Malik Sajad was 14 when he first published a cartoon in a Kashmiri newspaper. Ever since then, he has been caricaturing the story of Kashmir, both social and political, through his cartoons. His new book ‘Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir’ – the state’s first graphic novel– is almost his own story, from the time he was 7, to the time he started getting international recognition for his work. It has been published by 4th Estate and was launched in Britain last month.
‘Munnu’ gives us a detailed and spectacular account of what living in Kashmir actually means. In Sajad’s book, the Kashmiris are all Hangal deer, an animal that is on the brink of extinction- just like the Kashmiris, Sajad explains. The book is a coming of age story, with pages dedicated to Munnu’s time in school, his first romantic interest, and growing up surrounded by the inevitable knowledge of the impending death of people around you. The book has a vivid dream sequences that terrorize a young boy exposed to the harsh realities of the world.
As Munnu grapples with what is right and what is wrong in Kashmir, he learns of the history of the region, which we are exposed to through a chapter titled ‘Footnotes’. As Munnu becomes more politically aware, we grow with him, understanding the frustrations of being Kashmiri, and appreciating Munnu’s efforts to better the system.
In an interview to The Wire, he talks about his book and growing up in the troubled state:
Q. ‘Munnu’ is primarily your story. How close to real events are the events described in the book? Can we call the book an autobiography?
A. The book pulls from memory and it is as close as any person’s memory of those experiences can possibly be. When you try to recollect something, the memory is usually misty. In Munnu I tried to capture those moments and experiences that shaped me. But it goes beyond recollection. While working on the book, I had to relive those events. You can call the book an autobiography, fiction or even non-fiction. But I would say this is as deep as I can excavate into the alleys of my memory and experience of growing up in Kashmir.
About a boy
Q. The story is more about a boy growing up, rather than about Kashmir. But Kashmir is more than just context here. We learn with Munnu, a history of Kashmir. How important is this aspect of the book to you- to show the readers the flip side of the coin?
A. I have focused on the people, everyday life, emotions and hopes. These elements of human life are universal, even while the particular circumstances may be unique to Kashmir. I want to encourage people to see Kashmir through a common person’s perspective. When Manto wrote about the partition of the Subcontinent, he focused on the human condition. It makes the human tragedy palpable and the absurdity visible. Kashmir is going though severe crises. When we hear about a death, most people, whether on this or that side, are more interested in first knowing the political lineation of the victim to decide whether they should offer their sympathy. I wanted to put the viewer in my shoes. I wanted them to share the experience of a Kashmiri child growing up in Kashmir. As part of that journey, I also tell the history of the region as Munnu discovers it while struggling to make sense of what has happened to his society.
Q. How difficult was it, working in the Media in Kashmir, especially during the 90s? Have things changed now?
A. It was terribly difficult for anybody living in Kashmir in the 90s. Even today, life in Kashmir is full of uncertainty. I am an artist, but I have worked as a newspaper cartoonist. I have been in the newsrooms and around journalists for a quite a long time. I think journalism was still very new in Kashmir in the ’90s. Reporters and investigative journalists would get in trouble for relating facts and their observations. Reporting the news was really quite dangerous back then. Journalists today know the risks and most of the time don’t step beyond certain unspoken demarcated areas. The freedom of expression is pretty wide if one chooses to see with one eye only.
Q. The book seems to criticize the media for its treatment of Kashmir. What are some things you wish the press or electronic media did differently?
A. It is not just about Kashmir. I am still trying to figure out how a living being can be reduced to a mere statistic. Much beyond the news headlines, are the stories of everyday people whose lives matter. Communicating the experience through art, writing or reporting might actually help prevent the repetition of the tragic events.
Q. The book also marks out the difficulties with education in Kashmir. Is the system in complete breakdown?
A. Education in Kashmir has been devastated. Kashmir is so isolated from the rest of the world due to the political turmoil. Education has been disrupted in so many ways over the past two decades. Education there is all about learning a totally different language and history. There were chapters in our textbooks about Manto, Ghalib, Satyajit Ray, Shakespeare, etc. But no one asked us to read what such people had to say. Rather than engaging their ideas, we were forced to simply remember their birthdays and the places where they were born. While there might be occasional exceptions in the form of a few good teachers, schools, colleges and universities are totally bureaucratised. A student really has to look elsewhere for filling the gaps in the education system there.
Favourite graphic novels
Q. While the book mentions some of your influences, which apart from those mentioned in the book, are your favorite graphic novels?
A. My favourite graphic novels are ‘Relatively Indolent But Relentless’ by Matt Freedman, ‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel, ‘Maus’ by Art Spegelman. Among others, I also like Marjane Satrapi, Lynd Ward, Keith Haring, and Betye Saar’s work.
Q. Munnu has a very supportive family in the book, notwithstanding their occasional annoyance with him. Is that an accurate representation? Were there conflicts due to nature of your writing within the family?
A. Munnu is the youngest, which is why the family is so supportive. Yes, in real life I am that fortunate as well. The youngest gets the most love, but also struggles to be taken seriously as an adult.
Q. How was the response from people in Kashmir (seeing as you do not support the rebellion groups unconditionally)? How was the response from India and Pakistan? Did you receive threats and hate mail?
A. The book has only recently come out. Since its not been published or directly distributed in South Asia yet, it will take time for people in India and Pakistan to discover the book. I am not sure what response to expect from readers there, but I am sure they will be curious to read a graphic novel from Kashmir. As far as the initial response in Kashmir, people have been very kind so far.
Q. Most of your work has drawn directly from your personal life- but the focus has also been Kashmir. What are we to expect next- writing set in Kashmir, or a sequel to ‘Munnu’?
A. I really don’t know yet. I was so absorbed in the process and focused on finishing Munnu right up to the time it went to print. It took many years. It’s only now that I have had time to start thinking about what next. Yes, Kashmir has always been inescapable for me; it’s been my personal window into what is universal to all of us. I am also increasingly exploring the power of animation and film as a medium for my storytelling.