“Inside Out”: Autobiography, History, and the Comic Form in Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir
By Amrita Singh
“[Experience is] the very process through which a person becomes a certain kind of subject owning certain identities in the social realm, identities constituted through material, cultural, economic, and inter-psychic relations.” (Smith and Watson 25)
Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir opens with a family photograph: it features the narrator, Munnu, at age seven, and his three brothers and one sister, all elder to him (p. 2). Every Eid, the eldest brother, Bilal, takes them to a photo studio to be photographed, a record of their being together as a family for another year as well as to mark the progression of their ages. This is the only excessivity allowed as their mother admonishes them to maintain a quiet, solemn Eid as a mark of respect for those, who have lost family members and may be in mourning. This is perpetuated year after year, diminishing the celebratory nature of the festival, forcing them to spend their time largely indoors studying or drawing due to curfews or fear of violence, and the only sport available to the siblings is “book cricket”. Over the next three pages, Munnu introduces the reader to his family, who are central to his life narrative, his neighbourhood and his school. What begins to unravel is not an ordinary, universalised story of childhood and pains of growing up, but one that is marked by the specificity of its location and context, that of a turbulent Kashmir. The narrative of Munnu/Sajad’s life in Kashmir is particular to him, yet it has the potential to be a metonym for others like Munnu. In fact, the choice of using the affectionate appellation “Munnu”, instead of his given name, perhaps extends the narrative to many other Munnus in the Valley. This simultaneous intimacy and distance is exploited and finds representation in the graphic mode that the narrative is constructed in. The photograph that opens the narrative not only functions as a regular mode of memory-keeping, but Sajad subverts it by drawing the photograph in the comic mode. It is a deliberate and conscious act of representation, where he creates a distance between himself as the “author” and the story of Munnu and his family, even though it is his story. The photograph, and by extension the visual-verbal form of the comic, becomes the site of intersection of both personal and public history. Sajad employs the form of the autobiographical “coming-of-age” narrative in the comic format to delineate how personal history can intervene to challenge dominant modes of storytelling and history writing, and articulate dissent. The visual and the verbal coincide and contest, relying on the archive of memory (which can be both dubious and reliable), to reveal a self that emerges from the given account, one that bears witness to (his own life within and of) a radically changing society.
The form of the autobiography demands a level of fidelity to the life being narrated, creating a “pact” or “contract” between the author and the reader (a la Philippe Lejeune), wherein the author implicitly declares that he is the person he says he is and that the author and the protagonist are the same and the reader has no reason to disbelieve. Yet, the author, particularly in the graphic autobiography (or “autographic”, as suggested by Gillian Whitlock to draw attention to the conjunctions of visual and verbal text and the negotiation of subject positions on part of the narrators that are not comfortable or unproblematic), is consciously selective and reflective of the moments s/he chooses to represent as part of the larger vision of the project. The graphic medium lays bare the procedures by which the drawn subject is led to observe, analyse, interpret himself, and recognise himself as a domain of possible knowledge. As the epigraph suggests, experience shapes an individual and points towards illuminating truths obscured by the tyranny of politics and history, and comic histories are able to relay “the minute personal details of everyday life, which receive their due respect because of their personal or symbolic weight within the lives of the characters and the narrative that is being constructed” (Lander 116). Comics convey a state of the mind, handling serious issues through ease and humour, particularly through the figure of the child. The cohesion of the medium also pits the reader closer to the frame of the narrative. The account of oneself can always be given in the presence of the other, which in the graphic narrative is not only the reader but also the narrating-I addressing the experiencing-I, who in turn is recounting for the former. Shifting focalization between the experiencing-I and narrating-I creates ambiguity about where the account is emerging from and this is exploited in the graphic form.
