Munnu: A Story of Collective Fear – Kanchi Jain


Kashmir has a long history of violence that has marred the landscape and affected the psyche of the collective conscious mind. After the end of British colonial rule in India, which led to the division and creation of two nation-states – India and Pakistan, the valley of Kashmir has found itself caught on the wrong side of the political table with the two nations continuously waging wars and inciting violence in the valley to gain the upper hand on the geo-political scale. Munnu adds a personal dimension to extensive literary and journalistic literature accounting for the insurgency and loss of innocent lives through the years. The paper reads the autobio-“graphical” novel and the formulaic properties of the genre Sajad uses in portraying the trauma, violence, and fear of the Kashmiris against the authoritarian regime through the vantage point of a child.

Keywords: Graphic novel, collective memories, violence, trauma, identity struggles

Kashmir is often called the ‘Switzerland of the East’ and its portrayal in popular culture always bears it out. What however overlooked is the fact that it has gone through turbulent times since its recorded history. After independence from the British colonial rule in 1947, India and Pakistan have continuously fought over this bone to establish their political, strategic, and geographical supremacy and the matter subsequently became an international affair, further cornering the local Kashmiris. The rise in the insurgency, draconian laws imposed by the Indian government, and the constant presence of the army to counter terrorist attacks have left the valley bleeding – metaphorically and literally.

Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir (2015) is an example of kunstleroman, while also functioning as a graphic witness of contingencies of everyday life in occupied territory. It weaves a political biography of Kashmir, and especially Sajad’s native city, Srinagar, during the period of insurgency lasting almost three decades. It traces the historical background and political biography of Kashmir from ancient times to the contemporary period of insurgency that has affected millions of people in the valley. The personal narrative is comparatively uncensored, while the task of graphing the formal political situations stretches the representational abilities of the graphic memoir to its breaking point.

Sajad starts with the portrait of the family in the year 1993 and a seven-year-old Munnu introduces his family to the readers. Right below the family photograph is the local cartographical map explaining the geography of the valley to its readers, with an inset placing the valley on an international map, with India to its south, Pakistan to its west, and China to its north (Figure 1). The readers, thus are made aware of the inter-twined story and history they are going to read and visualise from its cover page’s subtitle “A Boy from Kashmir” to the cartographical panel on the second page of the book. Malik through this panel puts forward the intention to tell the story of Kashmir, despite various parties claiming it.

Initially, Munnu seems derivative of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (2003), the biography of a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland, though it is much more than a “survivor’s tale” (Spiegelman). Like Spiegelman, Malik tells his tale through the capitulate race depicted as an animal. While Spiegelman portrays Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, Malik portrays Kashmiris as the hangul, the endangered Kashmiri red stag, dwindled to a critically low population because of mass encroachment on their habitat by the Indian army and the urbanisation processes. All the non-Kashmiris – armed forces, journalists, state heads, politicians, mythical and historical figures such as the Buddhist monk, who helped freeing the land from a water monster; the Mughal, Afghan, and Sikh invaders; and eventually the Dogra Maharaja Gulab Singh who sold Kashmir to the British under The Treaty of Amritsar; and tourists, are depicted as humans on the other hand (Figure 2, 3, 4, 5) (Sajad, 2015, p. 200-203; Wani, 2012, p. 126).

Sajad in depicting Kashmiris as red stags through an evolutionary process, based on the mythological-political histories of Buddhist and Hindu traditions (Sajad, 2015: 198-199), has highlighted the intertwined lived histories of humans and non-humans. Sajad engages in the history of Kashmir only halfway through the novel in the chapter “Footnotes,” shedding light on the vulnerable status of Kashmiris against the backdrop of stereotypical portrayal of picturesque snow-capped mountains and the serene beauty of the valley. The demon and the dragon in Hindu and Buddhist traditions are slayed, and Sajad brings to our notice with a right inset panel saying – “the demon died and Kashmir became Kashmir” (ibid., 198). In tracing the time from the pre-historical, legendary, and mythological time to the slow unfolding of historical times lattice and mural style frames disappear and are populated by bipedal hanguls and the visual captures the Darwinian theory of origin from the Kashmir point of view by replacing apes with Hangul stags and a developmental narrative is woven as the four-legged stag evolves into a humanoid hangul (Figure 2).


Figure 1. The local map of the valley positioned in the international space, highlighting Munnu’s family and where they live. (Sajad, Malik, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 2).

Figure 3. Sajad unravels the Buddhist myth of the evolution of Kashmir and its original inhabitants. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 199.

Figure 4. The armies of Mughals, Afghans, and Sikhs fighting over the land of paradise on earth – Kashmir, over the dead bodies of Kashmiris. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 201. 

Figure 5. Defeat of the Sikhs in Anglo-Sikh war and the accession of Kashmir to Gulab Singh with the Treaty of Amritsar. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 202.

