Shards of memory
15 October 2018
The harsh light of Kashmir reflected in new fiction
In the mounting heap of blood-soaked images, I have a recurrent dream about Kashmir: a night filled with desolation and toxic smoke. I hear women wailing in the distance. The ground is abysmal and shaky. The street is a litter of limbs and stones and broken glass.
These lines by Feroz Rather in Berfrois, August 2016, were part of an essay entitled ‘Kashmir and the Masque of India’, written in response to the brutal crackdown in Kashmir precipitated by protests over the killing of 22-year-old Burhan Wani. Through the ingenious deployment of social media the young militant and his accomplices had created a strong visual counter-culture that fired the imagination and pro-freedom sentiment of the Kashmiri people on a scale not quite seen since the 1990s.
For Rather’s generation which grew up in the nineties, occupation has been a part of their lives as has the savage reign of tortures, custodial killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence by security forces and mass killings. These crimes have been exhaustively documented in dossiers on human rights by activists and in reportage including Basharat Peer’s landmark book Curfewed Nights. Rather, however, says he chose fiction because it affords spaces of contemplation and a deeper understanding of violence. But how does one fictionalise “limbs and stones and broken glass”? It requires creativity of a different kind for a writer to go beyond reportage and portray the abysmal and shaky ground of warscapes. Using facts to inform fiction in his debut book The Night of Broken Glass, Rather picks up shards of memory and strings them into forms of terrible beauty.
A doctoral student of creative writing, Rather does not follow a linear style of narration. Instead, the book falls somewhere between a novella and a collection of short stories, deploying a form in which there is a series of interconnected stories with characters moving in and out, some fading away. Many of these stories are fragmented with constant switching of narrative voices. There are flashbacks or what in this digital age would be called throwbacks. Incidents are linked through metaphor, allusions, symbols, imaginings, yearnings and drawn from Kashmir’s rich iconography of resistance.
In reply to my queries over email, Rather says that he did not really set out with an elaborate plan on how to order the chapters, but the book assumed its own shape as it grew. The switching of narrative voices and points of view, were, he said, a result of trying to build up a narrative scaffolding that would do justice to the themes he was writing about. It is, perhaps, the only way one can reflect and depict the deeply layered nature of the conflict and the complexities of the fractured society it has produced.
These creative adventures and an elliptical style make the reading of the book quite challenging especially for non-Kashmiri readers. It demands an intense engagment and I found myself re-reading chapters and jumping back and forth to get a more coherent picture. Occasionally the density and overload of images and concepts made it difficult to see the light, or, to borrow from Rather’s own imagery, one can get “lost in the thick growth of the willows”. At times the tenuous connections make the narrative jerky.
But the rewards of navigating these paths far outweigh the flaws, making the book a remarkable debut. The use of switchbacks facilitate a malleability of time, rather like a revolving door, so that the past informs the present. Incidents of the 1990s segue into the summer of 2010 and move forward right up to the killing of Burhan Wani’s brother in April 2015. The account of killing of Khalid by army soldiers, when he had gone to the forests to try and meet his rebel brother has been less written about than the death of Burhan, but Rather’s fictionalised account gives it the poignant eulogy it deserves.
The title of the book, taken from the last story with the same name, is an allusion to Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass: the smashing of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues on November 9-10, 1938 leaving the the streets littered with broken glass. The incident is viewed by historians as part of Nazi Germany’s broader racial policy and the beginning of the Final Solution.
Rather uses broken glass as a leitmotif in many of the stories and, in his last story he sweeps up events and characters into a crescendo of inter-locked themes and characters. In this narrative the Kristallnacht is the Bijbehera massacre which continues to haunt. On 22 October 1993, at least 37 people from the town of Bijbehera or Bijbyor as Rather opts to use the Kashmiri name, were shot and killed by the Border Security Forces on a highway as they were protesting and preparing to march against the siege of Hazratbal in Srinagar. One of the survivors and a subsequent witness was a wood cutter, Ghulam Qadir Rah. Significantly, Rather retains the name Gulam as the main witness in his story.
The book is replete with the imagery of glass, whether it is a “bunker wrapped in whorls of wire from which hung bright shards of broken liquor bottles” in ‘The Pheran’ or “broken images of flying glass shards” from the midnight dreams which flash through the mind of Ilham, a ghost inhabiting Inspector Masoodi’s home in ‘A Rebel’s Return’. Later in the same story, the ruthless Inspector, known for his brutality, is aghast to find the wind has shattered a vase and fragments of glass and fake flowers lie strewn on the table.
In Summer of 2010 Nagin recalls a skirmish in which bullets fly through a pharmacy where she is buying medicine for her sick husband and smash the glass bottles that drip a dark syrup. In ‘The Pheran’ a radio is turned on and Raj Begum sings “rum gayem sheeshas, begour gova bane meoun, my glass cracked, my vessel clanged on.”
