Malik Sajad takes time to open up. He shifts about his seat nervously, asks for a glass of water, laughs a little even as he looks somewhat lost. Then he takes a deep breath. “I never want to come back to Delhi again. Ever,” the cartoonist for the Srinagar daily Greater Kashmir says between sips of water.
Slowly, in fits and bursts, he starts to talk. “I had gone down to the cyber café to send my cartoons on Saturday, the day the Delhi blasts happened. As soon as they realised I am a Kashmiri, they started asking me for my passport and called up the police. I could only be free after 45 minutes once I reached the India Habitat Centre,” says the 20 year-old Kashmiri, currently in Delhi for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust film festival at the Habitat Centre.
By now, the soft-spoken, fragile youngster has started to open up. “For the first time in five years since I joined GK [Greater Kashmir], I have had to skip my column.” He started his daily cartoon column ‘Inside Out’ when he was 15. But cartooning began even earlier for Sajad. “It started with a children’s column in an Urdu daily. I was 13, but everybody loved my sketches. The editor then told me, my cartoons were not for the children’s space but for the edit pages,” he says, pointing to a cartoon titled ‘Peace Process’, showing two politicians holding a beacon of the ‘Indo-Pak peace process’ and running on treadmill — and of course not going anywhere forward.
From that point, whether it was an ‘encounter’ that took place in his school, or a firing on unarmed protestors, Sajad would draw whatever he saw. “Even this Delhi policewoman’s face... I sketched it after she left,” he says opening a page on his sketchbook.
In his works, Sajad developed the caricature of the ‘common man’ à la R.K. Laxman — always stuck between politicians, the State, the army. “The common man wears a small skullcap; the elite wear tall caps,” he points to another cartoon of a man bound and a gun pointed at him.
But he hasn’t always been able to ‘get away’ with it. At 15, Sajad depicted the army’s high handedness in a cartoon. Officials went to the Greater Kashmir office to arrest him. But the paper stood behind him and there’s still a certain safety at home in Kashmir. “Besides, they said I couldn’t be the cartoonist, ‘He’s far too young’ they said,” he laughs.
Then, two years ago, the copies of the paper were burnt in Jammu.
But all that, Sajad adds quickly, is almost ‘normal’ in Kashmir. He’s also planning a graphic novel — inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. “It’s my story; it’s every little boy’s story in Kashmir,” is all he says as a curtain raiser.
Going through his sketchbook, one can see there’s a change in his style. “Earlier, I would sketch three-dimensional stuff. Now there’s less of detailing. It’s more simple now.” What hasn’t changed is the repeated reference to the ‘disillusionment with the talks’, with the roundtable conferences that are always going ‘round and round’, the human rights excesses, both in and outside Kashmir. The humour, always dark, is sometimes subtle, sometimes direct. Strangely (or not so strangely), for a political cartoonist, Sajad won’t talk about his political views. “I’m an artist. I only draw what I see. I don’t know the State, the politics, the Army. I only talk of the guy on the street.”
The word ‘peace’ frustrates Sajad. “What is peace? I know only the dictionary meaning. I have never seen it. What I have seen is friends being killed. What I have known is peaceful protests like that at Gaw Kadal being fired at. What I have felt is the pain of being beaten up,” he says. “Maybe they mean silence when they say peace.”