I begin this post with a disclaimer. I am not a Kashmir studies scholar and my essay on Malik Sajad’s Munnu is my first piece on literature from Kashmir (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02759527.2018.1514152). I am a Northeast Indian Studies specialist, and my recently published book was on the literary representation of survival in states of terror in this eastern borderland region (see https://www.routledge.com/Contemporary-Literature-from-Northeast-India-Deathworlds-Terror-and-Survival/Baishya/p/book/9781138597341). However, the concerns that animated my book also led me to the critical apparatus for the reading I conducted of Munnu in this recently published article. My book on contemporary Northeast Indian literatures initially began as an exploration of sovereign terror, biopolitics and necropolitics in the eastern borderland region. However, my study shifted the focus from the “why” of violence to the “how” of lived experience in quotidian experiences of terror. As I delved further into the literary texts, I noticed two recurring features—first, the comparison of people brutalized by law to states of animal being; second, the presence of actual animals as a ubiquitous feature of quotidian life in zones of emergency. While one trajectory of the project looked at how political terror impacted human and nonhuman forms of life alike, the other looked at how encounters with animal forms of being enabled imaginations of flight from debilitating political systems. Thus, when I read Jehirul Hussain’s Assamese short story on the secret killings in Assam—“Soru Dhemali, Bar Dhemali” (which I translated into English as “Minor Preludes, Major Preludes”), my attention was riveted on the agential possibilities of an inconspicuous animal-form, the snail, and how it reveals a line of flight from a debilitating situation of political terror.
Similar concerns about political terror and the presence of animals animated my analysis of Munnu. When I read the graphic novel, I was struck by the recurring presence of stray dogs. Most commentators on Munnu focus on the dichotomy and relationship of the representation of Kashmiri-as-hangul and the Indians-as-humans. However, I argue that we can add a third angle to this human-animal dyad in Munnu—the stray dog. The stray dog appears at crucial moments in the text both as symbolic ciphers and material presences in the sphere of everyday urban life in Srinagar and Batamaloo. On the one hand, they function as symbolic foils that either accentuates or contrasts the animalization of humans in conditions of militarized occupation; on the other, they expose contingent moments of interspecies ethics and relationality that show ways out of the allegorical chokehold that animal representations in literary texts are often reduced to.
Puzzling through the figure of the stray dog in the essay necessitated initiating a conversation that lay at the intersection of two other knowledge-fields where I place my work: postcolonial studies and animal studies. Postcolonial theory has by and large avoided the question of the animal, unless the issue was about the animalization of the human. The dominant mode of representing and analyzing animals in postcolonial literature is through the lens of allegory or symbolization—consider, for instance, how the unnamed dog in Manto’s “Tetwal ka Kutta” is often substituted for the figure of the human refugee entrapped in a no-man’s zone (see https://rekhta.org/manto/tetwal-ka-kutta-saadat-hasan-manto-manto). The specificity of the dog and it’s modes of communication in the story are thereby erased. In contrast, dogs are ubiquitous presences in animal theory—a body of thought that has a predominantly Eurocentric orientation. This Eurocentric orientation is evident in the figure that occupies centerstage in mainstream forms of animal theory: the domesticated dog. Stray dogs rarely merit consideration, and even when they do, as in Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto, they are briefly mentioned, but glossed over almost as quickly.
When we shift our gaze to pan-South Asian contexts, stray dogs appear as ubiquitous presences in the sphere of quotidian life (urban or rural). Dogs, in general, and stray dogs, in particular, summon forth divergent reactions, many of them influenced by the ambivalent attitudes towards canines in two of the largest socio-cultural ensembles permeating everyday life in the region: Islam and Hinduism. Consider, for instance, the association of stray dogs with slum dwellers and people of lower caste—a point that has been emphasized in different ways by scholars of Hinduism like Wendy Doniger and urban studies specialists such as Yamini Narayanan. On the other hand, the dislike of the dog and the use of “kutta” as a swear word is often attributed to the stereotypical view of the “Islamic dislike of the animal” (see, for instance—
https://scroll.in/article/764132/why-dogs-and-puppies-are-swearwords-in-india-a-short-guide-to-hindi-profanity-for-the-bjp). Moreover, as Naveeda Khan argues in her ethnographic work on dogs in the chars of Bangladesh, stray dogs also oscillate between attributions of faithfulness and unfaithfulness.
