Once upon a time...

Once upon a time…

It’s a phrase that transports the reader to a world of pure bliss, to a land of fairies and djinns, kings and queens, princes and princesses, stars and planets, where animals converse and mystery, wonder, magic and learning enraptures with the turn of every page.

In the world of today where information and entertainment are available at the click of a button instead of visits to the library or browsing through books in a shop, what does one do when one doesn’t have the internet to one’s disposal? The clicks and swipes that brought information and entertainment came to a standstill a year ago as history was rewritten. How would we keep ourselves occupied as moments ticked away and days turned into months in the confines of our homes? The collection of books that gathered dust, mute spectators to the happenings of every day; now begged to be picked. All the books I had bought, some left halfway, some still in its poly sheath, were devoured in no time. I wondered what my school kids were doing to kill time, knowing home libraries rarely exist. A deep ache within me is aroused as I think of the gaping void of the genre of Children’s Literature in Kashmir, particularly in the English language with contextualization to the Valley which possesses such rich and unique history, culture, flora and fauna.

The lockdown caused by the pandemic and the closure of schools amidst the fears of the virus spreading initiated various forms of learning online. This shutdown was different as we still had access to the internet, even though 2G. As schools struggled to continue ‘learning from home’ via various apps and software big names in publishing children’s literature like Karadi Tales and Scholastic  India. etc. conducted live streaming of story-telling sessions in English. The stories ranged from folktales national and international to stories related to science. As I was participating in the lively storytelling sessions, some included singing and dancing to bring the stories to life. There were stories from West Bengal, Punjab, Lucknow, Greece and even from Ladakh. How I wished there was a story for children from our beautiful Valley as well.

Children’s Literature in Kashmir:

Kashmir has a rich oral tradition which is declining as families are being reduced to nuclear units, and the tradition of the storyteller (Dastaangu) who enthralled with his endless stories are over. A. K. Ramanujan has said, stories are just ‘a grandmother away’.  Grandmothers sang lullabies and told bedtime stories until the children fell asleep, stories were narrated as a past time during the long winter days. But this has gradually changed over the recent years. In a nuclear family, a parent might read to a child or probably a child will read for himself. What if a child doesn’t own a few books that he/she likes; can’t it be compensated by borrowing books from the school or public library? In my opinion, we have failed our children in this regard. The tradition of storytelling from time immemorial has been lost but our stories deserve to be preserved. Children live in several worlds all at once; the every day and the imaginary and they have no difficulty in switching back and forth. Unfortunately, our children are being deprived of the simple pleasures as Children’s Literature is a neglected genre.

Sadrudin Bach who used to be the Minister of Information held a competition in 1979. Professor Zaman Azurdah penned ‘Guldasta’ for children, which was later published. State Cultural Academy’s Kashmiri section had translated Amin Kamil’s ‘Asal Prai’ and Nazir Kulgami’s ‘Gindan Prai’ some years ago. In 2012, they published two volumes of G N Aatash’s ‘Kashir Shuir Adbich Somrag’.  The Cultural Academy names a few books written for children which have been published so far by the Academy.

Chan Mama’, a collection of stories in the Pahadi language authored by Parvez Manous, is one of the few books written for children. Governor N N Vohra, in 2014 commissioned Parvez Manous to write another book for children. The book Parvez penned is titled ‘Papa Jaldi Aa Jana’, a collection of stories for children in Urdu. Zareef Ahmad Zareef won Sahitya Academy Award for his book, a compilation of verses and rhymes ‘Chanchi Poot’. Sadly, not much has been written for children in the Urdu language after Professor Zaman Azurdah wrote ‘Guldasta’ in 1979. It was republished once in 2003. But is this enough for the children of Jammu and Kashmir? Prominent authors like Amin Kamil, Rahman Raahi, Zareef Ahmad Zareef, Parvez Manous, Qayoom Sabir, Zamaan Aazardah and many others have written for the genre of Children’s literature. I wonder why the authors of Children’s books disappear into oblivion. As much as stories in regional languages are important, so are prose and poetry in the global English language with contextualisation to Kashmir is vital to the academic and cultural ethos. Can a concerned department or civil society be held responsible? The government and other institutions that could have promoted their writings and encouraged newer authors to attract more children towards literature and reading have failed the children of the valley. Zareef Ahmad Zareef adds that “A society bereft of its literature and languages is doomed. There are countless stories that our children need to know and get inspiration from, if they are kept ignorant of those stories, what will happen to our future?” Therefore, he too thinks that a clarion call to poets and authors is need of the hour to focus towards this neglected genre.

Unfortunately, the attitude of publishers, teachers, parents is that books for children are seen necessary only for acquiring reading and writing skills, general knowledge and no more. There is a segment of parents who are encouraging their children to read tangible books despite the IT revolution with ipads and Kindle readers. In the past few years, Cafes with books have sprung up in the valley, which I believe is a very positive sign. There is an age-old saying, ‘Reading is not taught, it is caught’. Change in the mindset of the Parent community is also essential to understand the benefits of encouraging their child to read.

There is a need to develop Children’s literature in English taking the best from our narrative and folk traditions to produce literature that is truly distinctive to Kashmir similar to the Panchatantra, Jataka & Aesop’s Fables or even the Thousand and One Nights tales. The flow of Children’s books has always been from the west to east. It is high time for a fair exchange, books must move in both directions. Our stories must cross boundaries and be heard across the Pir Panjal and overseas. Kashmir has great Authors who have written for international publications. There is no dearth of talent in Kashmir and I hope writers give flight to their imagination realizing the crying need and write for children of the valley and skilful artists who will illustrate. It is in our hands to bring change in the literary scene in the Valley for the sake of our future generations and our identity. Now that the New Education Policy encourages the use of the regional language/mother-tongue I hope there will be some improvement in the genre of Children’s literature in Kashmiri, Urdu & English.

Grace Paljor is Principal St. Paul’s International Academy, Srinagar