A picture’s worth a thousand words.
This phrase kept coming to my mind when reading Malik Sajad’s wonderfully drawn Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir.
Sajad’s work tells a thousand stories of sorrow and loss during the whirlwind of political instability that surrounded Indian-administered Kashmir during the 1990s. The ink drawings come alive on the page as the reader becomes absorbed by the nightmarish conflict that engulfed Sajad’s childhood. Inspired by German expressionist woodcuts, Sajad has managed to create a world of shadows where death blends with life, ink with paper, Pakistani with Indian. Kashmir. The very word seems to echo the cries of all whose lives were torn apart.
Sajad’s words are as haunting as his pictures, fragments of poetry that enhance the philosophical renderings which speak of a darker world. A world beyond ink and paper where freedom of speech is seen as heretic, or worse, treasonous. And yet, Munnu fights against oppression, with every drop of ink a bullet fired into the gut of society, using the most dangerous weapon at his disposal, the power of the press. It is here where we learn the true power of art as a driving force against a corrupt system. Through his cartoons, Munnu is able to uncover the dreadful truth about Indian-administered Kashmir.
Munnu is as much about the power of art and the value of craft as it is an exposé of Kashmir, portraying Munnu’s artistic journey from drawing on his father’s woodblocks, to his celebrity status as installation artist and cartoonist for the Daily Greater Kashmir newspaper. The style in which Sajad has chosen to illustrate his novel reminded me of work by the French Publishing House, L’Association. In particular, comic artist David B. whose graphic history of US and Middle East Relations, Best of Enemies reads in a similar way, with a style crafted in the same vein as Munnu.
I’ve always been fascinated with the way in which metaphor and symbolism can be used to present difficult themes in graphic novels, with the author weaving an intricate tapestry of artistic devices that spark the imagination and attract the reader’s attention in an extremely effective way. In Munnu, Sajad uses anthropomorphised deer as a motif to depict the difference between the Pakistani population and the Indian forces that control them. This is one of the most powerful devices in the book, with the Kashmir populace becoming ‘endangered species’ as Munnu expertly portrays them in one of his cartoons.
This bittersweet graphic novel is a real must read for anyone interested in the power of art in society and politics, and the struggle for survival in an oppressed country where death lies around every corner. There are wonderfully sweet elements in the piece that speak of family life amongst the chaos of an overpowering political regime, and the innocence of children who must learn to grow up faster than they should.
Sometimes the most poignant works of art are those that dare to boldly question injustice. Those that speak out and take a moral stand, proclaiming that enough is enough. In Munnu, Sajad has created a novel that is an experience readers are unlikely to forget, with beautiful illustrations that will stay with the reader long after the cover has been closed.
Munnu is out now!
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