Munnu A Boy from Kashmir: Story telling at its most graphic

_38a6f0e8-7a22-11e5-9d61-41ab8e878eddMunnu A Boy from Kashmir

By Malik Sajad

Fourth Estate London

Book Review by Freny Manecksha

The frontispiece entitled Family Portrait has a sketch of five creatures that appear to have human characteristics but why do they sport antlers and elongated faces resembling deer?

Art Spiegelman, American cartoonist and strong advocate of comic book literacy, had chosen mice to portray the dehumanisation of the Jews by the Nazis during the Polish holocaust in his graphic book Maus. But what and why is Malik Sajad choosing to humanoid? The beguiling mystery gets an answer only in the last few chapters of the book.

The Family Portrait is followed by a panel of sketches that place Munnu, the central character, among his family followed by a drawing that pictorially locates Batmaloo, where Munnu’s family lives, in Srinagar along with the notable landmarks of the Eidgah and  the Lal Chowk and the river Jhelum coursing through the city. This is followed by a blob of a map siting Kashmir as being surrounded by India, Pakistan and China. The story begins with the recounting of the Family Portrait _ an annual occurance _ when eldest brother Bilal takes the five siblings to Manzoor Studio on Eid.

There would have been more pictures except that mother Haseena, whom they call Mamma, insists they celebrate modestly. She is mindful of the pain that a mother of a martyr may feel if they are seen “walking together like a cricket team.” And father Gulya, the strict disciplinarian, issues a threat of punishment if the children don’t comply with mother’s wishes.

With just these few sketches over three pages, graphic novelist Malik Sajad, thereby introduces himself (Munnu) and his lead characters and strategically places Kashmir not just geographically but geo-politically. Muted celebrations and small joys in a world of loss is beautifully brought in by the deft allusion to Eid and the deaths of the martyrs. It is a theme that will be an intrinsic part of the book’s narrative as it unfolds over 348 pages.

Interestingly, this sense of pervading loss that so typifies Kashmir is said to to be traced back to the times of Kashmir’s legendary poetess Habba Khatoon whose husband Yusuf Shah Chak, was tricked by the Mughals to leave Kashmir and   who was then imprisoned to die in exile. His widow roamed the Valley, singing her songs of grief, of transitory bliss being lost, of unfulfilled dreams. Since then Kashmir has never been free _ be it the Moghul rule , the Sikhs, the Dogras and now the Indian occupation. The book makes mention of this historic continuity of oppression. Arsh Mushtaq, a noted playwright of Kashmir who had made a short modern-day television adaptation of Habba Khatoon and Yusuf Shah’s love story told me how “this search, this element of suffering, of intense yearning, resonates deep in Kashmir.”

Sajad’s book, too recalls Habba Khatoon’s poems of political and social oppression, and is offered up as Kashmir’s own unique icon when a foreign artist speaks of hip-hop.

Richly layered in varied ways, Munnu A Boy from Kashmir, combines the power of the visual image with succinct text to present a story that is both personal and political. It is story-telling at its most vivid and powerful.

Malik Sajad, whose father was a skilled artisan carving embroidery designs on wooden blocks, began illustrating and drawing cartoons at a very young age. He worked for an Urdu publication before switching to the Greater Kashmir newspaper. His first experiments with the graphic novel came about after the killings of more than 112 people _ mostly youths_ in street protests and sangbaaz or stone pelting in the Valley in 2010. In his novella Kashmiri Intifada. Sajad chose to depict the Kashmiris as hanguls or the red stag deer, an animal that is an endangered species. It was the expansion of an idea that had been spawned in 2006 when he had drawn a cartoon of the stag and the Kashmiri next to each other with the tagline Endangered Species. He saw both as being threatened by occupation and the destruction of natural habitat and surroundings.

The hangul was also a potent metaphor for his short animation film Hopscotch that explores the ideas of frontiers, of maps with lines and borders. In the film a hangul is seen running fast and free until it comes up against barbed wire and gets entangled. Sajad had told me that he sees the hangul as an animal that longs to roam free and that he viewed it as an apt metaphor for the innocence of the Kashmiri demand for azadi.

Sajad who studied Visual Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, found his fascination for the graphic book grew as he saw it as a way of exploring the ways of story-telling. Through stories of common people and events that occurred in a small boy’s life in the nineties he opens up the doorway to examine events and political issues in a broader manner even as his protagonist, young Munnu grows in political consciousness.

