Page 45 Review by Stephen
"A young boy fell in the street like a loose overcoat from a hanger."
He's just caught a stray bullet.
Occupied Kashmir during the 1990s and Sajad dubbed Munnu ("the youngest") is seven years old. Echoing Malik Sajad's own childhood, this is a dense, intense and arresting read that will tear your heart apart and have you sweating with vicarious fear.
Those who already relished Marjane Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS, Belle Yang's FORGET SORROW or Kunwu & Otie's A CHINESE LIFE are going to love this. I'm thinking particularly PERSEPOLIS, for this too centres on the strength, reliance and resourcefulness of a family in the wake of oppression.
That's one heck of a cover with its title in gold relief, but immediately striking inside is the way the images resemble prints made from woodcuts, in keeping with the artisan trade of Munnu's Papa. On the very first page there's a topographical map of the city, each landmark raised on contoured hills in a medieval manner.
This effect's emphasised further in the white lines, as if scooped out, between the angular forms of the Kashmiri people represented by a black, stylised version of their national animal, the Hangul deer, with whose beautiful, white, diamond-shaped eye-markings Sajad succeeds in imbuing an enormous range and depth of emotion using surprisingly subtle, simple strokes.
National symbolism aside, it's also an astute choice of animal, deer (ideally) being free-roaming herbivores associated with nobility, strength and grace. Under Indian occupation, of course, the Kashmiris' days of free-roaming have here been substantially curtailed with a bludgeoningly repetitive and brutal enforcement but they certainly maintain their grace on the page.
There's something far more affecting to me about seeing the face of a faun nuzzling the neck of a maternally protective deer than there would have been had it been a drawing of a human mother and child. Perhaps it's the residual effect of having bawled my eyes out during Bambi at the pictures aged four or five. Indeed when humans do rear their ugly heads as soldiers, there are grotesque scenes of them molesting a sister visiting her brother in prison under the excuse of frisking her for weapons as those detained watch helplessly in the dark from behind iron bars.
It's juxtaposed on either side by a peaceful gathering of prayer and song in a former cricket ground now given over to the gravestones of martyrs as far as the eye can see. There the Kashmiri people / deer raise their hands towards the heavens, their arms like the bifurcating branches of the trees up above them.
Another early scene shows them swarming round a sacred mulberry tree in grief as two bodies in "snow-white shrouds" are returned after being shot by soldiers during one of the all-too regular crackdowns when houses are wrecked as they're searched for all men over a certain height who are then paraded in front of an informant to be identified as militants. The rolling mass, rippling with those white demarcation lines between so many individuals, looks like a swollen river engorged with grief. It is beautiful yet terrible to behold.
Another wise decision to win over readers is making the heart of this book Munnu's family. His beloved, touchingly affectionate older brother Bilal boasts the antlers of a healthy young buck implying he's in his late teens, whereas Munnu and his two other brothers have small budding stubs: Munnu is seven, his other male siblings no more than a couple of years older than him. His sister Shahnaz is closer in age to Bilal. His father sports a pair of geometrically elaborate glasses which come over like a Perspex visor and that made me smile. His perpetually worried mother in her shawl and headdress looks a little like she's an example of origami.
The tight-knit family is everything, and they're keenly aware that theirs is lucky to be intact: so many of Bilal's teenage contemporaries have snuck across the border to the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir to received armed training before returning and to become some of those all-too-young martyrs in that repurposed cricket ground. Also, there are those crackdowns I mentioned and each time the tension is taut as the mother waits in agony at home for her husband and Bilal's safe return, tearfully praying within each of the three segments of a slowly ticking clock between the second, minute and hour hands.