However, attitudes towards stray dogs in both Islam and Hinduism are much more complex and ambivalent. For instance, in her ecotheological reading of tādhlil (subjugation of animals), Sarra Tlili suggests that the emphasis in the Qu’ran falls more on the shared commonalities between the human and the animal, rather than the stereotypical attribution of domination and subjugation to human-animal relations (91). Contiguously, the feeding of stray dogs is also a persisting motif in the literature of Sufism—as Kim Fortuny writes, street dogs embody “virtues such as humility, fidelity, and gratitude, or are the recipients of kindness, often in the form of food, due to the presence of these virtues in humans” (292). Attitudes of disgust towards the stray dogs may also arise from modern biopolitical strategies that frame stray animals as a “problem” affecting the health of the city-space or the body politic (for an example of such a biopolitical attempt in Kashmir, see https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/get-rid-of-stray-dogs-its-not-afspa-says-jammu-and-kashmir-lawmaker-introduces-bill-to-curb-canine-m-753393).
As far as stray dogs in Kashmir are concerned, we notice an ambivalent oscillation between their status as feral beings or as neighborhood/community pets. Moreover, stray dogs are also viewed as “tools” of the Indian occupying forces. I won’t go into a detailed description of these attitudes here; instead, I’d like to illustrate this by pointing out an ambivalence in my good friend Ather Zia’s fascinating short article titled “Of the Dog Days in Kashmir” (Ather forwarded this article to me after I was done with the final proofs of my published article). At one point in the essay (see http://www.mantlethought.org/other/dog-days-kashmir), she writes:
A recent report claimed that Srinagar with 14 lakh humans has 80,000 dogs. (1 lakh = 100,000). An expert claims that there will be no less than 20 lakh dogs in another five years, exceeding the human population. In the last couple of years mauling by dogs has become very common. Since 2005, there have been seven fatal attacks and the Srinagar hospital has received more than 20,000 dog bite cases. People are afraid to step out alone after hours for the fear of being attacked. It has become a common norm for children to be accompanied by parents even for some a minor errand, say buying a piece of gum from the store next-door, lest they are attacked. Women do not venture out alone for morning walks but form groups to ensure their safety. People feel the need to carry sticks and machetes to ward off any attack. One lady’s face was ripped off last year in a dog attack and she barely survived. A four-year-old child died of complications from a dog attack.
In the early days of militancy, it was common for the Indian troops to raise stray dogs around the bunkers. These dogs became default guard-dogs – a kind of animal militia. It was not uncommon to find huge well-fed dogs around the bunkers that people abhorred for mainly two reasons. One, Kashmiris are not dog people, if anything they hate them…Second, these dogs would often show unbridled aggression to people in the vicinity. The people, of course, could not do anything but complain amongst themselves and suffer the formation of huge packs which would congregate outside the bunkers waiting for leftovers, occasional pats and many merciless beatings from the soldiers on some errant behavior (whatever that was).
Nowadays the presence of dogs in Kashmir, in this manner and at this level is deeply metaphoric of what is happening or what has happened to Kashmir. The way dogs run amok in the city, in large packs during the day and especially at nights gives an impression of being in a jungle.
Three aspects are worth highlighting in this quoted passage: i) the figure of the stray dog as a feral presence in urban locales, ii) the perception that stray dogs perform the role of an “animal militia,” and iii) the presence of stray packs as the metaphorical sign for the erasure of the boundary between urban space and the jungle (given the conditions of militarized occupation in Kashmir, the word “jungle” has specific connotations of the suspension of law and the prevalence of terror). However, her unequivocal statement that Kashmiris hate dogs can be contrasted and complicated by placing it alongside another passage at the beginning of her essay:
It is quite usual to spot a fresh litter mewing at alley corners. People despite the problems they face on account of the unbridled dog aggression will try to keep the young pups and their mother comfortable especially in the cold winter. They collect rags, gunny bags, and cardboard pieces to make a snug nest, and make sure that the mother has a meal to eat.