Narrative Storytelling in Munnu

Malik, the master storyteller, narrates the valley’s history from time immemorial, guiding and teaching the history of Kashmir to novice readers while simultaneously springing the traumatic action unfolding in modern times through the naivety of Munnu. As an experienced graphic artist whose first instruction was to excel at drawing “fish scales” and “the rays of the sun” on draft drawings before moving onto wooden blocks, he guides an empathic gaze of the reader that delves into the story of a young boy who quickly learned drawing an AK-47 rifle was easier and was mobbed by other students for similar sketches at school (Sajad, 2015, p. 2, 6, 11) (Figure 6). Through the use of narratological techniques such as focalization, he provides vital insights into the representation of consciousness in fiction by juxtaposing the narration of a story with the voice-over of mental processing of it by a character – or by the narrator. It nudges the reader to use their’ cognitive abilities, ideological orientation, and judgement to make meaning in a graphic narrative (Genette, 1980, p. 186; Hatfield, 2005, p. xiv; Herman, 2009, p. 135; Pedri, 2011, p. 332). 

Figure 6. Munnu meeting the growing demand of AK-47s. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 6.

Drawing and narrating the story of “a boy from Kashmir” – “Munnu, the author, becomes the narrator as well, who is well trained in the art form and hence takes a departure from the unskilled Munnu’s drawing to draw the map of Srinagar with refined “fish scales” filled with “the rays of the sun” (Sajad, 2015, p. 2, 11). Sajad invests in multiple dreams and lived experiences constituting the conflict zone instead of relying on abstract and individualistic experiences in order to engender a strong consciousness so that inhabitants can focus on what is rather than what is not all the time. Through a wholly internal process of coping with the trauma, he points out specific and socially distributed events targeting peculiar purposes and goals. Sajad underscores the personal-political conflict and struggle that underscores his profession when he remarks, “Munnu never sought any meaning from his scribbling, but after growing into Sajad, he used it to criticize, to express, to expose, to seek revenge against time passing by without fulfilling the promises” (ibid., 346).

Narratology geared towards graphic narrative necessarily has to account for a number of semiotic features that distinguish comics from still or moving images on one hand and verbal narrative on the other. Besides multimodality, these include – the encoding of space and time, or “spatio-topia” of graphic narrative’s semiotic system (Groensteen, 2007: 23); the structuring of this time-in-space through frames and gutters, which means the gaps that are integral to every narrative are self-consciously exposed in comics (McCloud, 1994); and “braiding” (Groensteen, 2007: 146) of graphic narrative that puts every panel in potential, if not actual, relation with one other, leading to the elaboration of detail. The relations between individual panels can be of an iconic as well as a rhetorical nature, and this results in a semantic overdetermination.

The concept of “braiding” describes a “model of organization that is not that of the strip nor that of the chain, but that of the network (ibid., 146). It accounts for the medium-specific nature of part-whole interaction in a graphic narrative by “highlighting the plurivectorality of work-internal iconic references” (Pedri, 2011: 336). These references lead to both densification of detail and the multi-directionality of the graphic narrative’s reception. Charging layout with meaning, braiding suggests a repetition that folds in on what precedes it, forcing readers to re-evaluate previous certainties. Groensteen develops the concept in order to integrate the two dimensions of graphic narrative’s spatial composition and the temporality of its reading (Groensteen, 2007: 147), thus solidifying its place as an important building block in the cognitive model of comics narratology.

Silke and Nancy develop the two aspects related to braiding, first the role of iconic repetition – identical repetition of entire frames and repetition – with a difference – and the potential of iconic solidarity to function as a focalization-marking device. It is helpful in evaluating focalization in Munnu, where the complexity of making a distinction between character-bound and narratorial focalization in a graphic narrative (or in a graphic memoir), between the focalization of an experiencing-I and that of narrating-I is complicated. Sajad uses woodblock printing to design Munnu’s (the protagonist) artwork. The pictorial map of Srinagar (Figure 1) drawn by Munnu animates an assemblage not only of everything drawn on it but also of everything that goes into its making, namely: locally sourced materials (wood blocks, paper, and ink), artistic legacies (woodblock printing and drawing strategies Munnu learns from his father), and sentiments and memories associated with this learning process. With this exercise, the narrative also becomes a pedagogical tool for the readers who are familiar with the pernicious geography of the valley, which enriched its cultural, religious, creative, artistic, social, and political history as a cosmopolitan space as it was a strategic point on the Silk route (Sajad, 2015, p. 200).

Munnu learns to draw chinar leaves to fill the paisley design drawn on the wood block. His father gives him “draft sketches” on paper to practice on and also breaks down the drawing process for the young first-timer; “draw fish scales first and then fill each scale with lines like the rays of the sun” (ibid., 11). Munnu and his father are so absorbed in the art form that they are immersing and emerging from the leaves they are drawing, and moments of time and body positions of the father-son duo encapsulate within the same apprenticeship panel (Figure 7). The pictorial map bears witness to the Kashmir story as co-produced by past and present experiences and affinities, memories, and multiple encounters of the family with the world outside, and that of Munnu particularly.

Figure 7. The panel depicts the cosmopolitan culture, the creative work people engage in, and the peaceful nature of people in Kashmir. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 200.

