Growing up is never easy. Especially when you’re growing up in Kashmir, a beautiful yet conflicted region which is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

All young Sajad (called “Munnu” or “youngest” by his family) wants to do is live a peaceful life with his loved ones: his Mamma, Papa, sister Shahnaz and brothers Bilal, Adil and Akhtar.

Fond of art, and even fonder of sugar, young Munnu soon learns, however, that life rarely works out the way you want.

For Kashmir in the 1990s is a tense place to be. Soon, Munnu’s school is closed and his neighbours are killed. Once tightly-knit mixed communities crumble as the country becomes divided. His father and brother are regularly taken by the military to identification parades, where informers point out “terrorists”. And speaking Kashmiri, their national tongue, becomes an offence.

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir is a poignant and incredibly honest depiction of growing up in Kashmir, told in graphic novel form by author Malik Sajad. Based on his own childhood, the book is a powerful read, one that is not just a moving coming-of-age tale but also an evocative examination of Kashmir’s troubled history.

A native of Srinagar, Kashmir, Malik has been drawing political cartoons and graphic art about his home since he was just 14. Since then, his illustrations and stories have appeared in various local and international publications. His works have travelled the world, and been exhibited in Poland, New York and London, as well as several Indian cities. He studied Visual Art at Goldsmiths, the University of London.

Munnu contemplating the nature of his homeland.

Munnu contemplating the nature of his homeland.

str2_wow2308munnu_terencetoh_coverOne of the most notable things about Malik’s book is its use of anthropomorphism: all Kashmir natives who appear in Malik’s book, including Munnu, are depicted as humanoid hangul deer, the national animal of the region. This makes the book feel a lot like Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed Maus (which also used humanised animals as characters) combined with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (which also followed a family in a war-torn area). Malik’s book, fortunately, feels quite distinct from these other works.

Having all your characters look like deer can sometimes be problematic. For one thing, it becomes difficult to tell everyone apart, especially in the beginning: fortunately, Malik provides small visual clues to identify who is who, and usually makes it clear from context who the story is referring to at any time. Readers only discover the point of this artistic quirk towards the end of his novel: suffice to say, Malik has a very good reason for doing this.

Malik’s art style feels minimalistic, but is very distinctive and rich in detail. True to the author’s background, much of Munnu resembles extended political cartoons. While the art is beautiful, however, it is story-wise that the book really shines.

It’s difficult not to root for Munnu: a young, somewhat naive but intelligent boy who will do everything he can to survive in a war-torn world he cannot understand. His relationships with his family, particularly with his older brother Bilal, are depicted with a lot of warmth and sensitivity.

Much of the book’s beginning feels a lot like slice-of-life stories: Munnu goes to religious school, Munnu has a sick family member, etc. Stories that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Enid Blyton book; except in war-torn Kashmir, they are tinged with conflict at every turn. Munnu recalls, for example, that one of the first things he learned to draw was an AK-47, and an encounter with a disgusting army officer provides one of the most chilling early episodes of the book.

Malik describes events with a stark matter-of-factness that underscores the routine terror they go through: “When the crackdown was lifted in the evening, young children and women waited in the street for their kin to return from the crackdown parade. But gunshots sparked a stampede. A young boy fell in the street like a loose overcoat from a hanger.”

The book really picks up, though, once Munnu reaches his teens, and becomes a political cartoonist for a newspaper. Not only are his exploits gripping to read about, they are a powerful testament to the liberating powers of art and the importance of journalism. As his art becomes more popular, Munnu soon discovers he can use his platform as an artist to bring change. But what is the best way of doing this? And can his good intentions bring more harm than good?

Also interspersed throughout the narrative are snippets of information about the history of Kashmir: these provide an eye-opening glimpse into a complex nation of which most people have little understanding.

All in all, Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir is an exhilarating read, managing to be comedic, poignant and even distressing in parts. Distinctive art, combined with an absorbing and honest storyline, make this a highly recommended graphic novel.

Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir

Writer/artist: Malik Sajad Publisher: Fourth Estate London