Francesca Recchia

Malik Sajad was born in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-occupied Kashmir, in 1987. Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir is his first book-length graphic novel.

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The book is a coming-of-age narrative, a personal account as much as it is the story of what Sajad calls the “conflict generation”—women and men who have only known conflict, or the lulling of conflict, but never a full season of peace. From the pages of the book, it emerges that in Kashmir curfews, crackdowns, disappearances, mass graves and concertina wire are both internalized in the ordinariness of daily language and inescapable elements of the landscape. As children grew up learning to disentangle kites from barbed wires and to zigzag on their bicycles past checkpoints, the Valley (as people affectionately call Kashmir) has been scarred by an overwhelming military presence.

The ratio of Indian armed forces to Kashmiri civilians is in fact higher than that of foreign military personnel and civilians during the height of the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though it is the most densely militarized area in the world, Kashmir is not officially at war. India, the world’s so-called largest democracy, has succeeded in packaging the tensions in the restive Himalayan region as an internal question of law and order, making it difficult for international agencies such as the UN to intervene without breaching sovereignty and, most of all, without upsetting a major economic and political power.

It is therefore very hard to talk about Kashmir without being accused of taking an ideological position. Within Kashmir, criticism directed at the Kashmiri leadership may risk being perceived as a betrayal to the common struggle, while outside of the Valley, the Indian central government scans newspapers, books, and other media for seditious or anti-national content. Navigating these  complexities is the challenge that Malik Sajad has chosen to embrace in Munnu. He wants to bear witness, produce a testimony, unleash frustration, unsilence memories, question unspoken loyalties, and, to use Munnu's words, “take revenge.”

The graphic novel is a journey through the unfolding history of Kashmir since the 1990s. It is told from the point of view of Malik Sajad's alter ego, Munnu, a boy who grows up in the conflict-ridden city of Srinagar and tries to make sense of himself and the world around him. His is a world full of uncertainties and entrenched with violence, where the personal and the political are inextricably intertwined. Like many coming-of-age tales, there is space for love, education, ambitions, religion, and social pressures. These tropes, however, are complicated by the omnipresence of the occupying Indian army. His school, for example, closes down and is relocated several times because of political unrest; Munnu welcomes the change as an unexpected holiday, an occasion to spend time on his greatest passions: drawing and sculpting little figurines out of chalks he steals at school.

Munnu navigates these adversities with fresh, almost naïve eyes under the protection and love of his tightly knit family, and often with genuine puzzlement at the disconnection between Kashmir and the world outside.

During a recent conversation, Malik Sajad told me that his generation grew up isolated and vulnerable, manipulated by external forces for ulterior political reasons that end up ignoring the real rights and needs of the Kashmiri people. Caught between India and Pakistan, Sajad laments the lack of nuance in the official recounting facts and events. This has created an “insecure community” that has not fully managed to come to terms with the “necessity for serious introspection.” Munnu is his personal answer to this need. “I thought I'd wait ten more years [before writing a book about Kashmir],” he said, “but then I realized that life is a fragile thing and we may not be around for very long. And so I sat down and started drawing, narrating things as a witness, without making comments.”

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The format of the graphic novel allowed for an extensive and cumulative storytelling, where small details and urban landscapes construct a growing sense of familiarity for the readers. “It is only by sharing stories that a place like Kashmir begins to exist,” he adds. In the book, Sajad lets Munnu express this sentiment in a conversation with a cynical Kashmiri journalist who made it big in Delhi and now encourages him to write. “I want the world to know about Kashmir,” Munnu says, adding: “You mean British people don't know that their government sold each Kashmiri for 2.5 Rupees?” He refers to the East India Company’s sale of the region to a Hindu Maharaja with the Treaty of Amritsar in 1846.

The pages of Munnu are filled with characters that are representatives of an “endangered species.” They are a combination of human and hangul deer, the species of Kashmir stag that is at risk of extinction because of the conflict’s impact on its natural habitat. With big diamond-shaped eyes that seem to reflect the complexity of their existential and political condition, these hybrid creatures are a powerful metaphor of life's uncertainties in Kashmir. Sajad, like Munnu, is a political cartoonist and it is from this context that the idea of this character—a recurring signature in his work over the years—initially sprung. In our conversation, he recalled the day that on the front page of Greater Kashmir—the English-language newspaper where he has published his cartoons since he was 14 years old—there was a long feature article on the hangul's risk of extinction and next to it a “brief” with the list of those who were killed in clashes with the Indian army the day before. At the height of conflict death had become the norm and did not make big news anymore. Kashmiris themselves, like the local deer, had become an endangered species.
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In Munnu, Sajad addresses many points of contention that are often shun away from the front pages in India where the discussion around Kashmir is reduced to terrorism and the animosity with Pakistan. In the struggle for supremacy between the two nuclear powers what is lost is the voices and the ambitions of Kashmiris themselves. Because of the “sensitive” nature of its content, the publisher decided not to produce a specific Indian edition of the book, though it is available in the country through the channels of global distribution. This absence marks a loud void and highlights the urgent necessity of engaging in a healthy conversation around people's rights for self-determination. For Malik Sajad, artistic expression is the space to facilitate such a debate.

Francesca Recchia is an independent researcher and writer who has worked and taught in different parts of the world, including India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine. She is interested in the geopolitical dimension of cultural processes and in recent years has focused her research on urban transformations and creative practices in countries in conflict. Her work is grounded on an interdisciplinary approach that combines Urban, Visual and Cultural Studies. Francesca was a Research Associate at the Centre of South Asian Studies. SOAS, London, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College of London, has a PhD in Cultural Studies at the Oriental Institute in Naples and a Masters in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is now a Visiting Lecturer at Università Bocconi in Milan. Francesca is the author of three books: The Little Book of Kabul (with Lorenzo Tugnoli), Picnic in a Minefield and Devices of Political Action: Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan (with a photo-essay by Leo Novel). She is currently based in Kabul where she was the director of the 4th Afghanistan Contemporary Art Prize. Follow her on Twitter at @kiccovich.

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