Munnu’s account of himself appears in the panels on the page, corresponding to the proximity of the events to his life and how they offer a perspective on his family, the society, and the region. The first few pages also highlight a theme central to the narrative, which is Munnu’s desire and aptitude to be an artist and be a popular one at that. Art runs in the family, as his father specializes in carving stone and wood, but it is unprofitable without tourists in Kashmir, and exports are difficult and controlled. Munnu’s father doesn’t trust him with his tools and stone as he is wary of wastage, so he has to be content with teaching himself to sketch by copying the dead, disfigured bodies displayed in the newspaper. He finds that the easiest subject to copy is the image of the AK-47, which he draws expertly and displays on his schoolbag (p. 6). Other students regard it as quite “cool” and demand Munnu to supply their own replica of that picture. Furthermore, his drawing skills are recognized and employed by his teachers in making placards for a protest march. Munnu’s popularity urges him to practice figures and shapes in a more dedicated manner, much to the neglect of his schoolwork. In these panels, Sajad practices what Scott McCloud calls “cartooning”, which is not just drawing an image as a cartoon but rather refers to “a silent dance of the seen and unseen, the visible and invisible” (92). Cartoons play on stereotypical representation to allow recognition, but at the same time can undercut the typification using humour as a foil to generate diverse responses. They expect the reader to make complex and subjective connections between the visual and the verbal through simplified images that represent concepts, ideas, and philosophies. Here, the playful and irreverent reactions of the children to the gun and the protest are comical, but horrifying at the same time; for a seven-year-old, violence and war are “normal” and routinized. In another instance, after attending his first funeral procession, Munnu witnesses and is made to confront the collective mourning and personal loss besieging Kashmir, and tries to make sense of death. At home, he covers himself under a white sheet and wonders how dark it must be in the grave (p. 42); what starts off as a game becomes a scary memory, the trauma of which goes deep leading to nightmares, represented in multiple, hasty vertical panels coloured black (pp. 46–48). He fears if that would be the fate of his family members, especially his eldest brother Bilal, who has been like a surrogate father to him (pp. 51-52). After many months, Munnu is able to overcome confusion through the loving care of his family and the curative provided by the local fakir. However, the question that lingers in the silence between the panels is whether such a reprieve is possible for other tortured individuals and families in Kashmir. Indeed, the nightmares seem to have become Kashmir’s reality, and like everything else, Munnu and Kashmir have internalised all this trauma, death, funeral, and mourning. As Francesca Recchia points out, “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… has been scarred by an overwhelming military presence.” Thus, in Munnu, the child’s perspective allows for a simplification, but the nuances of the adult point of view make their way into the text drawing attention to the fact that private history cannot escape the weight of public history. It is at this juncture that Sajad locates the need for such a narrative to be constructed.
The visual and verbal coalesce and function in the text primarily by literalising depiction, through speech bubbles, retrospective tone of voice and humour that is often self-deprecating and used in the texts to delineate the personal and political, often to undercut the importance of both. Such a combination of the personal and political into the frame of the graphic life narrative Sajad borrows from popular exponents like Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Joe Sacco. Spiegelman’s Maus (based on the story that his Polish father narrates of his and his family’s experiences during the Nazi persecution of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s) interrogates history, memory, storytelling and the after-life of survivors and their future generations after an event like the Holocaust. Spiegelman’s term “commix” is useful to understand narratives like Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (about growing up in post-revolution Iran) and Munnu. Unlike traditional historical narratives, they do not reproduce the events they describe but rather encode for the reader different ways of seeing and thinking about the events. For instance, in Maus, Jews are presented as mice, the Germans as cats and non-Jewish Poles as pigs, which on the one hand erases individuality in order to provide the universal, and also, as McCloud points out, amplifies an image through simplification and opens it up to metaphorical and metonymic associations. In Munnu, the Kashmiris are all represented as deer, while the army, foreigners and others are drawn in their human form. Deer is the ideal prey in hunting, but here the specificity of the hangul deer (the Kashmir stag) is important because it is now an endangered species, its habitat being destroyed by the army. The implication of this rendering is not lost on the reader and one is able to understand the loss of the land, its flora and fauna, its culture, customs, and language, all being preyed upon and on the verge of extinction due to the ongoing conflict (pp. 333–334). The humans that Munnu meets, on the street, during a raid, or at an art gallery in Delhi, face off against the hangul across a great civilizational divide. In another incident, echoing Maus, Munnu describes how they deal with an infestation of rats in their house – the rats are trapped and then drowned before being flung across the fence such that they do not return (p. 114). The description is a matter of fact way to get rid of pests but carries undertones of torture and expulsion symbolizing the plight of Kashmiris.
