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FICTION: ELEGY FOR HUMANITY

August 05, 2018

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An elderly Kashmiri woman watches Indian soldiers patrol the streets of Srinagar. In Feroz Rather’s novel, it seems every character takes birth in the period of violence in India-held Kashmir | AFP
An elderly Kashmiri woman watches Indian soldiers patrol the streets of Srinagar. In Feroz Rather’s novel, it seems every character takes birth in the period of violence in India-held Kashmir | AFP

The art of storytelling is an interface with reality that has the power to transform perceptions about people and places. Feroz Rather’s debut novel, The Night of Broken Glass, peeks into the dark, festering heart of Kashmiri society while dramatising the spectacles of military violence inflicted from outside. A novel written in 13 short stories, it turns a broken mirror on memory that itself is fissured and brutalised.

Writings on India-held Kashmir have appeared in the form of novels, memoirs and poetry. Rather’s book shares contextual resemblance with Basharat Peer’s memoir Curfewed Night and Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator — one of brutalisation of life in the region. However, The Night of Broken Glass is different as it engages with the ‘social’ in India-held Kashmir, revealing the larger issues of religion, caste and gender as presenting internal contradictions within Kashmiri society.

The first story, ‘The Old Man in the Cottage’, is a disturbing tale of unfulfilled revenge. In it, the writer uses traditional literary ideas such as revenge to understand human actions. It is narrated by an unnamed man who seethes with anger he has kept buried within him for 25 years. He is a psychologically distorted character: to soothe his trauma, he licks the edge of his axe, relishing the idea of killing Inspector Masoodi, the cop who has humiliated and tortured him, along with Major S, a sadistic military man who embodies pure brutality.

A debut novel from India-held Kashmir weaves beautiful landscapes and ugliness of violence into a painfully beautiful labyrinth of conflict

Major S’s presence hovers like a dark cloud over the existence of all the Kashmiri characters. This figure of the outsider looms large throughout the text, each time presented with a cruel vibrancy. He inflicts unthinkable violence on the people — he breaks the jaw of a shopkeeper with the butt of his gun and makes Showkat the grocer lick the graffitied letters “JKLF” (standing for the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) off the rough, cemented wall of his shop until his tongue “began to bleed.” This incident sends shudders through the bystanders and fellow residents of the village.

Despite the blanket of violence that envelops the lives of these characters, Rather pierces through, drawing the reader’s attention to the internal contradictions of Kashmiri society. The author shows a mosque as a site of caste hierarchy where Gulam, a lower-caste cobbler, is socially pressured to listen to Syed Anzar Shah’s sermon. Gulam resists this influence, wallowing in bitterness. He resents his son Jamshid, whom Syed Anzar Shah had taken as his disciple. One day Gulam’s resentment reaches its peak and he desires to hammer his own son Jamshid’s fingers and knuckles as, substituting for Anzar Shah, he recites the sermon at the mosque.

The novel gains pace with the unfolding of events and the multiple layering of a society as diverse as Kashmir’s. During the incarceration of two young men, Mohsin and Tariq, in the same cell and handcuffed together, the reader is acquainted with misperception about religion as a unifying force. I was struck by the force of Tariq’s monologue wherein he says, “Faith, my friend, is the consolation of the weak and foolish... not for those who reflect on the human waste and the scale of human cruelty.”

The element of human cruelty is more acute and brutally exercised through the character of Rosy, an iconoclast who defies convention and falls in love with Jamshid, a lower caste, and is subjected to violence driven by lust and power.

Rather’s novel is about the present. It doesn’t give an account of the historicity of characters. Throughout the chapters/short stories, characters appear with predictable regularity in the text. It seems as if every character takes birth in the period of violence in India-held Kashmir. Also, it is filled with too many people; this affects the centrality of the narrative and sometimes the themes are also scarred by it.

However, its beauty lies in the complexity of its understanding. The Night of Broken Glass is not a simple narrative; instead, it brings out the complexities of people. For example, Major S, though an outsider and an oppressor in Kashmiri eyes, has his own moments of weakness. He has to deal with his own restive unconscious. ‘The Nightmares of Major S’ captures his internal chaos so acutely that it is probably the most powerful tale in this assemblage of haunting stories.

This book has the complexity of a novel that renders a place warped in war and painful longing through the author’s elevated language. The lyrical style and rhythmic sentences are perhaps its strengths. Rather weaves the beautiful landscape and ugliness of violence into a painfully beautiful labyrinth of conflict. With an elegiac touch in his language and a tone of melancholy, he decides to collide with history, a sentiment reflected in the epigraph, which is taken from the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska:

History did not greet us with triumphal fanfares

— It flung dirty sand into our eyes.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist specialising in Pakistan-India relations and Kashmir

The Night of
Broken Glass
By Feroz Rather
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352641611
222pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 5th, 2018