In similar vein Rather brings poetic and emotive significance to objects and to the land. The wall, pigeons, cranes, willows, two sickles, a pasture and so on are layered with meaning. In a land where death is often “a mere width of a needle apart,” a water melon “bleeds”. I am reminded of a photograph by Altaf Qadri of a water melon lying smashed with its bright red innards after the blast at Naaz cinema. It is reproduced in the book Witness/Kashmir 1986-2016 which features the work of nine photographers. The image of dismembered bodies is evoked in the story ‘A Rebel’s Return’, when Inspector Masoodi sits in a popular café where tourists gaze at souvenirs whittled from bones and wood. “There was also a magnificent elbow, suspended from the ceiling by a skin-coloured string.” Later, this image will resonate when an arm is hacked off.
The café is called Café Barbarica (an ironic word play on the original café Arabica that once flourished in Srinagar) and there is perhaps a deeper political subtext for this satire – both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti’s governments had actively fostered a café culture hoping to wean off restive youth from street protests.
One is struck not just by the stark, often visceral images but the deeply dark stories that Rather manages to regurgitate from Kashmir’s collective memory. In ‘The Boss’s Account’, Major S grabs a man by his neck, shoves his face on a patio table next to a bowl of snacks and slices his ears off. He then calmly pushes the bloodied potato chips aside and fishes out a clean sliver from the snacks and eats it – a truly blood curdling and gutting anecdote. Over the top? I recoiled only to remember how I had once interviewed a shepherd called Khatana who was brutally tortured and, who told me that security forces had once cut off bits of his leg and flesh and made him eat it. His legs had to be amputated later because the wounds never healed. The account, which featured in many news reports was first aired in Jezza Neumann’s Torture Trail by Channel Four.
Physical torture aside, the book charts the tormented mental terrains of Kashmir and the trauma of its people. Even children are not spared. A father who prays faithfully in Srinagar’s most loved Shah-e-Hamdan shrine carefully picks up bullet shells from the streets so that his son Tariq will not have to see them when he goes out to play. But, when Tariq’s innocent world is shattered the young boy himself finds the cache of bullets to form a rosary, adding one he has been forced to use.
In the latter half of the book or the Bijbyor stories,one journeys into the “heart of darkness” and gets insights into twisted minds. Rather, who has named Joseph Conrad and V S Naipaul among the authors he admires, told me that he was reading a lot of William Faulkner’s early writings when he wrote ‘The Nightmares of Major S’ and ‘Robin Polish’, and it is in these powerful stories that he explores the psychology of both tormentor and the tormented even as the landscape reflects inner worlds. These are among the most powerful stories with the author boldly exploring the schisms in Kashmiri society and the “unceasing murmur of suspicion” that raises disturbing questions. What are terms like informer (in another ironic play of words Rather writes about a newspaper called Informer renegade, martyr, rebel or collaborator that are bandied about in a society living under occupation? Who is the miscreant? Who has strayed from the path? “Who could possibly remain sane in this theatre of cruelty?”
One remains conflicted however especially in a story that deals with the death of Showkat. There is deliberate ambiguity over the killing and I am reminded of the late Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist writing about apartheid in My Son’s Story: “Nothing is simple in a life and country where conflict breaks up all consistency of character.”
More significantly, the author savagely critiques caste in his society as it manipulates a certain religious discourse. A female protagonist in ‘Rosy’questions the stanchions of caste – “the edifice of the whole damn society who believe that your soul is black dirt because you are a Sheikh while mine is made of white and gold feathers because I am a Syed.”
Amidst these disturbing tales can one see “the light and the darkness?” Is there any redemption? It is in the eye for detail and tenderness and in the unfolding of the minutiae of daily living – the cooking, working in the fields, baking lavasas or special breads, enduring, love making, and most of all hoping – that the author restores belief in dignity and humanity. We have the vignettes: Maryam, the young girl who has been keeping home for her father, since she was eight years old because her mother died, spends hours embroidering venations of leaves –almonds, walnuts, cherries and willows around the neckline and hemlines of pherans (long, loose Kashmiri robes). To her there is more humility and honesty in that embroidery than in the sense of entitlement that journalists seem to have in the false sense of power.
Mohiddin who has buried his own son and who now witnesses coffin after coffin containing corpses of children and young men, is still able to inspire with his fortitude and calm, and Mohsin learns from him. Sparks of heroism come from the most unexpected sources, as from the ineffectual Nadim. In a tenderly drawn portrait of the young girl Fatima, Rather sees the light but also the fears drawn from the tragedies that befell the women in the past. Like the Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls Fatima’s face is superimposed on the face of Nuzhat which was superimposed in turn on Rosy’s.
A beautiful tribute, I like to think, to the collective joys and sufferings of Kashmir’s women.
~ Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai and the author of Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children