Therefore, the narrative weaves through the particularity of Munnu’s story but also becomes the narrative of Kashmiris and Kashmir. For Sajad, the format of the graphic novel allows 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 says, wanting to bear witness, produce a testimony, unleash frustration, unsilence memories, question unspoken loyalties (cf. Shahdad). This we see in Sajad’s depiction of his everyday life and how the changes in his body, his family, his home, and environment are intricately tied to a microcosmic representation of the conflict and state of Kashmir. Munnu’s grandparents, for instance, represent the old order, local art, and value systems that are fast becoming a scarce commodity, and their presence indicates a strong sense of fear that Munnu’s generation wouldn’t know the intimacies, the terrain, and the beauty of the Valley. The narrative critiques excesses committed on all sides of the socio-political divide, especially impositions on Kashmiris of a political, linguistic, and cultural identity that is not native to them. In fact, one of Munnu’s biggest struggles as he’s growing up is his inability to learn and adapt to Urdu, especially the script, and the need to hold on to his mother tongue, Kashmiri (p. 90). Throughout the text, there is an indictment of the state of the schooling and education system, the literal and metaphorical battleground between the army, Indian administration, political leaders, separatists and militants. Constant unrest prevents Munnu and his generation from experiencing uninterrupted school life, which involves friends, coursework, arts, sports, and mischief. Very often school buildings are bombed, destroyed, and then the school is forced to move to abandoned kothis and houses of the wealthy (especially Pandits), who have fled the state. The walls of these buildings have bullet-holes hastily covered up with posters and images of instructions, rodents, termites and other infestations, and artefacts hidden and left behind by the previous occupants that hold no respect or value for the students (pp. 91–92). They end up missing a lot of school and so it is quite common to have students of different ages in the same class. When schools are shut down, the alternative offered to Munnu and his siblings is to go to a Darasgah for religious study, the discipline of which brings no joy to Munnu (p. 19). Even when the school is functional, there are regular crackdowns on “seditious” teachers, and use of disciplinary methods on students that Munnu imagines echo the army’s violent measures: “torture techniques the teachers had learnt from the crackdown parades” (p. 118). For example, Munnu is thrashed by his teacher for getting a haircut like an American boy (pp. 119-121), punishment for a “crime” he can hardly comprehend.
A more decisive point in Munnu’s coming-of-age narrative, however, is the recognition of his art and the publication of his first editorial cartoon at the age of 13. He finds his artistic calling in the form of the editorial cartoon, in its ability to be topical, subtle, humorous, and incisive at the same, where personal and public histories can coincide. Becoming a regular cartoonist for the Greater Kashmir newspaper at 16, Munnu transitions to adulthood, known by his sign name, Sajad. However, he realises soon enough that his understanding of the history of Kashmir is limited, and without a more nuanced perspective his cartoons become repetitive and his imagination starved. Sajad realises that living in Kashmir gives him a sense of the immediate lived reality but not of the complex social and political history of the region. He decides to remedy that by reading (which he finds inordinately boring), gathering oral accounts, speaking to authors, musicians, ex-militants, historians, satirists, and so on. He realises that it is very difficult to find or locate a comprehensive history of Kashmir, and therefore this book becomes a way of clarifying to himself as well as giving information to his (perhaps uninitiated) reader. The section, “Footnotes” chronicles the geographical and spiritual past of Kashmir, to put the present scenario in context (pp. 198–211). Such self-consciousness is very important in the graphic narrative as the two selves – the character and the narrator – collide with the authorial self writing the narrative. The interrelation of Sajad’s story/representation of Munnu and Munnu/Sajad’s representation of life and Kashmir through the cartoons illustrates the complex nature of drawing/writing personal history in the context of public history. It delineates how art is political, exemplified in the title of Sajad’s cartoon column, “Inside Out”, and Kashmir is a sensitive and sore issue. This point is further driven home when he’s invited to exhibit his cartoons and create an installation at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, and he is jailed: he’s surfing for news on Kashmir in a cyber café while his cartoon is uploading to be sent to the Greater Kashmir when two bomb blasts rattle the capital city. His name, his ID, and his browser history are enough proof for the police to hold him as a suspect. The organisers eventually come to his rescue but not before he is humiliated and even made to feel answerable about his position on “Kashmir”. Yet, he is aware of the fact that he is able to return home and resume his work, unlike many other Munnus and Sajads.
