Okus-Bokus: A book that tells English alphabet through Kashmiri words

Okus-Bokus: A to Z for Kashmiri Children; Text: Onaiza Drabu; Illustrations: Ghazal Qadri; Pages: 59; Price: Rs 600
Do you have any children’s books in Kashmiri?’ I’d phoned Gulshan Books, Kashmir’s most prominent bookstore in Srinagar, its largest city, in July. They had none. In the following weeks, koshurwear.com without a formal launch.

Titled after a Kashmiri lullaby that is a distortion of “Hukus Bukus” — meaning who are you and who am I — the book tells the English alphabet through Kashmiri words in Roman script and the valley’s cultural references, as well as the other way round, introducing Kashmiri culture through the English alphabet. The protagonists are three endearing, rotund, Chillai Kalan — the harshest phase of the Kashmiri winter — is warm with Naen’s quips to their endless questions.

The book features the Booyn, or Chinar, tree that was brought to Kashmir from Iran; the last page is dedicated to Zain ul-Abideen, the beloved Kashmiri ruler from seven centuries ago

Each letter in the alphabet spreads across two pages, one each for text and illustrations. The playful characters are drawn by 25-year-old Ghazal Qadri alias Alif. She credits Tom & Jerry as an influence: “I try to bring out humour in everyday life through my illustrations.” The writer is another Srinagar woman, 29-year-old Onaiza Drabu, who has earlier done a flipbook for kids on counting in Kashmiri. Neither had storybooks from their culture while growing up. “I wish there were [such books]. I would be speaking better Kashmiri today,” says Qadri. “Even people who’ve lived in Kashmir don’t know that Chinar is called [B]booyn from Iran to Kashmir.

Drabu designed Okus-Bokus to be read to younger audiences by parents, guardians, or other adults, and has left unexplained bits to trigger conversations between the parties. The children’s characters have secular names for a trans-religious readership aged seven and above, including “those in the diaspora who might not be fully familiar, and also who might be unfamiliar with Kashmir and Kashmiri culture”.

For faraway people

The Kashmiri Pandit community — whose 1990s’ exodus after they became targets of militancy kept its children from experiencing this lived culture — are the majority of the book’s online buyers currently, according to Drabu. Twenty-six-year-old physics undergraduate Himanish Ganjoo, whose Kashmiri Hindu family migrated from Sopore to Jammu and Delhi, shares his fragmented learnings on Kashmir: “My exposure to Kashmiri literature happened only recently when I discovered [L]al Ded”. Staying with grandparents — like Billa-Munni — in Jammu, though, introduced Ganjoo to Kashmiri food essentials unavailable around his Delhi home. kandur (Kashmiri baker), stays on his mind.

“All I know of Kashmiri culture is from the folktales and legends my grandparents tell me,” says Akshima Kalla, a 26-year-old digital marketing professional from Sonamarg who grew up in Delhi. “There’s been nothing by way of books because I can’t read and write Kashmiri, sadly.”

Demand-supply complex

Knowledge of the Kashmiri text is limited even among resident Kashmiris; naturally, children’s literature is negligible. Kashmiri or Koshur, the only Dardic language — a branch of Indo-Aryan languages spoken in regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir — with an extensive literature, has been sidelined by ruling establishments for several centuries. Recently, Urdu, which is presently dominant along with English, in the region’s educational institutions, was introduced as official language by Dogra rulers in the 19th century. After Kashmir acceded to the Indian Union in 1947, Koshur was made a compulsory school subject. But in 1953, it was discontinued when the Indian government made sweeping changes to Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, as it did recently. Resultantly, generations of Kashmiris can only speak their language, at best, and not read or write it.

“School taught me Kashmiri as a third language for barely two years, around 2008,” says 27-year-old social worker Imad Ul Riyaz, who studied at a prominent Srinagar school. “But there were no dedicated teachers.” Though Imad can’t write Kashmiri, he credits his fluent spoken Koshur to grandmothers, both of whom can converse only in this language.

In 2008, the government ordered that Kashmiri be taught up to middle school. This order was sparsely effective amid staff shortages. Nearly a decade later in 2017, teaching of Kashmiri was extended to classes 9 and 10 but barely implemented, while activists now demand that Kashmiri be taught till higher secondary level.

Moreover, curfews and conflict regularly disrupt Kashmiri children’s education. In 2016, after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed, curfew lasted for over 130 days. Currently, too, school attendance has been negligible after the Union government ordered schools to be opened following a fortnight of lockdown while other restrictions remained. This impedes learning, including that of Koshur, with its already limited weight in school education.

Despite this, the resilience of Kashmiri culture is hope. Okus-Bokus, the roads have no blockades, Billa-Munni have high-speed internet to outsmart Naen, and Yaemberzal blooms away from the shadow of guns.

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