A Postcard Bearing Treasure

  • Nausheen Naseer
  • Publish Date: Jan 8 2018 2:02AM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 8 2018 2:02AM
A Postcard Bearing Treasure

How a blog run by a Kashmiri woman and her friend is trying to revive interest in pieces of old literature and artwork that have faded into obscurity

 

The Indian subcontinent has a treasure trove of literature written in its regional languages but, unfortunately, it has been largely ignored, even forgotten.

Through Daak, or The Post, a blog cum reading group, a 27-year-old Kashmiri woman is trying to revive interest in pieces of old literature and artwork that have faded into obscurity. It is an attempt to record and preserve for posterity the rich, shared cultural heritage of the subcontinent.

Onaiza Drabu, an anthropology graduate from Oxford University, started Daak in May last year along with her friend, Prachi Jha, whom she met at the prestigious Young India Fellowship in 2013. On social media, they describe Daak as their «hours of aimless reading come to a useful end”.

“Prachi and I read a lot. We always wanted to write about old regional literature, but when we approached newspapers and magazines we were turned down because they wanted something more contemporary. That’s when we felt the need to start this initiative,” says Drabu, who worked with UNICEF in Kenya for nearly a year before returning to the valley to do research on Kashmiri folklore. Jha, 30, runs an NGO called Life Lab.

 

Preserving the past, a postcard at a time

By giving the nearly extinct art of letter writing a contemporary twist, Daak makes reading not just a visual treat, but also a nostalgic affair. It delivers weekly newsletters as digital postcards to its subscribers. The postcard may contain a brief summary of a short story, a couplet or just a humorous letter.

“We like to keep it short and crisp because people don’t really have time to read these days. So we try to summarise stories and poems as succinctly as possible and just explore their main themes,” says Drabu.

The postcard comes with a stamp, which is Daak’s logo, and features different patterns and designs. One of the stamps depicts the frescoes of the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, while another shows the paisley, a beautiful droplet-shaped Kashmiri motif.

“I do the graphic design while Prachi takes care of the newsletters, but we both take turns writing the posts,” says Drabu.

The blog carries posts about Urdu, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya and Assamese literature. There’s Naiyer Masud’s short story, Taoos Chaman ki Mayna, about a young widower; an Assamese poem appreciating the beauty of nature; NM Rashid’s free verse Urdu poem Hassan Koozagar; a lyrical essay by the famous ornithologist Salim Ali; a Bengali novel, Dozakhnama, which is “a biography of Manto and Ghalib and a history of Urdu literature and Indian culture”; a brutal Urdu marsiya by Mir Anees; and the personal letters of Ghalib, Manto and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Lesser known but fascinating Kashmiri stories also find a place on Daak. Servant of Sahibs is a Ladakhi pony herder’s autobiography that offers a rare glimpse into “culture, colonialism and language”; Akanandun is a gruesome folktale of cannibalism in which things turn out perfectly well for the two distraught parents in the end; Himal and Nagrai is again a folktale, about Kashmir’s supposed original inhabitants, the Nagas.

Drabu says she heard these folktales from her grandmother and uncle as a child, but could barely find any recorded collections of folktales when she grew up. “I scoured libraries and bookstores but found only two books on Kashmiri folktales,” she says. “It’s rare to find such books in Kashmiri. Most of the books are either written by white colonialists or are too old.”

 

Giving voice to women

Daak’s uniqueness lies in not just its simplicity, but also in its focus on women and women writers, especially those who did not conform to the norms of a patriarchal society.

“Prachi and I identify as feminists and I guess it shows,” Drabu laughs.

Daak features the works of Kamala Das, whose confessional writings were considered quite daring, and Ismat Chugtai, who had to face trial for obscenity for writing on «forbidden themes”; it talks about Amrita Shergill, whose sensuous paintings were dismissed as obscene.

There is also a story, Standayini, by Mahashweta Devi that explores “women’s positions in post-colonial India”.

“These were strong, unconventional women who pioneered feminist literature in the country and whose role in shaping its literary landscape cannot be ignored,” Drabu says.

 

‘Overwhelming response’

With nearly 3,000 followers on Facebook and 300 e-mail subscribers, Daak has grabbed the attention of avid readers from across India, even abroad.

“We have a very strong reader base in Africa and, of course, India,” says Drabu. “They regularly write to us asking for postcards and suggesting books and stories we should cover for the blog.”

She says the response has been so overwhelming that they now plan to launch their own merchandise and hold public events. The first public event will be organised used in Delhi in February and will include poetry readings, among other things.

“We might soon feature Nepali and Sri Lankan literature, too,” she says.

For two people with full-time jobs, reading and recording literature may seem too daunting a task to undertake, but, as Drabu says, it offers her and Prachi a chance to read exciting and diverse literature. In the process, they are creating a repository of cultural and intellectual wealth that risks being lost otherwise.