I lay motionless upon a tattered mattress on the floor, my eyes half open. The muscles in the back of my neck were stiff. My stomach roiled and my eyelids burned. Broken images of flying glass shards from my midnight dreams flashed through my mind; like the sensations of hurt, drifting through a languorous darkness.
As I lay there longing for the peace of dreamless sleep, the door opened allowing a blinding streak of light into the room. I whimpered as I flung my arm over my eyes and cringed away as far as I could go, until my skull pressed against the wall.
When I slowly opened my eyes, Inspector Masoodi’s son was standing by my feet. He was in his khaki uniform, with shoes and belt of shining brown leather. He crouched over me.
“Your words failed,” he said.
“Don’t become your father,” I whispered.
“You must be joking,” he laughed, patting his holster. He smelled of aftershave. He had nicked himself shaving, below his Adam’s apple. The cut was covered in a purple clot. My eyes lingered there for a moment until the buckle of his belt glinted in my line of sight. Even in the darkness, the Sarnath sign gleamed with its three lions rearing up on their hind legs. Gaping maws and roaring, I thought, all set to pounce on me and gnaw at my bones.
“I will be sworn in as the next station-house officer today.”
“Is that what you came to tell me?
“I am here to tell you that your words mean nothing. I am here to tell you that I will do anything to stop the likes of you from coming back to life.” He spoke with a deep conviction.
I stood up and looked directly into his eyes. “I am not done yet,” I said softly.
“Stop raving, Ilham,” he said. “You died many years ago, you know that. Hell, the whole world knows that.”
Once upon a time, I led an outfit of young rebels. My area of operation was Sopor, a small town in the north. Late one autumn evening, as my comrades and I crossed an apple orchard, heading for the marketplace on the other side, we were ambushed by soldiers hiding in the thickets. All five of my men were killed instantly. I sustained the crossfire singlehandedly.
However, at the end, there were no bullets left in my Kalashnikov. The soldiers zeroed in on me, throwing a dagger in my direction that sunk into my back. Half dead, the soldiers handed me over to the local police who put me into an ambulance. I was growing weaker as the bleeding wouldn’t stop. The vehicle floor beneath me moved and a bluish darkness fell over me. The windowpanes became viscous and foggy, with two distant voices floating above me.
“What are we doing to Ilham, Inspector Masoodi?” asked a somewhat subdued voice.
“We take his corpse back to Srinagar,” Inspector Masoodi replied.
“But he is still alive and if we take him to the hospital, he could survive.”
“He won’t make it all the way.”
Like poison, a pain slowly spread through my body. My head was throbbing and gradually going numb. “Water, water,” I wanted to call, but my lips refused to move. Almost an hour later, at the outskirts of Srinagar, I was hanging on to life by a thread when Inspector Masoodi asked the driver to stop the vehicle by a brook. “Go, get some water for him,” he said.
I heard the door slide open and the man strode away. But when he returned with water in a can, originally used for diesel, and looked at me, there I lay: strangulated, my bitten tongue protruding through my teeth out of my mouth.
“What happened to Ilham, Inspector Masoodi?” the man asked.
“Poor guy. He died,” Inspector Masoodi replied.
At dawn in Srinagar, the air at the graveyard on the banks of the river Jhelum was rent by the mourners’ laments. A wind began to blow through the city. Inspector Masoodi walked along the curving bank, crossed the road at Badshah Bridge and entered his tall house. He went upstairs to his bedroom where Sabrin was deep asleep. He changed noiselessly and climbed into bed. He noticed that his fat, twelve-year-old son, who always slept clinging to his mother during the night, was missing. He gently shook Sabrin’s shoulder.
“Where is Imran?” he asked.
“He must be somewhere in the house,” Sabrin murmured and fell asleep again.
“Foolish woman,” Inspector Masoodi grumbled.
