Through somber black and white drawings, graphic novelist Malik Sajad tells the brutal story of his native Kashmir in the 1990s, as an armed insurgency against Indian rule reached its bloody peak.
Sajad’s debut graphic novel Munnu is his account of growing up in the Kashmir Valley, one of the most spectacular but also most heavily militarized places on Earth. The story is set in Srinagar, the main city in India-administered Kashmir, against a backdrop of clashes, curfews and arbitrary detentions as the Indian army suppressed a separatist insurgency that reached its peak in the 1990s.
“You grow up grappling with paranoia. And also cynicism a little, but a cynicism informed by reality,” the 29-year-old told AFP in an interview in Srinagar, where he recently returned after a decade abroad.
The shopping center where he agrees to meet is deserted and despite the breathtaking scenery that surrounds it, Srinagar has an air of sadness. “I prefer when it rains here, nature joins you in that sadness. When it is sunny, it becomes really unsettling,” said Sajad.
The black and white drawings in the novel have the jarring, angular look of German expressionist art. Rather than having human features, the Kashmiris in the story are represented as hanguls—a local species of deer endangered because the army has encroached on its habitat.
Sajad started drawing cartoons for newspapers at the tender age of 13 and went on to study art. But said he always felt a close affinity with literature, making the graphic novel format an obvious choice.
He believes the lives of all in Kashmir are shaped by the “volatile atmosphere” of the region, where an anti-India insurgency has claimed thousands of lives since 1989. The Kashmir valley has been tense since last month, when eight people were killed by police and paramilitaries during election day violence.
Dozens of Kashmiris were killed last summer in violent clashes between government forces and stone-throwing protesters angered by the death of a charismatic and popular rebel leader in a police shoot-out. The mountainous region is held in part by Pakistan and India, but claimed in full by both, and has triggered two of the three wars fought by both since their independence from Britain nearly 70 years ago. Thousands of soldiers from both sides still face off along the disputed frontier known as the Line of Control.
Sajad’s book was published in 2015 in Britain, but it took another six months for it to come out in India. He says he never found out why, but his publisher told him authorities were slow to provide the ISBN number that all published books must have.
Despite its controversial subject matter, the book appears to have gone down well in India, where Sajad is often invited to lecture at universities. Two young readers even made the journey to Srinagar to see for themselves the scene of the book and try to meet him—though it was not until later that he learned of their journey.
He said he wanted to tell a story on a human level, far from the great geopolitical game between India and Pakistan. Sajad said: “Unfortunately, in this part of the world human life is not important. It’s not just in Kashmir, it’s everywhere, people die like flies.” He added: “Human lives do not have any value in South Asia.”