Despite the presence of feral strays in urban spaces, what this passage highlights are the convivial relationships that persist between humans and canines. It would not be incorrect to say that in Kashmir, as in other locales in South Asia, stray dogs oscillate ambivalently in a wide spectrum of relationships in the interzone between “nature” (feral packs, for instance) and “culture” (community pets as in the instance above).
What fascinates me about Munnu is this complex, ambivalent portrayal of the presence of stray dogs. While I discuss a wide variety of such portrayals in the essay, including Munnu’s intertextual echoes of Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Tetwal ka Kutta,” I’d like to highlight three specific dimensions of ambivalent canine representations in this post: i) the contrast between the mobility and modes of survival of four-legged creatures like dogs and the frequent animalization of the bipedal hangul-human (very often represented by the sketches of Kashmiris forced from upright stances into humiliating positions on all-fours), ii) symbolic similitudes and differences between humans and canines, and iii) representations of contingent interspecies contact that gesture towards unprecedented forms of ethical relationality.
For illustrations of the first point, consider the three pages reproduced below:
In Figure 1, as Munnu and his brother, Adil, walk through a “neighborhood of ruins,” we notice an Indian settler (the narrator informs us that “homeless” Indians had found shelter in these abandoned houses) throwing out garbage from a balcony while the barely perceptible figure of stray dogs await their repast below. In the next panel, Indian soldiers pull out a hangul from a vehicle for not possessing the correct identity card. This panel depicting the quotidian aspects of animal existence in a trans-species locale is directly contrasted with the scene where the schoolboys witness the hangul without the proper ID sprawled on his back with his four limbs flailing in the air. The posture of the sprawling hangul reminds us of a vulnerable animal. Indian soldiers loom over him and shout in an intimidating manner. Quotidian aspects of animal survival are directly contrasted with the capture and animalization of human life by necropolitical agencies.
The representation is reversed in Figures 2 and 3—we begin with a brutal depiction of necropower and transition to relationships between human and canine in the sphere of the quotidian. The last panel in Figure 2 shows two hangul corpses dragged like instrumentalized animal carcasses through the streets of Batamaloo, while two stray dogs run alongside. This image segues into the narratorial comment on the next page—“Only cheek bones and half-closed eyes now. They were buried nearby.” What is crucial here is the visual contrast of this comment with the images of Munnu and his sister, Shahnaz, feeding a posse of stray dogs in the first three panels in Figure 3. While relationships between bipedal humans and four legged canines continue in the sphere of everyday life, the animalization of the human in conditions of necropolitical occupation is visually represented in both sets of images by a forcible reduction of the biped to conditions that lie “below” the status of the “human.” I draw here on Sigmund Freud’s famous speculation in Civilization and its Discontents that the transition of the four-legged animal to the “upright stance” of the biped is one of the tenuous markers of the separation of “human” from “animal.” In Munnu, this proposition is frequently reversed—militarized occupation animalizes the human by reducing him/her from a bipedal position to a prone one where all four limbs come into view. This forcible and brutal animalization of the human is visually contrasted with the mobility and quotidian modes of survival of four-legged canines. While the human is humiliated by being forced to be on all-fours, sequestered, abjected and rendered immobile by necropolitical agencies, the accompanying representations of the relationships between bipedal humans and four-legged canines reveal mundane facets of the minutiae of everyday existence in exceptional conditions of occupation.
