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The Postcolonial Gothic: Munnu, Graphic Narrative and the Terrors of the Nation

Pramod K. Nayar
The University of Hyderabad, India

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


The traditional European Gothic, dating back to the eighteenth century in literature and the arts, with its theme of decadence, violence in families, haunted homes, crypts with unnameable secrets, madness and memory has continued in the modern era with some variations, as documented by commentators (Punter, 1996; Punter and Byron, 2004; Spooner, 2006; Spooner and Emma McEvoy, 2007; Punter, 2012). Postcolonial refigurations of the Gothic have also come in for some attention (Davison, 2003; Wisker, 2007; Mabura, 2008).  The aim of this essay is to outline, at least partially,the postcolonial Gothic’s principal features through a reading of Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir (2015), a graphic narrative on Kashmir.

Sajad locates his work in the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s celebrated Maus by representing the Kashmiris as deer and the Indians as humans, and this serves as a meta-commentary for the culturally literate reader because the Kashmiris, like the Jews in Spiegelman, are hunted animals. The awed, frightened, tearful visages of the deer is reassigned its symbolic value: from the iconic Hangul deer of the region, it becomes a symbol of the hunted animal. The Kashmiri wears the face of the hunted deer. The graphic medium, needless to say, serves Sajad, an established cartoonist, to develop his themes of terrifying nationalisms, haunting, embedded violence, foreignness, loss, wastage/wasting and cultural crypts through both word and image.  If the Gothic is a ‘literature of terror’, as Punter’s famous book on the history of the genre was subtitled, then Sajad’s work is filled with just such a terror, and he renders it Gothic with his art and text.  The Gothic itself becomes a useful frame in which to read Sajad’s work because the Gothic’s interest in the role of history, haunting, memories and crypts are metaphors throughout his work. The postcolonial itself, as Punter shows in another work, has been consistently interested in hauntings, the ghostly and the violence of memories (2000).

Munnu, Figure 1
Munnu, Figure 1

Nation, Family, Terror

The very first page of the narrative, after the section title (‘Family Photo’), locates Munnu within two specific locales and spaces: the family and the nation (p. 2). The page (Figure 1) has a photo frame at the top which has his entire family, all labelled with pointing fingers intruding into the frame of the photo. Beneath this photo frame is a half-page image with a topographical view of Srinagar, with various sections (city centre, Lal Chowk, Balgarden and Batamaloo, where Munnu lives) labelled. This in itself is not striking. But Sajad has an inset that shows the land/region of Kashmir. This inset is a circle, located at the bottom right of the Srinagar map. The inset shows Kashmir, Pakistan, China and India. What draws our attention to this inset is that Kashmir is represented as a white land, and all its neighbouring nations are one undifferentiated black mass.

Several features of this opening page need to be examined. First, the family as the immediate and proximate location of the individual is clearly emphasized. The page then moves outwards, from the family to the town: Srinagar. Finally the town is located within a region in the inset: Kashmir. The alignment of spaces of location is obvious enough for us to see how, in this text, family and national histories, like their spaces, are shared and constitutive of each other. The family becomes the site where national histories are often played out in postcolonial fiction, as demonstrated primarily by the works of Salman Rushdie. The family and belonging as a theme in such texts connects with the theme of nation and belonging or, concomitantly, exclusion/expulsion from this family, as studied by several commentators (Schultheis, 2004). National traumas of exclusion, belonging and terrorism find their resonance within the family. Homi Bhabha famously argued that

“the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sitesfor history’s most intricate invasions. In that displacement, the border between home and world becomes confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.” (1992, p. 141)

The unhomely nature of the home, in this reading, is not the effect of family spectres, incest and patriarchal madness in avuncular uncles – all features of the Gothic story – is the consequence of public/national history entering domestic spaces. Thus, in contrast with the traditional Gothic where the violence is endemic to the family, in the postcolonial Gothic the family merely echoes, draws upon or is impacted by the violence writ across the nation-as-family.

In Munnu, the state of terror which is Kashmir finds its expression in the terror the family lives in. During the crackdown parades where the men of the house have to appear before the army so that informers might identify the ‘terrorists’, Munnu’s house, tucked away behind some trees, often escaped the checking. Yet this minor triumph does not bring joy to the family because they constantly exchange stories of how other families have been affected by the events in the region. So, in one instance, the family discusses how a neighbour, Shakeela, found a machine gun in her school-going son’s bag (p. 14). On crackdown days ‘Mamma’s face would swell from blood pressure’ (p. 33). Other families wait for their men-folk to come back from the parade (p. 33).

Munnu presents families torn asunder by the terrors coming into the home from the violence of the region, the international (Indo-Pak) disputes and the Indian government. This last is represented by the Indian army in Munnu.  Numerous images of the army’s excesses, rudeness and sheer intensity of violence mark Sajad’s work. The army as the most visible face of the nation-as-family serves as the constant reminder in Sajad’s work that the Kashmiri families do not belong to the larger nation-as-family. In a postcolonial Gothic twist to the family-as-embedded-violence in the traditional Gothic,  we have in Munnu the nation-as-family whose chief characteristic is violence. Into this family none can fit, except those who acquiesce.

Sajad gives us stories of homes and families marked only by disappearances and deaths. Mushtaq (p. 51), Ajaz (p. 65), Mubashir (p. 124-5), Rehman (p. 232) are either dead or come from families disrupted by the violence in Kashmir. With family bonds broken by violent death in each of these cases, the nation-as-family has altered forever the world of the individual families. Sajad amplifies the visceral and affective aspect of such an alteration in the family in several instances. Mubashir cries in school: ‘th-they killed by father. They killed my father!’, placed in a speech balloon whose borders are ragged, suggestive of strong emotion (p. 124, emphasis in original). Sajad’s artwork then contributes its share. In a small panel we are shown the head of a dead man on a stretcher. The sheet covering him has black streaks, indicating blood. The accompanying text, in the words of the grief-stricken Mubashir, says: ‘it was my father, drenched in blood, lying on the stretcher’ (p. 125). In the next panel he explains: ‘his body had been cut with razors’ (p. 125). On the next page, in the first panel we are shown a man suspended from the ceiling and an army man getting ready to cut him with a razor blade. From the man’s body we see blood flow, although it is inked as black on black (p. 126). The boy howling for his dead father constitutes the next two panels. The family marked by the death of its members does not belong to the nation-as-family because the latter constitutes the former only in terms of a violent relationship.

The sheer unpredictability of the violence that could, at any moment, enter the family is further indication of the impossibility of bringing the individual family in alignment with the nation-as-family. Writing about the modern Gothic, David Punter wonders whether we live in a ‘culture of horror’ wherein

“we appear now to know more than the writers of the late eighteenth century about the potential for violence of our fellow human beings; yet the “more” that we know is precisely a knowledge of unpredictability, an anxious, entirely social, and spasmodically political, awareness that as we discover more about psyche we become less and less certain that it is, or ever can be, “under control”.”…Full Text PDF

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