Growing up under these intrusive conditions which have had a severely deleterious effect upon Papa's trade (once thriving tourism is now all but extinct) is no ideal childhood and Munnu's nightmares after a family friend is shot during an identification parade are prolonged and horrific. Sure, there are regular childhood games to be played - like fantasy cricket using the page numbers of an Urdu / English dictionary to score - but it's hardly normal for a seven-year-old when practising his art to be copying disfigured bodies and AK-47s from newspaper photos. When we carved ink-stamps from erasers (and we did) we made the shapes of horned devil heads not machine guns. There's something far more sinister about a machine gun ink-stamp mass-reproduced on children's exercise books than individual drawings - or indeed horned devil heads.
Religion plays a large part inside and outside his regularly disrupted schooling as principals are arrested when linked to militants and some teachers are more kindly than others. One respected elder perceptively remarks, "The heat of the pulpit can either make one divine or a devil". But however brutal you rate the punishments at school (and I rather think you will), it's as nothing compared to dragging bodies through a street behind a military van until all the skin on their faces is scraped off to instil fear in the population. Now that is medieval.
Together we follow Munnu through his first published political cartoon aged 13 - then regular employment as a daily visual satirist at the Greater Kashmir newspaper during his early teens - to his first introduction to comics in the form of Joe Sacco graphic novels of extended reportage. Whence this graphic novel. After everything he witnesses he's not short of passion in denouncing the Indian army's occupation - chronicled here is atrocity after casual and callous atrocity; the army will even vandalise the ambulance due to take Munnu's mother to hospital later on - but is candid about his lack of historical knowledge to keep his cartoons fresh, partly because of the jumble of languages the population is forced to speak, read and write in, emphatically excluding Kashmiri.
So the reader is not made to feel relatively ignorant. It's only halfway through MUNNU that we're given a history lesson ourselves and - wouldn't you know it? - good old empire-building Britain plays its woefully traditional, substantial part in fucking things up for Kashmir, catalysing bloodbath after bloodbath before the current conflict kicks off during October 1947 and Kashmir is carved up by the United Nations between the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan without any consultation whatsoever about what the Kashmiri people want.
It's a recurring response - of lack thereof. The fervent desire of the Kashmiri population for independence is completely ignored.
Whenever Munnu (increasingly referred to as Sajad as his reputation as an artist expands) is received by outsiders during a Kathmandu summit or when visited by E.U delegates he is patronised to death by well meaning westerners as being ignorant and simplistic in spite of the fact that he's lived the life that they only hear of from afar.
"I might not know where the bullet came from but I could tell her who the bullet hit."
But if you think that Malik white-washes the Kashmiri factions' own roles in massacres (the statistics of which lie in the eyes of the various different statisticians), you're very much mistaken because if the Indian Army's atrocities weren't bad enough, organised religion is used by some Muslim Kashmiri to decry the minority Pandit Kashmiri whose homes are mob-attacked with stones in order to drive them out. Hands up who's even remotely surprised?
"Infidels, infidels, get out of Kashmir but leave your women here!"
The Pandit population does get out, en masse, but wisely take their women with them. But then there's an internal free-for-all just to settle personal or religious scores on every side and there's lovely, isn't it?
The last fifty-plus pages are terrifying on so many levels. If this had been a mere history lesson it wouldn't have been half so effective or affecting. But no, this is a highly personal account cleverly constructed so that you care.
At any given point any one member of the family could succumb to a bullet or an illness whose cure could have been readily available were there not an occupying army sabotaging access to treatments or even decent nutrition. I lost count of the times that Munnu or one of his family were detained, restrained, searched and beaten until they could prove they were who claimed to be.
So when a young American woman whom Sajad falls for loses his mobile phone while visiting a highly restricted area... well, she simply doesn't understand the consequences of it being discovered there with his SIM card intact by the Indian Army.
There's so much about life in Kashmir which I didn't understand. Since the terrifying nuclear brinksmanship in 1999 which I remember so well, it's rather fallen from our news cycles, hasn't it?
This great graphic novel, I am convinced, will bring it back to the forefront of our attention. To those of us who read great graphic novels, at least. Good luck in waiting for the oh-so-trusted mass media to report.