Munnu A Boy from Kashmir review: Around barbed wires, many lives

  • Fahad Shah, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 24, 2015 13:15 IST
Kashmiri school kids playing during recess in Kulhama district, Bandipora on August 11, 2015, in Srinagar, India. (Waseem Andrabi/ Hindustan Times)

Whether it is Joe Sacco on the Palestine conflict or the Bosnian war, or the works of other artists, graphic stories and novels have often documented daily life in conflict-ridden regions around the world. Likewise, artist Malik Sajad’s first graphic novel, Munnu, is a remarkable portrayal of the situation in Kashmir.

Sajad’s 348-page book is the first attempt to draw both the inclusive and exclusive sensitivities of life in the politically-torn Kashmir Valley. Incidentally, Sajad has been drawing cartoons for a local daily since he was 15. In his daily cartoons, he has touched upon almost all the issues of the region and earned acclaim for his sharpness and clarity. Years ago, when I worked at the same newspaper, I would see him sitting in a small cabin of the office — pondering, sketching and drawing the cartoon for the next day’s edition. It was fascinating to see how he produced a fine piece of work every evening.

In the book, the characters are humanoids of the endangered hangul (deer) species. The protagonist Munnu is partly autobiographical and tells the story of mid-1990s Kashmir, when Sajad was also growing up and came to understand the changing political fabric around him. It is this period of Sajad’s life — being a small boy, who loves to help his skilled father; a student whose interest in art grows; a young cartoonist paving his way through the ups and down of the media industry; living in one of the most affected areas of Kashmir during the 1990s armed uprising — that forms the spine of the central character.

Born in Srinagar in a family of seven, with a father who is also an artist, Munnu doesn’t like going to school. The journey there or to a local market always means passing through various army camps and barricades. He finds it threatening and intimidating. When a boy in the neighbourhood is killed, Munnu gets nightmares. Finally, a soothsayer helps him get rid of them.

Such significant details of Munnu’s life explain the essence of the Valley, where spirituality has always played a role in tending to rising depression. Children of conflict, like Munnu, can’t evade nightmares, as it is the reality with which they live.

At times, resistance emerges from such circumstances. The artist addresses several instances — whether they are in the mid-90s or during the seasons of bloodshed in 2008 and 2010 — and shows how such periods of resistance meant the loss of lives and more repression.

The novel also subtly addresses several social issues. Self-criticism is very important for a society experiencing chaos and that has been finely done in this book — something that I have observed has been lacking in previous literary works about Kashmir.

The unsaid understanding in some quarters is that to critique a resistance movement is to demean the people’s struggle. But then how does one shed the flaws to grow stronger?

In one instance, Munnu feels like he would be betraying the cause by criticizing the resistance leadership. “You know they look like revolutionaries in the photoshopped pictures in the newspapers,” he says, “but they don’t even write their own statements most of the time…” (pg. 176).

He doesn’t give up, though. In the concluding part of the book, Munnu meets “Paisley” (pg. 237) – an American researcher, whom he shows around the city, accompanies as she visits Pandit houses, and leads in a brief walk through history. But Paisley fails to understand him and before that mesmerizing love could grow, the relationship falls apart. Again Munnu is alone, working at his desk, and thinking about how Kashmir is changing.

A strong work of literature in graphic form, Munnu reflects upon Kashmiri politics and society. It allows the reader to understand what it is like to grow up in Kashmir and to live as a citizen of one the most militarized zones in the world. The book’s detailed drawings are purely Kashmiri and at its core are the unaddressed miseries faced by the people. Munnu is an illuminating book for those who want to read about and see a true picture of Kashmir through the perspective of a local.

Fahad Shah is a journalist and writer. He is the editor of the anthology Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir (2013).

Munnu - A Boy from Kashmir
Malik Sajad
Fourth Estate
R473, PP352

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