Dogs also function as symbolic markers that accentuate similarities or differences between competing imaginaries of the human. Examples are the two pages reproduced below:
Figure 4 shows how Munnu becomes conscious of human sexuality—a process initiated a couple of pages earlier where he gapes open-mouthed at two stray dogs fornicating on a public street. After his older friend, Hilal, informs him that humans perform similar activities “after marriage,” the child Munnu is horrified. Besides the dawn of Munnu’s consciousness about the body and sexuality, what is crucial about this segment is how the “animal” figures as a cipher of difference that through imaginative separation forges an image of “human” self for the child. Crucially, this image of self emerges through the conjoint depictions of disgust and shame—”gatekeeper emotions” as Susan Miller characterizes them. This is depicted in the panels where the child tries to correlate Hilal’s account of the act of sexual intercourse with that of urination. As Munnu urinates, he looks “below” with shock and wonder at his penis (Cultural phenomenologists like Sara Ahmed emphasize that the separation between the spatial domains of the “above” and “below” undergird narrativizations of emotions like disgust). His shock is depicted visually by the swoosh lines in the smallest panel on the page which has a close-up of Munnu’s face with his wide-open eyes, his pupils facing downwards. The thought bubbles in the subsequent panels show how Munnu moves from consciousness of sexuality and the body to self-consciousness about “human” difference vis-à-vis the “animal” through registers of disgust and shame. As Munnu looks at his dripping urine, he ruminates that “filthy” dogs lick what humans consider abject: vomit. But remembering Hilal’s revelations about sexual intercourse, he queries “But humans?” and responds “Shame!” The figure of the animal here functions as a symbolic marker of difference—it is inextricably bound with the realm of the corporeal and of the abjected production of bodily fluids and waste. In reasserting his “humanness,” the child Munnu separates himself from the domain of the animal.
In Figure 5, the adult Munnu desperately negotiates checkpoints and potholed roads to get his sick mother to the city hospital (324). Commenting on the important role of Munnu’s mother in the narrative, Toral Gajarawala writes that through the tender depiction of the mother-son relationship, “…a small world emerges, of care and intimacy in a home against whose doors the police are literally leaning, searching for militants. The insular world of the home becomes both bastion and prison.” While in the majority of Munnu, the space of the home functions as an “insular” world which is both “bastion and prison,” the acts of navigating occupied, checkpoint-ridden streets reveal that public areas in Srinagar are akin to open-air prisons. This is evident in the panels above where Munnu navigates the potholed streets and rituals of subjection at checkpoints to get his mother to the hospital. Two panels here once again feature stray dogs or visual analogues to four-legged animality First, we notice a stray dog suckling her puppies while another one stares in the right corner of the panel. In the foreground, Munnu is desperately trying to get his mother to the hospital on his bike. If depictions of “care and intimacy” earlier emerge primarily through the figure of the mother, here the baton is passed from mother to son. This passing of the baton of care from mother to son is contrasted with another archetypal maternal image of care and intimacy—the female dog suckling her brood of puppies. However, the shifting symbolism of care and intimacy emerging from the depiction of the mother-child dyads in the first panel is contrasted with the image in the third panel where Munnu is virtually on all-fours before an Indian soldier. The prostrate Munnu seems about to lick the soldier’s boots. If, as a child, Munnu is disgusted and ashamed by the fact that dogs lick their own vomit, this representation of the prostrate figure of the adult Munnu shows how he is forced to abase himself like an animal to give his beloved mother a chance for medical treatment. Even the identity card that says “Press” offers him no leeway [There is a visual echo here of the placards placed around the dog in Manto’s story—an echo which is already amplified in Munnu earlier when we come across one of Sajad’s first cartoons which depicts two dogs with placards stating “Identity Card” around their necks (see pg. 163)]. Instead, the “Press” ID seems to weigh him down even further.
If separation from animals or animal-like conditions is a dominant way of framing images of the “human,” considerations of interspecies ethics have to travel in the other direction: not of imaginative separation, but of intercorporeal relationality. Joan Colin Dayan offers a definition of ethics-as-relatedness that I have found very useful:
To be ethical…is to locate oneself in relation to a world adamantly not one’s own. Whereas morality is an austere experience of nonrelation, ethics demands the discomfort of utter relatedness. (xvi).