The stories Sajad chooses to tell through sketches that are reminiscent of wood-cut blocks are of the myriad ways occupation has irretrievably impacted the lives of Kashmiris, of conflict and how it fractures society, of how there is cultural degradation of a once elegant city, (which was likened to the extension of chinar branches with doors and windows decorated with paisley) and of the bleak desolation of winter in a militarised landscape. Interwoven in these skeins are also stories of universal emotions and sentiments. Tender first love and poems for the divine Saima who studies with him in the Darasgah and how it ended in tears and a beating, stories of disappointments, of achievement when his first cartoon is printed, of hunger and desire for food and so on.

It is through the use of unusual similes, leitmotifs and juxtaposition of incidents or images that Malik Sajad reveals his sense of humour, wit and delicious sense of irony _ all the prerequisites of a good cartoonist and artist.  Thus a most ironic comment on the occupation and its cultural defilement comes with a drawing that tells us how young Munnu loves to draw and finds that whilst drawing a paisley or a chinar was pretty difficult it was easier to draw an AK-47. This also makes him very popular with the young boys.

Chocolates, toffees, almonds and cashews is the name for a chapter which begins with Imtiyaz , the bully, trying to woo pretty Saima of the Darasgah with the same. But the travails of young love are soon eclipsed with the horrific account of the killing of Mustafa, the militant, by the army after a crackdown. His dead body is dragged through the streets by an armoured vehicle. Chocolates, almonds and flowers make an appearance again when during Mustafsa’s funeral the same items are showered on his martyred body _ grief and celebration again being inextricably linked.

And in a bitter twist Imtiyaz is found later to be picking up the toffees and almonds from Mustafa’s grave.

The book is also enrichened by the way Sajad is able to imbue the stories with a cultural subtext and social milieu. There are many examples of the small but telling brush strokes. So even as Papa is breaking the news of Mustafa’s killing, not just to his children but also the universe, the sky turns red. This is an allusion to the popular Kashmiri belief that a grievous event was followed by a bloody sky.

Though the book is in English there is an effort to bring out the colloquialisms of Koshur and to retain its flavour by incorporating some phrases (“Ya Dastagir,” which is the exclamation and exhortation to Dastagir Sahib) and by sticking to the essence of the language in its translations especially the pithy curses!

Indeed one of the book’s concerns is the loss of Koshur as a language because of the occupation. There are incidents depicted whereby the children are punished for speaking in Koshur and not using Urdu.

In another drawing, mamma is shown in the background at the spinning wheel. This is an activity that many Kashmiri women pursued as a means of generating more income for the family and it is an example of Sajad’s attention to detail.

There is one more such detail at the tail-end of the book. Sajad includes Indian cartoonist Laxman’s Common Man as part of the Indian crowd that is shouting and watching as Munnu is being hustled away by the police in Delhi. Munnu is interrogated and held for “suspicious” activities of surfing on the internet on Kashmir and possessing a camera when explosions rocked the city.

This is also a brave and candid book. Bold in language, often sexually explicit, it does not shy away from critiquing many aspects of Kashmir’s society and some of the hypocrisies. There is reference to gender discrimination and sexual standards. There is criticism too of the politics in the resistance movement, of the media, intellectuals, the EU, international community and others. The book attempts to strike a balance whilst looking at the contentious issue of what triggered Pandit exodus and communal violence. A poignant episode is centred around Munnu’s school being relocated in an abandoned Pandit home.

The spotlight is also turned inwards as Munnu examines his own beliefs and behaviour, sometimes sharply and sometimes with self -deprecating humour. There is the episode in which he sets out to interview and meet with victims but is more obsessed with camera angles, flash and aperture. Or the episode when he feels scared for having criticised certain resistance groups whom he has termed  as “chicken patty revolutionaries” and then feels he must come out with an appeasement cartoon.

The denoument which ends on a surrealistic note sees him expressing an increasing disillusionment with global reactions to Kashmir. It marks his coming of age maturing from Munnu to Sajad, desperately searching for answers. As the darkness swallows up our protagonist we are left with his questions, his angst for himself and Kashmir.

Freny Manecksha is a journalist based in Mumbai.

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