Why ‘Munnu’ is the Most Haunting Comic on Kashmir You Will Read
This Kashmiri graphic novelist will change the way you look at Kashmir.
One of the most honest accounts on Kashmir to have come out from the place, Munnu is not your usual, run-of-the-mill comic about Kashmir.
It is the story of a young boy growing up in turbulent times and his coming of age. Sajad has marvellously showed Kashmiris as humanoids of the Hangul deer – the national animal of Kashmir – to say how both are now endangered species.
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The best part about the book – and this is what lends it its freshness – is the boldness with which the author has poured his personal experiences into the book.
Munnu does not shy away from calling a spade a spade. Whether it is the Indian security forces, the separatist camp, Kashmir’s self-styled ‘intellectuals’ or the shortcomings in the Kashmiri society – the book tries to present them as Sajad saw it, and as a result, comes uncomfortably close to reality.
Of Growing Up and Learning to Live in Kashmir
Munnu – like Sajad himself – is the youngest son of an artisan and belongs to a middle class family, complete with grandparents and siblings. His craft gets sharper as he grows and at 15, when he is still in school, he lands up a job as a cartoonist in the valley’s most widely circulated daily, Greater Kashmir.
Incidents reflecting everyday lives of Kashmiris make Munnu a touching story. Munnu’s father, for example, is extra tough on his eldest son, Bilal to ensure he does not follow in his classmates’ footsteps. Far too many young boys have crossed over the border to Pakistan Administered Kashmir to receive arms training and wage a rebellion against the Indian State.
The narrative is followed by a graphic showing rows of graves.
Or, when Munnu protests that he wants to become an artist and not a doctor, as his mother wishes, his father taunts:
“You live in Kashmir and tourists don’t come here now. Who will buy your art? The army?”
Munnu starts having nightmares after he watches the funeral of Mustafa – his friend’s father and a local militant. His father then tells his worried mother that Munnu has no option but to get used to the “situation”.
There are other moving instances in the story that tell of a lost childhood – a cricket ground where only the pitch remains because the rest is covered with graves; the AK-47 rubber stamps that make Munnu famous in school, a young boy sexually assaulted by a soldier.
And then, Sajad does what few Kashmiri writers would have had the courage of doing – write against the flaws in their own society. The bold portrayal of when Munnu finds three men in an auto late one night assaulting a madwoman while the driver watches on, leaving him feeling disgusted.
Or his encounter with a footsoldier of the separatist camp.
Or, when he discovers the hollowness of Kashmir’s “so-called” intellectuals.
Sajad’s Tribute to Kashmir, “The Way I Remember it”
The idea of drawing Kashmiris as Hangul humanoids reportedly struck Sajad sometime in 2005-06 when environment journalist Arif Shafi Wani wrote a story about the endangered deer species.
A few people had died that day but it appeared as a brief in a small column. That day, I made a cartoon – the head of a deer along with a Kashmiri – and it’s still on my wall here at home. I didn’t know then that it would become the main character of my novel. The editor-in-chief was so pleased that he gave that cartoon space on the front page.Malik Sajad, author of Munnu
Sajad said his purpose was not to point out the flaws with various groups or “romanticise” the picture. “I wrote it the way I felt it, saw it and remembered it. I wanted to present the life I lived.”
Sajad’s personal experience due to his age and the access to opinion-makers that his role as a political cartoonist gave him led to several critical moments in his life. “Those are the moments which forced me to write this book.”
All of the book is drawn from Sajad’s memories. It was a pile of stories in his mind and he tried to focus on the moments that shaped his consciousness.
You are talking about a 22-year-old timeline. So, part of it is just pulled from my memory – the main events that shaped my understanding. I wanted to present the story in a way that it built upon my understanding of Kashmir and the world. In order to do that, those stories needed some intervention to make them readable. One needs to connect those dots.Malik Sajad, author of Munnu
The most difficult part about the book, Sajad admitted, was the chapter on footnotes. There are so many varied versions to the history of Kashmir and the nature of this medium is such that it offers little space.
“I did it a number of times. It took up months. In fact, I really tried to employ visuals and they helped me narrate a story.”
A ‘Graphic’ Kashmir, Like You’ve Never Seen Before
One of the most interesting visuals I found in the book illustrates the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar, when the Dogra Maharaja bought Kashmir and Kashmiris for Rs 75 lakh from the British. A pair of scales weigh gold under the watchful eye of the soldiers while a mob of common Kashmiris looks on.
Personally, Sajad feels, the toughest part about growing up in Kashmir in the 90s was going to school. “The teachers learnt new torture techniques at the crackdown parade and applied the same to students, I think,” he laughed.
Sajad has used no colours in his novel. According to him, he made the first draft in black and white and just drew dialogue bubbles as he wanted to save time. However, when he read it, he realised the little details were impactful. “I wanted to keep it simple. I used woodcut print type as this was the only way to do it.”
The Hangul humanoids in the novel are not beautiful, graceful creatures like the Hangul deer in reality. Sajad said his priority was not to make something pretty. He just wanted the visuals to capture that environment.
It was just the way it was. The expression on people’s faces when they are faced with horror is not pretty. There is some sort of urgency to it. These are the tools that captured that horror emotion.Malik Sajad, author of Munnu
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