One summer evening in 2010, Malik Sajad drove to the city centre in Srinagar. He had to be quick — Kashmir was under curfew through most of the day, there was a “relaxation” period of only 20-30 minutes. Accompanying Sajad was his neighbour who wanted to buy insulin for his diabetic father. As the two drove further downtown, unaware that the area was exempt from the temporary curfew lift, they found themselves in front of the army, their guns and batons staring them in the face. Protected by his neighbour, Sajad remembers watching the blows strike his arms, back, jaw and knees — “as though they were beating a mattress” — until they managed to escape. “I dropped him home; he couldn’t walk as before. He murmured ‘thanks’, and limped away. A couple of weeks later, his father died,” says Sajad, whose encounter with the army soon found itself in the panels of Munnu, his debut graphic novel.
Eight years after Kashmir Pending, written by Srinagar-based writer Naseer Ahmed along with illustrator Saurabh Singh was published in 2007, Munnu is the second graphic novel to emerge from the valley. Munnu is seven and loves sugar and drawing. He lives in Srinagar with Mama, Papa, sister Shahnaz, brothers Adil and Akhtar and Bilal. But Kashmir of his birth has changed so much — the land is conflict-ridden and dotted with barbed wires, overrun with army men, ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘terrorists’. The faultlines that divide Kashmir into sections administered by India and Pakistan only grow wider, and as Munnu looks around him, many lives are disappearing through the cracks.
“I thought I would write this book 10 or 15 years from now. But from 2008-2010, many kids were killed in our neighbourhood — I knew some of them. I went to study in London a year later, but I just couldn’t relate to the idea of ‘life expectancy’; sometimes you just feel guilty, especially when people younger than you die. Such tragic events push you to hurry up. Time becomes precious,” says Sajad, 27, whose graphic novel, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins, was launched in the US last week.
The son of an artisan, Sajad grew up surrounded by his father’s walnut-wood blocks and carving utensils. With an intrinsic passion for drawing and an increasing urge to tell stories of a fractured homeland, he published his first cartoon for Greater Kashmir, a Srinagar-based daily, where he worked as its youngest illustrator. “The Indian army raided the office a couple of times because I’d depicted them in my cartoons. Once they came to ‘take me.’ When they found out I was 16, they couldn’t arrest me,” says Sajad.
Illustrated in black-and-white, Munnu seamlessly intertwines the political and the personal spaces, depicting the relentless disruption of daily life in Kashmir. A mostly autobiographical account, Sajad’s deft representation of the Kashmiri people as a separate species — the endangered Hangul deer, also the state animal — is reminiscent of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his father’s experiences as a Polish Holocaust survivor, in which he depicts the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, and non-Jewish Poles as pigs.
“Kashmir must be seen as a home to the people living there rather than just a patch of land outlined on a map. The border disputes, the political interpretation, and heavy military presence in the valley have left its inhabitants voiceless and vulnerable. Visual storytelling is more like sharing an experience and not just the information. It also presents a cinematic experience. You can talk about both relevant and irrelevant details,” says Sajad.
In terms of the artwork, Munnu is both simple and intricate at once. Most of the pages are compressed with panels, vivid with detail. Paced evenly, the novel is a commentary on both the destabilisation of education within the valley and the apathy and corruption of the media that reports on it. But beyond its illustrated accounts of closed down schools, the nature of news reports, and the spiritual beliefs of a people, Munnu returns, irrevocably, to family. “The streets were under curfew, and it was always unsafe outside our home. You can say that the seven members of the family were like the seven continents of the world,” says Sajad, who begins the graphic novel with an introduction to each family member.
Munnu is dedicated to his grandfather: Sajad vividly reconstructs childhood memories of their relationship, unsullied by the harsh circumstances they were created in. “I would walk with him to the Batamaloo shrine every Friday. He was visually impaired and would buy me sweets and potato chips after the Friday prayers. When I think of the good times in Kashmir, he orchestrated the plot and made us feel like stars,” says the artist, who wrote the story and prepared the storyboard while he was pursuing a degree in Visual Arts at Goldsmiths College in London and later in New York City.
But he returned home to draw and ink the final version. Working up to 16 hours each day for over nine months, Munnu came to life with the silent support of his family. “They would cook my favourite food as a treat. I would just knock on the window of my room and they would bring me tea or coffee,” says Sajad. “I didn’t tell them what I was working on, I fear some of it might make them sad. They haven’t read the book as yet,” he says.
The story appeared in print with the headline Deer in the Crossfire