He rose and switched on the lights. Sabrin was still snoring when he returned to the bedroom after searching the three sitting rooms in the house. He pushed open the door of the bathroom. As he stepped in, he slipped on a wet tile and knocked over a bucket filled with water with his knee. Outside, the wind grew furious, rattling the window panes discordantly. Inspector Masoodi, spooked and suspecting ghosts in the house, ran down the stairs. He went into the kitchen, the drawing room and the guest room. “The whore has lost me my son,” he bellowed. He returned to the kitchen and gazed out at the wind flailing about with brute force. A tremor of fear shook him, but he gathered himself quickly, clenching his fists. He darted out to the veranda, the only place in the house that he had not searched.
He found three patio chairs around the iron table; the wind had shattered the glass vase, the fragments of glass and fake flowers were strewn about the table-top. He wanted to call out for help now, but he heard a human voice. He looked across at the Jhelum, ruffled and loud. He thought he was hallucinating; the sound was coming from somewhere beneath his feet.
He went down the steps into the cellar shining the torch in his hand. In the rear of the basement he found Imran facing the wall and mumbling something.
“You devil!” shouted Inspector Masoodi. “I looked everywhere for you.’
Imran looked immensely relieved and ecstatic. His eyes, tinted with a strange pallid shine, were overflowing with tears. He had peed in his pyjamas and his legs trembled.
“Who were you talking to?” asked Inspector Masoodi.
“Papa, can’t you see him? Can’t you see, Ilham?’
“Which Ilham? How do you know about Ilham?’
“Ilham, talk to my Papa,” Imran said, turning around.
“Ilham is dead,” Inspector Masoodi shouted in horror, “Ilham is dead.”
He grabbed his son’s arm in a bid to haul him into his arms, but Imran had become immobile like a hefty, frigid corpse. He did not move an inch.
“You son of the devil,” Inspector Masoodi slapped him, crying and wrapping his son in a firm embrace.
Ever since Imran was taken away by his father, I have had no one to visit me in this low-ceilinged, narrow basement. The walls are cracked and chipped with deep cavernous shelves where bugs sing, mate and proliferate. Beneath the hay mat on the floor, the mice have dug long tunnels. Last night, I climbed the stairway leading to the door. I was enjoying a bug, chewing at its crunchy wings as the mice emerged from their tunnels and burrowed into the mattress, ripping fresh holes in the mounds of cotton. Rascals! I was furious and lashed out at them with a bamboo broom that broke as they skittered away.
I am a forbidden shadow in this space, and in the absence of light and human contact, I feel an almost lethal contentment. The walls contain me. I’m sick with their warmth. My head hits the ceiling. I scream, desperate, my arms flailing. That is the point when I want throw myself out of here.
That morning as Imran, who calls himself Inspector Masoodi now, left, I followed him. However, like his father, he shut the door on me and latched it from outside. I sat on the top step, ruminating on the wings of the bug I had caught. I regretted the whole thing – our first meeting; how I had won him over; how he had believed me and had vowed that he would never become his father.
I was so angry that I turned around and punched the wooden door. I hit the door so hard that one of the fingers fell off my right hand. A finger without flesh. Picture what that looks like. Three thin bones one on top of the other. A piece of fragile artwork.
My finger fell on the topmost stair and walked down like a human baby with legs. As soon as it reached the floor, it ran after the mice. I ran after it. My finger was giving me a hard time, but I finally caught it as it emerged from a burrow. I put it back on my hand.
I was at the door again. I hit it so hard this time all my fingers fell off. But it was all good, I tell you, it was all good. The latch on the other side fell off.
I roamed the city that entire day, but finding that no one could hear, see or touch me, I became miserable. In the evening, I stood on Zero Bridge, looking at the river Jhelum. It was full and green and small boats floated on it. It was the river in which I had bathed and laughed as a child, playfully splashing water on to my friends. I wondered whether I could at least generate a ripple in the river if I jumped into it. But with the sun disappearing behind the Himalayas and the darkness falling over the city, it seemed unlikely. Srinagar was both deaf and blind to me. I had an overwhelming urge to return to the basement, ensconce myself on the mattress and sleep among the skittering mice.