I wager in my essay that the haunting, resonant last three pages of Munnu is an instance of the depiction of ethics as the “discomfort of utter relatedness,” a way of locating oneself “in relation to a world adamantly not one’s own.” In these last pages, Munnu is walking back in the all-enveloping darkness. Initially, it seems like the dim torchlight that illuminates the thick darkness portends a closure of the narrative of artistic self-discovery—a movement from inchoate artistic darkness to the light of self-knowledge. This is underscored by the first two narratorial comments that seemingly sum up Munnu’s presentation as künstlerroman:
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 its promises
Embrace the inevitable process of aging, but ditch the process of growing up. You might manage a happy ending without having to become a hero or a spiteful monster. (346)
However, Munnu refuses such a neat closure—after all, it suggests, in continuing conditions of militarized occupation, the desire for a fully-realized artistic self is a mirage. Instead of ending here, Munnu leads us to what Elleke Boehmer calls a “suspended ending” (48). Writing about “suspended endings” in post-Apartheid literature from South Africa, Boehmer suggests that such closures reveal that the idea of “normalcy” in emergency zones remains tenuous and fragile. I reproduce the last two pages of Munnu below to emphasize the suspended quality of its closure:
Precisely at the moment when Munnu articulates his desire for the flowering of artistic self-realization, his torchlight falls on a pack of stray dogs. These dogs begin to chase him (see the first panel in Figure 6). As he haggles with the driver of the autorickshaw that he fortuitously comes across, we realize that two other men are sexually assaulting a woman in the back of the auto. The woman, cognitively disabled, is thrown out of the auto like “unwanted filth” just in front of the stray dogs. Our first full view of her is that of a prostrate figure on all fours. She gets up and begins walking away saying—“They’re my brothers…I didn’t have a firepot…cold outside…my brothers.” As she recedes from our range of vision, the stray dogs follow her barking. Our last view of her is the scene where she raises and cuddles one of the canines as the rest of the pack falls silent. Once again, we witness the triangulation of bipedal “human”/animalized “human” on all fours/four-legged canines. This representation of the woman as “filth” and an abjected animalized figure on all-fours reemphasizes the bleed between biopolitical and zoopolitical, two-legged beings as opposed to four-legged beings, in necropolitical conditions. Furthermore, the male hanguls may be animalized and terrorized themselves, but are equally capable of inflicting immense cruelty and injury upon others. The brutal violence of the state seems to find its noxious reflection in the masculinist violence that pervades quotidian life in necropolitical locales. Thus, we notice a further complication of the polyvalent uses of “human” and “animal” in Sajad’s graphic novel. The feral, animal other scares Munnu as he runs away fearfully from the pack of barking dogs. But then he is witness to a scene where selves that are not threateningly other like the occupying forces, but rather close and intimate to Kashmiri/hangul images of self (consider the relational connotation of “brother”), behave like a feral other.
The self-other, human-animal dichotomy flips again when the supposedly feral other—the pack of barking dogs—fall quiet when the limping, battered woman cradles one of the dogs in her arms. The sonic dimension is also highlighted through the connection drawn between the woman’s “gibberish” and the dogs’ barks. Both seem to be relegated to the realm of nonmeaning, of the phone (noise) instead of logos (speech). But, this sonic contiguity between disabled human and (supposedly) feral animal becomes the medium of connection for an overturning of the hierarchies underpinning human and animal in Munnu. This is accentuated further when the bipedal human establishes a haptic relation with one of the four-legged animals. This brief moment of being together with the animal other forces the witness Munnu, and by extension us readers, to locate ourselves in relation to a world adamantly not our own. This, for me, is the discomfort of utter relatedness as with the disabled woman and the stray dogs, we arrive at the edges of a different figuration of life and survival in a necropolitical zone, one that is fenced out from our range of vision by the steadily increasing volume and weight of darkness in the panels.
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