days) to speak good English, one’s mother tongue cannot be neglected for that reason. More than anything else, it is a common language that ensures connectedness among a group of people. Ethnically Kashmiris are among the smaller groups in the world. Therefore it is imperative that the language be kept alive in its purest form, at least through the oral medium, so that the great culture behind the language may be preserved. A rich, warm and picturesque language such as Kashmiri must be passed on to future generations with its colours bright and its flag flying high.

(The author is a free-lance writer, editor and translator based in Delhi-NCR.)