A Beautiful Graphic Novel Depicts What Growing Up In Kashmir Is Really Like

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir
Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir4th Estate

We all read media-sensationalized news about Kashmir’s Hurriyat, the politics of a conflict zone, the invisible border lines disputed, and the constant violent protests where civilians are often considered mere collateral damage. We read it all - but, do we really feel it? There’s a stark difference between flipping through it in the newspaper with your morning chai and actually living it--a perspective that can’t easily be found in headlines or even between the lines. Graphic novelist Malik Sajad’s ‘Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir’ is equal parts a form of self-expression, and an effort to humanize what life in Kashmir is actually like for its locals. 

Depicting the life of a young boy growing up in war-torn Kashmir, Munnu gives us a detailed insight into the daily existence of local Kashmiris who live and breathe the harsh realities that we’re only offered a taste off via mainstream media, in an almost autobiographical account. Despite its deeper subtext however, which is understandable given Sajad’s history of political cartooning, the novel remains at its essence a beautiful coming of age story of the author himself, through depictions of Munnu’s love interests, his school life, and his family, which keeps it utterly relatable even as the feeling of impending brutality and death haunt every page of the novel.

He shares, “My priority is to find out what has made life and existence in Kashmir such where people’s humanity gets tested.”

As we talked to the brain behind this vivid account, we were forced to recognize the power of honest ink in today’s media clutter. A power that is omnipresent right through even this scripted conversation.

What made you decide to become a serious political cartoonist giving a voice to the perspective of real life experiences in Kashmir?

MS: “I have been interested in drawing ever since I can remember. At the age of thirteen my cartoons were published in the Sunday children’s edition of a local newspaper. Later the editor published them on the editorial page every week. After a year, I got a job as the daily editorial cartoonist and I commented on the situation every day. Initially it was very difficult to sum up the complex situation in one panel illustration. In Kashmir you live the news before it is printed so in a way I just drew what I saw.”

How was the experience of evolving from drawing single column cartoons in ‘The Greater Kashmir’ to an entire graphic novel?

MS: “The single column illustrations created a base for my comics. I drew the single panel illustrations everyday. The daily deadlines and repetition of the news compelled me to examine the everyday situation and experiences from different angles and to move on from the familiarity of my routine. In the process, I learned the stories that took the shape of this graphic novel.”

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Do you personally think that graphic novels are an effective visual medium of communication? Have they helped you reach a large audience?

MS: “I think graphic novels are really effective, especially when we talk about complex stories. Sometimes it is easy to draw a labyrinth rather than explain it. Here storytelling is more like a map, both visuals and text play a crucial role in attaining an experience. When I was drawing Munnu, I tried my best to fit the visuals with my memories and feelings of events. Visuals can help to curate and lay out the information while simultaneously retaining the focus on human conditions.”

How much of Munna: A boy from Kashmir is fiction, and how much does it draw inspiration from your personal life experiences?

MS: “It is as close as any person’s memory of personal experiences can possibly be. Working on this book was also reliving those events. Memory is not so crystal clear. There is a saying that even the palest ink is better than the most recent memory. And here we are in this moment of the present, which is as certain as it can get. Yet our consciousness and understanding are products of the experiences we grew up with. In Munnu I tried to capture those moments and experiences that shaped me. I must say the only word ‘fiction’ in fictions is fiction.”

Can you elaborate on the use of the endangered Hangul deer to draw a parallel to local Kashmiris?

MS: “I think your question already elaborates it enough- the endangered Hangul.  Hangul used to wander freely in Kashmir. But its habitat now remains restricted, isolated and is ripped apart into two; India’s portion of Kashmir and Pakistan’s portion. The point is that Kashmir is not just a ‘disputed territory’ as it is referred to by the world leaders; this ‘flash point’ or ‘battle zone’ must be seen as home to the millions of people first.”

The loss of childhood in the battlefield of the Kashmir conflict, and the hardships of coming-of-age in politically charged Kashmir seem to be the central themes of Munna: A boy from Kashmir. Do you think this is an important story for the youth growing up in the rest of India to understand?

MS: “I believe it is important to see Kashmir through a common person’s perspective.  People from India or any other portion of the world get to see Kashmir through news only where mainly political stereotypes are prioritized.  If we concentrate more on the human side of the stories, you will find Kashmir or any other place not much different from your own home.  Such human interaction will surely help to avoid human tragedies.”

After the 1989 separatist violence, and the violent movement that followed, Kashmir seems to be moving into a more peaceful form of independence-directed protest. Does your work aim to be a part of this movement?

MS: “I am an artist.  I just paint and write about the world around me as I see it.  If you go through Munnu, I am sure you will find it full of details you can relate to beyond the ambit of politics.”

How much traction is the new phase of protest in Kashmir gaining? Are new media forms of art such as political rap by M. C. Kash an effective medium of political communication?

MS: “Such creative expressions are very significant mediums of communication and documentation. They play a crucial role to end the isolation the decades of turmoil has forced Kashmir into. When I listen to MC Kash, I relate to his music and lyrics beyond politics. The very form of these creative expressions manifests their roots in universality.”

Did studying in London give you a new perspective on Kashmir?

MS: “Yes. In London, I met people from around the world and that helped to view Kashmir as a part of the diverse world culture. I am still in touch with my friends and mentors there.”

What is the next move for you in terms of upcoming work?

MS: “I have no definite plans yet. I spent many years working full time on Munnu. I was so absorbed in the process that I didn’t get enough time to think about what’s next. However, I definitely want to utilize my work to transition into exploring broader human conditions.”