Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Guest Post by Sandhya Rao: Stories Are for Sharing

Tulika author Sandhya Rao describes her experience of the Srinagar Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature in a guest post.

Back in the day when mention of Kashmir evoked filmy duets and romantic honeymoons,  it was de rigueur to go to Jehangir for the best description of its beauty: Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast. (If there is heaven on earth it is here, it is here, it is here.) It was also the done thing for girls to return from a holiday ‘up north’ with a photograph of oneself fitted out as a Kashmir ki kali. Go to any of the tourist spots, particularly the gardens even today, and you will find Kashmir ki Kali corners. The studio has spread its wings. But now, though, everywhere, there are also signs of siege. Military trucks, checkpoints, security forces… It’s a way of life. As artist Nishwan Rasool, a native of Srinagar, pointed out: There’s an Adnan Sami concert tomorrow, the roads will be blocked. Today is Friday, the roads will be blocked. And we said: Bookaroo’s in town, the roads will be blocked.
Students of DPS with mountains in the background
Delhi Public School, Athwajan, which hosted Bookaroo’s fourth outing in Srinagar on October 7 and 8, is located on the outskirts of the city, and sprawls over vast grounds from the back of which rise low mountains, now the site of pretty major quarrying. In June this year, the school was the site of a 14-hour gun battle between the CRPF and two terrorists who had run into the compound. It wasn’t very clear if they had entered the school deliberately, in pursuit of their agenda to bring education to a halt in the region, or if they were trying to hide from the security forces. Luckily, this happened after school hours. The two men were neutralised eventually, but in the bargain some parts of the school were destroyed and its main building was pockmarked with bullet holes. However, the management – the DP Dhar Memorial Trust – pulled out all stops to ensure that signs of the ugly incident were quickly removed and their children were back in school as soon as possible. The staff at all levels went all out to minimise trauma. Sticking with Bookaroo as planned was part of this effort. Therefore, all credit to the school and to Bookaroo’s organisers for standing tall. When you consider that Principal Balasubramaniam Murali had taken charge barely six months ago, you understand the enormity of the responsibility the school was willing to shoulder. Bookaroo proved that the children, too, were equal to the task.
My previous tryst with Bookaroo Srinagar, back in 2011, had seen a more mela-like atmosphere in the school, with children from other schools invited on one day, and parents trailing their wards. This time around, it was restricted to students of this school, from little ones right up to 13 and 14-year-olds. Children from the higher classes were volunteer organisers, running up and down the huge campus accompanying guests to their sessions, getting the little ones to behave, and occasionally stealing secret glances at each other. Truly, the sweetness and innocence of teenage is delicious to behold.
We were kept on our toes – illustrators, animators, storytellers, writers, Bookarooers, all. While back-to-back events may have been too much for the children to digest, there was no option given the time constraints. I chose to preface Stories on the Sand with a physical understanding of where we were located. I held my hands out sideways and said, pointing to my head, “This is where we are, Jammu and Kashmir, the brains of India, the dimaag.” The heart, the dil, is located around the heart-stomach area, covering UP, Bihar, MP, and the surrounding states, with the states on the east and west, and those in the south constituted the arms and legs. What are we, I asked? Brains, heart, hands, legs… We are India. Oblivious to all the excitement was this one little thing who was upset because she had had a fight with her best friend. No amount of luring with pictures of green sand and black sand and red sand would distract her. That’s friendship. The Dream Writer group was smaller and more vociferous. Called upon to elaborate on their dreams, it was amazing how bloodthirsty they all turned out to be, with each one churning out a story scarier than the previous one!
Dastango Fawzia's session
I was lucky I got to attend one or two sessions by fellow participants. Fawzia is the only female dastango in India. She and Firoze presented Dastaan-e-Gandhi: a mesmerising hour of traditional dastangoi (Urdu storytelling) that brought Mahatma Gandhi alive in the mind’s eye. This is her dream project, Fawzia says, very close to her heart. As she explained to the children, she feels now more than ever we need to heed Gandhi. It’s true that our children are getting distanced from the real stories of our past, both in the course of chronological progression and by virtue of political disenfranchisement and lack of engagement. But we must carry on telling these stories because even one seed can grow into a tree. Kamal Pruthi is Kabuliwala, storyteller, performer, linguist. Although he was not entirely satisfied with his Mulla Nasruddin session, I felt the excitement pulsating among the children as he wove in and out of the concentric circle of children, provoking them, challenging them, entertaining them, goading them. Even more special was the way he spontaneously and generously undertook to introduce Dastan-e-Gandhi, contextualising it, stressing its relevance, and requesting the children to make an effort to listen even if they didn’t follow the language entirely.
Memories of Bookaroo Srinagar will be incomplete without mentioning the wonderful dinner at the Dhars’ beautiful, sprawling home where even the bathrooms are an aesthetic experience. The highlight was meeting Kashmir’s leading artist, Masood Hussain. He had lost everything in the floods save seven precious paintings. Still, he managed to rescue some 80-90 others who had been stranded during that natural calamity. What were those paintings you rescued, I asked, and got this story in response: Agha Shahid Ali was a leading Kashmiri-American poet. Some years ago, he had given Hussain seven couplets describing Kashmir, with a request that he render them as paintings. The couplets lay with the artist for a while, and then, finally paintings emerged. The floods came. These were the seven he retrieved.
Hussain shared thepoems and the paintings with me through an article in The Wire, and I know he will not mind my sharing one couplet, entitled ‘A mind of winter for the vale’ by Agha Shahid Ali:
Find the invincible summer in your heart when you, in the depths of winter, come to the slopes of the Vale where even gods have sought refuge…and then regard the frost and the pines crusted with snow.
When I read this poem and saw the painting, I couldn’t stop my eyes from welling up. How many Bookaroos will it take for the roads in Srinagar to be free-flowing, I wondered, and for all children and their families and friends to listen to stories without a care as it is the right of children anywhere in the world? Everywhere in the world.

Sandhya Rao can’t thank her stars enough that there are so many stories in this world and so many wonderful writers to bring them home to us. She loves the sound of words in any language. Her current favourite word is evet yes, in Turkish! She is also a journalist and writer of children’s books. She believes that if we let children play with books, they will read them.

Here are her books available on our website.

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