While the turmoil that the Valley is mired in is not new, Malik Sajad's autobiographical graphic novel, Munnu, goes beyond the popular perception of the ‘Kashmir issue’ as an offspring of the Partition, and mines precedents for the extant pandemonium in events that far predate the British Raj. Anuj Malhotra and Sumeet Kaur explore everyday life in Kashmir through — and with — Munnu, whose growth into an artist is tightly entwined with the history and, perhaps, the future of Kashmir.
SK: The first thing that strikes the reader is the use of anthropomorphic characters — the hangul, to be precise— to represent Kashmiris, which is a direct influence of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. How would you compare the two?
AM: The use of the anthropomorphised characters in Munnu is employed to a double-effect similar to the usage of the device in Maus: first, to establish, at the outset, the prevalent hierarchy,the relative positions there within of and the power struggle between the two major agencies in the respective books (Nazi and Jews there, the Indian Army and the Kashmiris here) and the second, as a device of alienation (almost Brechtian; in this, I feel, Spiegelman is far more successful because the Holocaust is an event of the past), wherein the characters are not allowed to become, for the reader, conduits of sentiment or feeling but merely, purveyors of action, thrifty survivors, schemers. The latter part is confounded in Munnu because Sajad, not in possession of the experience and the authority of Spiegelman, cannot avoid sentimentalism This can result in confusion; for while his characters are drawn to be featureless, anonymous animals — mere recipients of a political circumstance — we are also supposed to identify with them as actual, alive beings.
SK: This act of rendering a setting familiar is not unusual in a graphic novel. Gokul Gopalakrishnan, a comic artist, explained in an Open the Magazine article that “reading comics is akin to strolling in a city, where the gaze is not linear but constantly shifting to accommodate a multiplicity of visual experiences.” The idea of the flaneur, thus, becomes essential to the graphic novel, wherein the stroller’s perspective becomes a funnel for the reader to construct, and construe, a social space (in this case, the Srinagar that belongs to the author’s childhood: its downtown, the residential zone, the commercial centres and the ruins of the netherworld that its lost young visit). However, I do not see Munnu as a flaneur in the strict sense of the term.
AM: I agree, in that the character of Munnu is not a traditional flaneur — in fact, he operates in a direction entirely opposite to that of the flaneur, who employs poetry, or a realigned perception to appropriate the unfamiliar and reshape it into a familiar, recognisable appearance/ form, while here, Sajad excavates a familiar past but during the process of composing the graphic novel, discovers a disorienting distance between himself and his environment. This is sort of exemplified by the remarkable final scene that takes place post his meeting with representatives from the European Union (EU). As he walks back, words from his rehearsed answers float in his mind: Kashmir has been reduced to words, concepts, to hollow vocabulary, while the actual, material land around him has become clouded in absolute darkness, has been rendered unfamiliar, strange. It is almost a profession of guilt, actually, for Sajad seems to operate inside a confessional mode: as an artist, he holds himself responsible for having reduced Kashmir to a series of labels, for having abstracted it to the point of invisibility, while placing himself at the centre of it, as its major, visible protagonist. In this, he betters the ending of Joe Sacco’s The Fixer, which he cites in the book as a major influence, where the protagonist disappears into the crowd and Sacco’s ink begins to fade away.
SK: So, Munnu, the protagonist, is alienated and alienating, whereas Munnu, the novel, evokes sympathy. It is crucial to understand that the novel cannot be read as an exact documentation of the author’s life, that it is fallacious to conflate the narratorprotagonist’s voice with that of the author. It is analogous to how our virtual persona on social media is a polished version our real selves.
AM: We are supposed to be familiar, as readers, with Munnu’s alienation. I suppose Sajad employs the protagonist’s dreams too — drawn and littered through the book —to a similar ambition, but I am not sure if he manages to integrate these well because the novel begins to intersperse a poetic recollection with harsh, journalistic reportage — the transition isn’t entirely smooth.
SK: Perhaps, it can be looked at this way: the political reality strikes a discordant note in his personal life. Hence, the nightmares and a failed romance.
AM: To me, the dream sequences seem jarring mostly because they splinter and distort perspective: from an out-of-body, fly-on-the-wall rendering of Kashmir’s recent history to a metaphysical appropriation of it. I do agree with you about the failed romance though — the fact that he reveals systemic oppression (the authorities checking his absent phone, the paranoia that that possibility induces in him, etc.) and distils it through a break-up is excellent.
SK: Yes, but the juxtaposition of the real (anthropomorphism notwithstanding) with the surreal — is there any other way to represent dreams? Within the context of the conflict, and for the sake of the reading experience, the transition is not smooth, no doubt. But isn’t that the nature of dreams — to offer a distorted perspective on reality? One need not even recall Freud; I could not help but think of Inside Out here, which brilliantly exemplifies this distortion. Coming back to Munnu’s alienation, the character and the author, both seem disillusioned with using Kashmir for artistic or entertainment purposes, but is there a way for Sajad to exclude himself from the ambit of this critique? To me, this exclusion seems an implausible idea, considering that he has, after all, subtitled the book ‘A Boy from Kashmir’, and the fact that this is an autobiographical novel should not hinder the reader’s ability to discern that there is a simultaneous concealment in the act of revelation.
AM: I don’t think he excludes himself from the critique. I think he goes to the point of declaring himself the ‘typical Kashmiri artist’ who processes a reality with multiple dimensions into easily comprehensible labels (EU) and also, a set of tacky symbols (the exhibition at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi; in that, it is revealing that when the police implicates him for being a Kashmiri, his first step is to begin destroying the samples, vandalise his own iconography). It would be interesting to function with the assumption that the subtitle, ‘A Boy from Kashmir’, is a decision taken by the market on his behalf.
SK: Since you mentioned sentimentalism, to what extent do you find Sajad’s treatment of Kashmir nonpartisan? Of course, it can never be as detached as the clinical, foreign gaze of Sacco; but for Sajad, an autonomous Kashmir is not the same as Islamic Kashmir. He is equally sympathetic to the suffering of Kashmiri Pandits, who also constitute the ‘endangered species’ of the novel.
AM: As far as partisanship is concerned, Sajad is fairly apolitical and I think non-committal, too. In this, Sacco becomes his chief mentor. Instead, as the book goes along and I am certain, even after that, he must have discovered how as a metropolitan, foreign-educated Kashmiri, the misery of Kashmir interests him even less as an actual subject, maybe a little more as an intellectual construct — but that’s it. To me, Munnu seems to be the sort of book which has been formed actively, i.e., come into being during the process of writing itself: writing as a method of active realisation.