This book is a testament to the contestation in his mind as well as his art to find a form fit to carry the weight of personal and public history. Sometimes the page is divided into smaller story-like panels, and at other places he uses the full page. The drawing is in black and white with the barbed wire running through the panels, with memory and trauma always in a constant state of conflict. Sajad engages with intellectuals and academics, writers and artists, attends workshops and courses and learns all that he can about making his work better and more nuanced. One big influence on his work is that of Joe Sacco, a journalist whose first person accounts of conflict zones such Gaza and Sarajevo in graphic form have become a sort of paradigm for such narratives. Sajad is urged by an intellectual Kashmiri to do “a Joe Sacco type book”, an idea that does capture his imagination for some time: “You should make a graphic novel about custodial killings. And if you can somehow relate those stories to your own experiences, publishers will love it” (p. 223). He then embarks on the project to collect testimonies, but realises “our stories won’t change anything for these people. They need our compassion, not questions. We’re just rubbing salt in their wounds and toying with their emotions by giving them a fake hope that someone will come and rescue them after reading their stories” (p. 229). He recognizes the privilege of his press pass that gives him access to the city and beyond, but he’s stricken by how such a project may play into the hands of an eager and curious readership but do nothing more. Therefore, Munnu is a difficult book to do, as he is conscious of making a departure from the Sacco paradigm and resist the urge to imitate. The use of the comic genre is learnt and affected but Sajad manages to fuse into it subtle pointers to Kashmiri artistic traditions, such as drawing the pages and panels specifically in the wood-cut style, recalling the chiselling that marked the art of his father. As Freny Manecksha points out, “the stories Sajad chooses to tell through sketches that are reminiscent of wood-cut blocks are of the myriad ways occupation has irretrievably impacted the lives of Kashmiris, of conflict and how it fractures society, of how there is cultural degradation of a once elegant city, (which was likened to the extension of chinar branches with doors and windows decorated with paisley) and of the bleak desolation of winter in a militarised landscape.” This we see very vividly represented in the section “Footnotes”. The book becomes a way of recovering as well as reconstituting the art forms that are so much a part of Kashmir’s culture.
At the same time, Sajad is conscious that his “autographic” narrative shouldn’t be considered giving the picture of Kashmir; it is not a photograph of “reality” but a drawn image that gives one version of what it has been like to grow up in Kashmir. The older, recollective voice is narratorial, bringing to attention the purposive act of giving an account and the innocent, discovering, faltering is the child’s voice. Here the distinction between the self and the other breaks down leading to a moment of autobiographical reflection not narrated, not explained by words but literalised in image. In a double-context, the character has to confront himself, the author-illustrator too has to confront his constructed character and his own self on the page. The medium of comics effectively performs the enabling political and aesthetic work of bearing witness owing to “its rich narrative texture, its flexible page architecture, its sometimes consonant, sometimes dissonant visual and verbal narratives, and its structural threading of absence and presence” (Chute 94). The narrative ends, seemingly at the present, but the onus is on the reader to perform closure, and become an “active accomplice in the historical events as well as in the difficult decisions that have to be taken while representing them” (Lander 125). There is also a larger injunction to recognise that conflict is not unilateral but comes from all sides and all parties of the divide, preying upon the history as well as the condition of the people of Kashmir.
All quotations and citations of the text are from: Sajad, Malik. Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir. Fourth Estate, 2015. Print.
Chute, Hillary. “The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis”. Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.1/2 (2008): 92–110. JSTOR.
Lander, Ben. “Graphic Novels as History: Representing and Reliving the Past”. Left History 10.2 (2005): 113–126. Web. 10 Dec 2016.
Lejeune, Philippe. “The Autobiographical Pact”. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989: 3–30. Google Books.
Maneksha, Freny. “Storytelling at its most graphic.” Kashmir Lit: An Online Journal of Kashmiri and Diasporic Writing. 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2016.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.
Recchia, Francesca. “Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Graphic Novel from Kashmir.” Warscapes. 4 Nov 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2016.
Shahdad, Niya. “Kashmiri cartoonist Malik Sajad’s graphic novel, Munnu, unveils life in the valley”. Indian Express. 16 Aug 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2016.
Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. E-book.
Amrita teaches English at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi, with areas of interest ranging from reading autobiographies, early twentieth century literature, and women’s writing.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.