A Tale of Coming of Age and Dissent

Munnu, the protagonist, goes through a rite of passage of becoming a man quite early in his life. His love for the craft helps in overcoming the anxieties that arise from around-the-clock lockdowns by the Indian army, his fear of losing his father and favourite brother Bilal in cross-firing or during the identification parade in the spate of revenge from adversaries, and beatings by Maulvi sahab at the Darasgah for cutting his hair in a fashionable manner. A sexual harassment encounter from an army men further dents Munnu’s self-confidence and esteem, and he finds himself weeping in the attic. He finds solace by venting out on paper and chalk and his skills fetch him a job to paint and sketch on the walls of a makeshift school in the house of the Kashmiri pundit who have fled the Valley. Later, his brother Bilal’s attention and praise on Munnu’s paintings encourage him to find a better venue to pour out his feelings, and he starts submitting cartoons to local newspapers.

After a successful start at Alsafa where his drawings depicted several problems faced by Kashmiris on a daily basis – electricity crisis, the burden of education, India’s Republic Day and the restrictions faced by Kashmiris in lieu of it, etc. (Figures 8, 9, 10), Munnu suffers from a bout of self-doubt and defeat when his drawings do not find any place in the newspapers. A helpful man at the office of the daily Mustafa sends him to the office of Greater Kashmir (G.K.) newspaper. Once at the office of the G.K., Munnu faces a real challenge to his creative instinct and begins learning about the history of Kashmir on the advice of his brother and an ex-militant to better understand the current political scenario in the Valley.

Figure 8. The Burden of Education. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 159.

Figure 9. Kashmiris shown as dogs wearing an identity card due to security reasons in lieu of India’s Republic Day. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 163.

Figure 10. A sunny winter – a cause of concern for the Kashmiris. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 163.

The very first cartoon drawn for G.K. (Figure 11), depicts army man as a bear, ready to jump and attack the hangul stag as a Kashmiri. The cartoon titled “Inside Out” depicts the bogus and sanctimonious behaviour of the Indian government, who calls itself a Republic and a Sovereign state, and pledges to safeguard justice, equality, fraternity of its citizens is indifferent to the Kashmiris claimed as citizens of India. The panel depicts the political cartoon Munnu drawn for the newspaper, thereby stretching the scope of a graphic narrative and its unities. Sajad here as Munnu uses a predatory animal bear to represent the army men, usually drawn in their human form in the graphic novel, shouting at a stag for crossing the road closed due to security reasons in lieu of India’s Republic Day. The reader is again familiarized with the docile position of the Kashmiris in a large political space with the help of Darwinian theory and it places the onus on the reader to understand the implications it has. While Munnu uses his newly found independence as a political cartoonist at a young age with a major newspaper in the valley, it is Sajad who retrieves the cartoon from his memory and archives, and uses in the graphic novel to express the vulnerability of Kashmiris. The narrator Munnu and the author Sajad join hands in showcasing the ground reality of continuous surveillance and brutal encounters the Kashmiris face in the name of security. Their identities are still jeopardized and they are prone to the threats and brutality at the hands of the Indian army empowered under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, commonly known as AFSPA.  

Figure 11. The Indian Army portrayed as bear safeguarding the roads before the Republic Day of India. Source: Malik Sajad, Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Fourth Estate London, 2015, 166.


Sajad uses his childhood and innocent uncomprehending Munnu to depict entrenched anxiety that prevails in the minds of Kashmiris and especially young children, who try to come to terms with violence’s constant threat to their own and loved ones’ lives. The dreams about state-afflicted violence that Munnu suffers continue to harm and shape his life as a young budding journalist. Munnu’s inability to react and respond to violence is evident throughout the narrative but becomes significant as an adult when he witnesses two men raping a woman and he walks away in complete silence. He masks violence with ambiguity so much so that his moral ethic seems to be hanging on the edge of a criminal disposition. This immoral and unethical standing comes from a long exposure to violence in the homeland without a say, but just to witness it in silence, in mourning.

The narrative of Kashmiris portrayed as hangul offer a vision of surplus violence, brutality, fear, and anxiety under a constant state of emergency. Sajad invests in multiple archives of fables, dreamscapes, and everyday lived experiences that when combined together represent a conflict zone. There are tangible and intangible effects of violence that have left marks on the bodies and minds of people. Munnu exhibits both these effects on Munnu and through him on Kashmiris. Violence rendered through the graphic format compels the reader with an emotional and ethical response. Sajad in closing the narrative draws disturbing panels highlighting the effects of violence and he looks back at how Munnu became Sajad and started to draw meaning from his drawings and expressed his criticism, exposed authorities, and sought revenge against time. Sajad’s Munnu acts as an art historian, who constantly undercuts authorial credibility and truth claims at intersections of the novel’s written, visual, and structural components by foregrounding the narrator-protagonist Munnu’s subjective position. 

Works Cited

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Author Bio-note

Kanchi Jain is a Ph.D. research candidate in Comparative Literature at the Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, University of Delhi. Her area of research includes Comparative Literature, Trauma Theory, Memory Studies, Narratology, Polemology, Literature and History, Theory of Novel, Gender Studies, Visual Culture, and Digital Humanities.