In June this year the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released an unprecedented report on the situation of human rights in Kashmir. Instead of paying heed to the grave concerns this international body raised, the government of India chose to “reject” its report. Calling it a “so-called report”, Tanmaya Lal, deputy permanent representative of India to UN, echoed the government view, saying that the report reflected the “clear bias of an official who was acting without any mandate whatsoever and relied on unverified sources of information”.
This was in stark contrast to how an overwhelming number of Kashmiris enthusiastically welcomed the report, many calling it long-awaited. Kashmiri newspapers and timelines were flooded with serious interest in its contents, and demanded that the Indian (and Pakistani) government not only acknowledge it but also implement its recommendations. It was as though the report stated what the Kashmiris already knew by experience, confirming what they had seen happening around them in the last several decades.
The Indian government deflected the unwelcome attention by calling the “sources of information” in the report “unverified”, Kashmiris have been providing this “verification” for decades now, in their newspapers, photographs, human right reports, testimonials, novels and poems. How much more verification do you need, they seem to ask. Feroz Rather’s book The Night of Broken Glass is only the latest among a series of remarkable and gut-wrenching literary testaments to how the conflict has bled Kashmir and morally bankrupted its aggressors.
A fusion of forms
For The Night of Broken Glass, Rather fuses two literary forms – the novel and the short story – to achieve a powerful effect. In these stories you encounter Kashmiri characters at different points in their lives (and deaths), each navigating the minefield of the military conflict that besieges the valley. Rather combines the capacity of shock implicit in the event-ordered genre of the short story with the meditative longue durée of the novel that is conducive to growth arcs and inner conflict. With this dual-pronged form, he sets up a puzzle of events and people, that crisscross the sharp interconnected stories. What is a premonition in one story reaches a brutal realisation in another. What is an eventuality in one finds a causal explanation in another.
In such a form, he makes the reader work with him, making them experience that which another Kashmiri writer Huzaifa Pandit has called Rather’s main contribution to the literature from the valley, the unsparing “vertigo [of the] occupation”. The narrative style does create a vertiginous effect on reading. The characters, and the conflict they move within, do not grow on you so much as they begin to spiral around you.
Generosity and empathy
For example, consider these three figures from Rather’s stories. First, a father who since “the war came to Srinagar eighteen years ago” would take “long walks through the city”, picking up “the shells from bullets from where the guns had been fired by the soldiers”. He would bring these shells home and hide them in a cache. On being asked by his wife why he did it, he said he didn’t want his son “to see the bullet shells when he goes out to play”.
Second, a grocer, who “one morning...in...Mir Bazar” found “his face pressed against the cemented wall of his shop...six soldiers encircled him. [He] was moving his head up and down.” What is he doing, the onlooker or the reader wonders. “He was licking the wall of his own shop, his tongue following the letters of graffiti: JKLF. The soldiers kicked [him] as he lapped at the letters...until [his tongue] began to bleed”. Third, and quite incredibly, the figure of the soldier himself. Cloaked in the “sinister darkness and boredom” of the sandbag bunker, this man who “could have been from anywhere: Jharkhand or Orissa or Mysore. Perhaps...miserably homesick”. Rather writes in an act of incredible generosity, extending psychological complexity to this soldier, something the Indian mainstream media rarely does, its jingoism notwithstanding:
The soldier – a shadow of the sovereign in a castle of bones – thrust the cold metal he clutched in his frost-bitten hands, beyond the wall, and into the heart of the city. The soldier, imprisoned within the choking walls, could get killed the moment he stepped out of the bunker. And the soldier had an unbounded freedom to kill on the slightest provocation. Safir could not imagine the moral landscape of such a soul – a scorching scrubland? a fatal forest? – which vacillated between the fear of getting exterminated and the terrible duty of exterminating.
In the reams and reams of Indian mainstream print that seeks to speak on behalf of this soldier, I have not encountered such an astute paragraph. One which hopes to map the inner landscape of this soldier, who even retired Indian military officers and cabinet ministers often observe in their interviews, is seen by most Kashmiris as the primary aggressor in the valley. What does it tell us that it is a Kashmiri writer who finally gives the gift of complexity to the Indian soldier? Rather’s craft is so attuned to observe both the events of brutal violence and the slew of micro-aggressions that proliferate in a military conflict, that he ends up extending this empathetic hand even to this figure of the putative aggressor. Implying that the military conflict undermines everyone involved, those who reel under it of course pay its biggest price, but also those who engage in it are left as harrowed, morally depleted beings, like one paranoid Major S in Rather’s book.
Rather belongs to a long and extraordinary literary lineage in Kashmir that has borne witness to the military conflict in the valley and laid bare its disastrous consequences. He joins novelists and poets Mirza Waheed, Nitasha Kaul, Agha Shahid Ali, Muzaffar Karim, Ather Zia, Malik Sajad, Siddhartha Gigoo, Mubashir Karim, among many, many others, who have made apparent the costs of living in or being exiled from the most militarised zone in the world. Anyone who’s still asking for more “verification” is in denial.
The Night Of Broken Glass, Feroz Rather, HarperCollins India.
Akhil Katyal’s second book of poems How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross is forthcoming with The Great Indian Poetry Collective later this year.