The Legend of Himal and Nagrai – Greatest Kashmiri Folk Tales Retold by Onaiza Drabu

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews The Legend of Himal and Nagrai reflecting how these stories offer a yarn of peace from Kashmir through the tales sorted from the memory lane of the Kashmiris (Speaking Tiger, 2019)

  • Title: The Legend of Himal and Nagrai
  • Author: Onaiza Drabu
  • Publisher and date of publication: Speaking Tiger Books (10 December 2019)

Onaiza Dabru makes her debut with the book The Legend of Himal and Nagrai. Dabru is an anthropologist from Kashmir. Her works focus on the issues of identity, nationalism and Islamophobia. She co-curates a newsletter on South Asian art and literature called Daak. The folktales in The Legend of Himal and Nagrai reflect Dabru’s pride for her identity and offer a yarn of peace from Kashmir through the tales sorted from the memory lane of the Kashmiris. On reading the stories, one can sense the amplitude in the rich age-old stories that are passed on from generation to generation and these stories allow the self an aesthetic indulgence of one’s culture. The stories come in the form of myths, legends, fables and anecdotes filled with the attributes of the complex yet peaceful co-existence of the cultural confluence nestled in the heavenly Jammu and Kashmir since ages. Dabru highlights the manner in which proverbs, idioms and rituals form a chain of a metaphor of the diversity that Kashmir is. The superstitions, the cruel twist of irony, the luck and misfortunes, the prince and the pauper, the beautiful evil women, the underworld and the world of the animals in the folklores speak in volume of the race, the Kashmiris and their love for the enchanted and boundless imagination. Moreover, the peris from the dastaans of Persian folklore and the nagas from the Panchatantra of Sanskrit stories harmoniously amalgamate and co-exist in the folktales from Kashmir. This influence of the confluence is evident in the nature of the multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious flavouring of the folktales.

Kashmir is known for its natural beauty and at the same time it is notorious for making headlines as conflict-ridden in recent years. More often associated with the notions of the latter, Dabru’s folktales are an expression that Kashmiris root for their rich cultural heritage to enliven their identity and to battle oblivion and nostalgia. Political turmoil may have had its toll on its people but Dabru through the retelling of the Kashmiri folktales affirms that communication blockades from other reasons cannot disconnect them from their longstanding tales that are a way of life and a system of communication for the Kashmiris. Besides, Dabru in a passionate and insightful ‘Introduction’ in the book familiarises bibliophiles about her take on the significance of bringing out the book and that the folktales are not just a reminiscence of what home is to them but is also, a beacon of hope that upholds memory in the face of factors that drives towards erasure. The Kashmiri voice in the folktales retold by Dabru transports authenticity to the stories that are full of magic and wisdom of life. Discovering the folk origin of the folksong “Bhumbro, Bhumbro!” which was popularised in a Bollywood film in the story Soda Byor, Boda Byor forms a delightful encounter.

In The Legend of Himal and Nagrai there is wit, hope and humour stuffed amidst the tales of sorrow, sadness, misdeeds and misfortunes.

The tale of Himal and Nagrai is one of the most famous folktales of the valley. In the folktales retold by Dabru, this tale appears as the fifth story of the first section ‘Tales from Pataal’. In it, she builds the momentum of the re-telling with interjections like Dapaan and Ama, and also, introduces the protagonist Saddaram, who is deemed a shikaslad, meaning a harbinger of misfortune by his friends to acquaint the reader to the flavours of Kashmiri storytelling. The craft in the choice of words and narration awakens us to that beauty in the reality of Kashmiris, which is not the reality of the place so often thought about, in today’s times. Lending a Kashmiri voice, she follows the tradition of storytelling in the book with a set of 29 folktales that are neatly divided in four sections: Tales from Pataal, Tales from the Janawar, Tales from Zameen and Tales from Bol Chal. Each section has a warm-up word-meaning page that helps the audience set the pace to delve into the story in the Kashmiri way. Dabru parades a collection of the greatest Kashmiri folktales, which are carefully chosen to immediately connect to their love for stories. She shows faith in the art of storytelling and participates in the further enriching of the folktales by carefully working on her contribution as a creator and as a curator in the re-telling of the tales in her voice. Moreover, towards the end of the book, there is a section called ‘Dictionary of Kashmiri Imponderabilia‘, which is a special attraction. In this, Dabru calls the list a dictionary of memory and puts down some of the untranslatable words and phrases that are the inseparable nuances of the culture in the language.

In The Legend of Himal and Nagrai there is wit, hope and humour stuffed amidst the tales of sorrow, sadness, misdeeds and misfortunes. In the book, there are elements of the wealth of culture and language that are lost in the translation but what is gained from reading the translation outweighs the loss. There are a variety of stories for everyone and anyone to partake. Be it the story of star-crossed-lovers, the stories of unusual friendships, the story of Jinns and Devs, the story of the couple who wanted a son, the story of the clever vizier, the story of the wise prodigal goat, the story of Sen Kisser or of King Azad Bakht, and the many other stories embedded in the guise of the omens, superstitions, tricks and the magic tells of a hope in the innate goodness of man and why it matters. Somewhere between the believable and the unbelievable, Dabru manages to bring home reminiscence of childhood and the idea of home through her retelling of the Kashmiri folktales. Unmistaken similarities in the folktales draw the universal affinity to these stories but the authenticity that comes from the way of telling through the voice of a Kashmiri makes it a unique retelling of the stories. The cover of the book is an add-on as a beautiful illustration of the folktale in the title captures your imagination even before you start stepping into the pool of stories and a striking quote from the American Indologist Wendy Doniger tells you exactly why this take of the folktales by a Kashmiri voice from their living realms is a cherishable factor to own the book and read about them. These make the book an exciting edition and a must-have addition in the library of those who are not just interested in the folktales but also in the culture of Kashmir or culture in general. 

About the reviewer

Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English literature and communication skills at the Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. She is also a freelance copy editor and copy writer. Settled in the western shores of the Arabian Sea, she loves Nature besides reading over a hot cup of tea. She can be reached at

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