22 Oct 2017 16:09 IST

Battlefield Diwali

While the rest of India explodes with glee and smokes out cities and towns, it’s reality in Srinagar

Increasingly, Diwali has begun to seem like a battlefield, what with ear-splitting explosions, continuous bursting of bombs, continuous firing and entire areas covered in smoke. Even Chennai airport had smoke swirling inside it.

A school in Kashmir I visited recently was the scene of precisely such explosions and smoke. It wasn’t Diwali, though. It was a real gun battle between the CRPF and terrorists, who had run into the school campus. We don’t know for sure if they had entered the school grounds to escape the security forces who had been chasing them, or if they deliberately chose to ambush the school in an effort to frighten the management into closing it down. That has been part of the strategy of terrorists in Kashmir for a while now: shut down schools, deny children the opportunity to educate themselves, deny children childhood.

Choosing bravery

This happened in June. I was there in October as an invitee to Bookaroo, a children’s literature festival on its fourth outing in Srinagar since it started being hosted by Delhi Public School, Athwajan, in 2011. It took the security forces 14 hours to neutralise the terrorists. In the bargain, several buildings took a hit; the main building still carries bullet marks, now hastily patched up.

Although the incident took place after school hours, it was scary. However, the management decided it would not be cowed down by the efforts of cowardly gun-totters. It decided to go ahead with Bookaroo, and the Bookaroo organisers were up to the task. They were supported in their decision by a small group of artistes: writers, illustrators, storytellers, and animators from Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, and elsewhere.

And the children responded with even greater bravery and enthusiasm. T-shirts blazing red, green, yellow, blue, brown, and orange dotted the massive campus lying in the lap of a mountain that’s been steadily quarried. The excitement was palpable and shining eyes told their own story. Living in the midst of such turbulence and danger, the children were naturally and innocently defiant.

The dastan of Gandhiji

As dastango Fawzia explained before her storytelling to a group of 12 and 13-year-olds: Today, more than ever, we need to listen to Gandhiji. We live in such troubled times; there’s so much intolerance, disrespect, violence. That’s why she performs Dastan-e-Gandhi, the story of Gandhi in the dastangoi tradition of storytelling in Urdu. She is the only woman dastango in India at the present time. So, the opportunity that presented itself to watch her and listen to her stories was unique.

She very nearly didn’t present Gandhi that day, although that’s what had been scheduled. The morning session had not gone down well and she was upset. “They’re not interested because they know nothing about Gandhiji,” she said. “Besides, this is a subject close to my heart. I have worked hard at it, and I want his story to reach as many as possible. When the audience doesn’t listen, I feel personally hurt.” She had decided, instead, to do something from Jerome K Jerome or something else that would make a light hour of it. But I begged and pleaded: I have come only to listen to Dastan-e-Gandhi, I said. Please. She relented. “ Sirf aapke liye kar rahi hoon,” she said. Only for you.

And what a session that was. Storyteller Kamal Pruthi, artistic director of Kabuliwala, who had himself done a great interactive session with a large group of children with a story from Mulla Nasruddin just a little earlier, stepped in to introduce Fawzia, and fellow dastango Firoze, animator Chetan Sharma, his wife Prajakta and I were, by the end of the hour, choked with emotion — it wasn’t just the story of Gandhi, which is amazing no matter how many times you hear it. It was also the beauty and power of the telling. Now I don’t know Urdu, but I’ve discovered that when you listen with all your senses, you begin to understand. Listening to Hindi film songs also helps. We understood then why Fawzia had been so upset: it wasn’t artistic temperament, it was passion.

The passion of storytelling

That’s what storytelling is about. Passion. Truth-telling. Discovering yourself. Finding the core. Today, storytelling is used in every field. It can get moralistic, glib, manipulative. But fundamentally, stories are about people, about life and life forms and living. Stories unravel relationships. They explore feelings. Stories point you in directions. They entertain, but deep down, they inspire. Which is why sharing stories is so important.

Deepak Dalal, an ardent nature lover and conservationist based in Pune has written umpteen books on environment-related themes. He shared films about birds; local naturalists Tahir and Hamad took the children through birds found in Kashmir. As the pictures came on, the children chorused the names of those they knew: Haer! (mynah), Chaer! (female sparrow, the male is Kaantur), Satut! (hoopoe). They learned the names of others: Hazoor Dastan (blue whistling thrush), Safaed Daeb Bai (literally, dhobi’s wife, white wagtail), Sheene Pipin (streaked laughing thrush), Laet Raaze (yellow-billed blue magpie), Katij or Ababeel (barn swallow), Gaanth (black kite), Tchini Hangur (common starling), Raate mogul (Eurasian owl). Of course, everybody knew the Kaav and the Kol Toonch, the crow and the kingfisher!

Imagine, Deepak said, imagine if you were a bird and you could go anywhere you wanted anytime and then shared stories of their amazing intelligence and flight and strength and endurance through the toughest terrain and the harshest weather conditions. Much like what the people of Kashmir have been enduring for so many years.

Life goes on...

Still, when you walk through Nishat Bagh or go up to Pari Mahal, you see groups of young people, laughing, chatting, sharing cups of tea. There were so many groups of young men, singing together to the accompaniment of a guitar. Just a day earlier, Adnan Sami had held a concert and roads had been blocked. Life has to go on even through struggles and pain and the possibility of gunfire anytime, anywhere.

How do we explain the presence of tragedy and deprivation amid such beauty?