How do you write about violence without being didactic or banal? Living as we are today in a world spiralling into deeper gyres of conflict, how do you represent the slow unravelling of the self fronted with pain and loss beyond control, beyond comprehension, beyond understanding? Bombarded with a constant battery of sound and image, of urgent words tearing across our networked minds, it is increasingly difficult to sustain interest—to say nothing of outrage. How, then, do you evoke rampant chaos and confusion without resorting either to the thickness of the digest or the sensationalism of the newsflash?
The Night of Broken Glass, Feroz Rather’s maiden offering in book form, provides some cues. Comprising thirteen short narratives set over two decades of incessant bloodshed in Kashmir, it is a significant statement on not just how to imagine the Valley beyond familiar tropes of victimhood and violence but also how these material realities inflect the form and function of narrative and plot emergent from such contexts. Rather’s achievement lies in being able to carefully and potently humanize the brutal recalibration of the ordinary and the everyday amidst the struggle between militancy and counter-terrorism: what appear as a result are disturbingly believable vignettes on the experiential realities of this inter-generational battle for Kashmir.
The book begins with the hint of a closure: at a critical finality, moving towards a beguiling absolution. ‘The Old Man in the Cottage’ dramatizes revenge in a quietly deliberative fashion, juxtaposing the lasting agony of torture against pity for the dying in the last throbs of life. Is an eye for an eye, stone for a stone, life for a life, the only meaning of revenge, or is destiny itself an agent of vengeance? Corrupted both in mind and body by the lives he has destroyed, Inspector Masoodi sputters to a neglected and painful end: the cancer that consumes him is as much of his lungs as of his soul, turning him into a decrepit, unloved picture of sheer helplessness.
Yet, justice is hardly poetic in The Night of Broken Glass. One generation is killed and dies, is replaced by the next on the altar of freedom and duty, but conflict continues: Inspector Masoodi succumbs to a sickness of his own making, but he is succeeded by his son Imran even before he fully passes on from this life. In ‘A Rebel Returns’, Ilham lingers on as a trace in his murderer’s home even as twelve years later Imran becomes the man his father had been. The taint of betrayal and guilt becomes a patrimony, from father to son to grandson, even as spilt blood whispers in understanding for a regenerative reform. From Srinagar to Sopor, from Bijbyor to Pampore, Kashmir in these narratives appears as a tortured, troubled nightscape caught in an unending loop of suffering, loss, and revenge.
It is to Rather’s credit, though, that he powerfully complements these intimate portrayals of the wreckages of war with equally sensitive renditions of love, hate, fear, and ambition as they operate within the framework of this pervasive violence. In ‘Summer of 2010’, Nagin’s love for her husband Rehman remains the same even nineteen years after the beginning of the conflict in December 1991: even as massacre after unprovoked massacre hurtles Kashmir into a state of real war, even as humiliation and sudden death become everyday norms, love and compassion sustain the inner world of familial relationships stretched to their limits by the iron shadow of this conflict. Love, born in and of loss, is a motif recurring throughout the text: Maryam’s transitioning loyalties, from Safir to Ishfaq and then back to Safir after Ishfaq’s murder; Rosy and Jamshid’s love, which dares to defy the heavy weight of caste and custom but ultimately falls prey to the brute power of occupation; Misreh’s relationship with Gulam, which bonds both in a shared intimacy even as the world around them crumbles under a hail of bullets. It is compassion, which moves Safir to thwart Showkat’s plan to murder Sunil, love which gives Nuzhat a reason to live even after Rosy’s suicide.
The nature of conflict and of the combatants in The Night of Broken Glass merits some discussion as well. The state is present only through figureheads of brute repressive power: civic life and civil society, the necessary illusions of representative democracy are conspicuous only by their stark absence. The Indian armed forces appear consistently as agents of atavistic brutality throughout the text, as do functionaries of the local police. ‘The Nightmares of Major S’, for instance, reveals the lasting storm and tumult within a mind torn asunder by the excesses of militaristic power; Major S is a man perennially out of place, perennially at war as much with the world as with himself. Force 10, similarly, always appears high with the tremendous power he exercises over the lives of his fellow Kashmiris: the giddy, unquestionable power to beat, maul, and kill as he pleases, when he pleases. The men who oppose them—and it is always men—seem to be guided as much by the ideological commitment to azaadi as by intensely personal motivations for retributive justice: Showkat against Major S, for making him lick rebel graffiti outside his shop; Mohsin against Force 10, for humiliating him with repeated beatings.
The overall effect of reading these narratives, then, is at once deeply disturbing and extremely provocative. Assault, rape, and death shadow every individual, every family at every stage of their lives. Tariq, forced by a soldier to desecrate the sacred sanctum of Shah-e-Hamdan, grows up ‘fortuitous and frail’, a ‘dry stone craving water’: for him the rosary of his father’s faith can only be of bullet casings, the cold fury of metal ripping life after life. Imran, taught by his father to use a gun well, gleans himself from the redemptive shadow of Ilham to become the man he never wanted to be. Kamran, framed by Inspector Masoodi in a protest he was not privy to, turns enemy of the state in an impassioned response to the deliberative injustice of the state. In effect, the pages of these narratives are littered with ‘skin turned red and blue’, bodies on ‘cold, stone floor covered in spit and stinking of faeces’, skulls split, ‘blood and brain matter…trickled out’. Nature too is not left untouched, as occupation transforms the beauty of Kashmir into ‘creepy vegetation’: under Major S’s command, living, breathing emblems of Kashmir’s natural heritage bleed ‘white and reddish’ as they are cut to make coffins.
It is in giving vivid voice to this psychosomatic transformation of Kashmir as the site of almost unending night that Rather shows himself to be an adept and keenly perceptive craftsman. Space, time, and location fuse in these narratives, weaving society, culture, and nature into the same thread of steady corrosion. Boldly taking the terms of the debate from the dialectic tussle between fact and fiction to an inspired verisimilitude, The Night of Broken Glass stands as powerful testimony to the wreckage of generations of ordinary, innocent lives crushed under the geopolitics of national and religious war. In an image-heavy milieu of quick judgment and instant gratification, the abiding power of good writing seems to still lie in its ability to suffuse the soul with a rich sense of the experiential truths of the world. Rather is successful in evoking a deep sense of the many contestations which constitute the lives and contexts of Kashmiris today. To have such effect, to conjure an idea and a vision of the lives of others so that they become lived not as much through the corporeality of experience but through the intangibility of affect and empathy, this, surely, is the mark of good writing. Read with an open mind and heart, The Night of Broken Glass holds the capacity to effect deep transformation in the politics and poetics of the everyday in Kashmir.
Anubhav Pradhan is a Doctoral candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.