Ruskin Bond’s new illustrated book The Kashmiri Storyteller consists of old unpublished stories that had been lying in his steel trunk for 40 years. The setting is Mussoorie in the Garhwal hills and the season is winter.
Every evening Kamal, Shashi, Vijay and other children of the poor and rich sit together in a circle around the brazier of Javed Khan, an elderly Kashmiri shopkeeper, and hear him tell tales. Puffing on his hookah, Khan opens up, chuckling at his own yarns of kings, beggars and farmers. At crucial points of a story, he may take a refreshing pull at the hookah, savouring the anxiety of his audience. Sometimes, he uses the opportunity to sell his gloves and shawls to the children.
If your child’s nanny is reading this book, she may love to permanently lock the little devil in Khan’s world. Here, disobedience “is a bad word and seldom needs to be used”. Here, “a few light strokes of the cane should be sufficient punishment”. Here, your child could also gain by Khan’s wise words—for instance, “A story never really ends, and happiness is something that comes and goes. It is as rare as the rainbow.”
The Kashmiri Storyteller: Illustrated by Prasun Mazumdar, Puffin Books, 103 pages, Rs 250.
Every year, as the snow melts and the blocked roads are opened to traffic, the storytelling shopkeeper leaves town to get new stock from his “own hills”. He will be back by March, but summer is the tourist season and Khan won’t have time for stories.
In the introduction to these old tales, Bond says, “The Kashmir in these stories is long gone, but most of the children are still around, and I hear of them from time to time. ‘Little Vijay’ is now in his fifties, while pigtailed Shashi is a grandmother. I wonder if they tell stories to their children and grandchildren, or do they just leave them to their laptops and TV sets? The oral tradition of storytelling has just about died out. But the written word is still around. It won’t go away so easily.”