I walked to the end of the bridge. I noticed a soldier inside the bunker and decided to explore the Cantonment instead of heading back to the cellar.
Inspector Masoodi was seated on a sofa in Café Barbarica, sipping a brandy and enjoying the opulent ambience. Noisy tourists were window-shopping and gazing at the souvenirs whittled from bones and wood. I noticed a wooden hand with missing fingernails. An authentic-looking ribcage missing its mid ribs. There was also a magnificent elbow, suspended from the ceiling by a skin-coloured string.
Inspector Masoodi finished his drink and stepped out into the Tunnel. I followed him as he walked to the furthermost end and went into a dark prison cell where two young boys were lying on the cold, stone floor covered with spit and stinking of faeces. He tapped his cane against their feet.
“Fucking miscreants,” he shouted. Opening their eyes, they stood up, groggy and terrified.
“Kamran, take this,” he said to one of them, “or I empty my gun into your head.’
As Kamran took the tweezers from his hand, Inspector Masoodi unclasped his trouser belt. He thrashed the other boy’s back with the buckle-end. He grabbed his arm and ripped off the sleeve of his shirt. “Pluck out Ishfaq’s hair,” he shouted at Kamran. Kamran took a second to respond and Inspector Masoodi started to beat him.
As I watched this scene play out through the bars on the window, I realised that it made me neither sad nor angry. As Kamran collapsed on to the floor, I entered the prison cell and stood behind Inspector Masoodi. He grabbed Ishfaq by the scruff off his neck, ripping the collar off his shirt as well. He produced another set of tweezers from his trouser pocket and slapped Ishfaq before stabbing him in the shoulder with the forceps.
“Atto Khudayo,” Ishfaq cried. O God.
“This is the fucking fate of a stone-thrower,” Inspector Masoodi bit out.
He grabbed Ishfaq’s shoulder, grinding the tweezers into his flesh and simultaneously, yanking the hair on his scalp. Kamran sat up looking horrified. He covered his eyes with his palms and began to weep.
“I’ll thrust these tweezers into your mother’s vagina, if you ever organise a protest against me or even think of hurling a rock at me.”
“Please let me go...please –,” Ishfaq cried.
I went into the house. There was a copper pitcher filled with water in the kitchen sink. I climbed on to the sink and peed into the pitcher.
Then I went upstairs. Yasmin, Inspector Masoodi’s wife, was in her bedroom. Her baby, very little and very soft, just like a mewling mouse, was in her lap.
The baby boy gazed around the room in wonderment as his mother suckled him. Yasmin then lay down beside him, comforting him, until they both fell asleep.
I wedged myself between mother and child and lay by her side, looking at her round breast with its taut, dark nipple. I wanted to suck on it. I put my lips around her nipple but stopped. Although she was still asleep, the child behind me woke up. His father’s son, he could see me. I drew him close and picking him up, took him into the basement. This time, I was not going to preach. This time, I was going to strangle him like his grandfather had strangled me.
I put my hand around his little neck. My fingers tickled him and he laughed. Good god! Is there any sound more pleasing than the sound of a child’s laughter?
I took him back upstairs and placed him on the edge of the bed and lay down by Yasmin. I took her breast in my hand and drew her nipple into my mouth. I sucked at it and stole all her milk.
That night, when Inspector Masoodi returned home, I was burrowed in the mattress, playing with a bug I had caught. The finger that had left me was chasing after the mice. Then I heard the child crying. Inspector Masoodi, drunk and thirsty, shouted at Yasmin to bring him water from the kitchen. “Ha, ha!” I laughed.
Excerpted with permission from The Night of Broken Glass, Feroz Rather, HarperCollins India.