The Theater of Cruelty: The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather

The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather is a collection of thirteen interconnected short stories, in which the same set of characters move in and out, sometimes becoming central to the narrative, and at other times witnesses in the background.

The stories bring out the everyday-ness of Kashmir valley, an everyday-ness that might be unfamiliar to most of us. On the second page of the collection, for instance, you encounter a casual reference to the protagonist's time in prison:

But while I had lost my loquacity during my time inside the prison, Gulzar was quiet by disposition.

If this line unsettles you in the slightest, then be prepared to be shaken by Rather's collection, which welcomes you into the theater of cruelty that is present-day Kashmir.

The Theater of Cruelty

In the nightmarish short story 'A Rebel's Return', the ghost of Ilham roams around Srinagar. By way of walking, he charts the geographical and moral landscape of the city, which is marked by particular structures that, when taken together, form the theater of cruelty.

The first of these structures is the Wall. In the story 'The Pheran', the Wall is seen soaring high into the sky, dividing Srinagar into two halves. What makes it especially terrifying is its sheer size and dimension, its colour and texture, and how it robs those who live on the eastern side of Srinagar of half the day by hiding the sun.

In Safir's troubled imagination, the Wall, shielding the Cantonment in the east, swelled and extended out for miles, towards the northern and southern ends of Srinagar.

The references to the Wall are reminiscent of the walled town in Prayaag Akbar's Leila: A Novel, except that Akbar's novel presents a dystopia, and Rather's collection, a reality.

Besides the wall, there is the bunker, about which Rather has written some of the most beautiful and horrifying lines.

As a motif in the startlingly natural landscape of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the bunker was an eye sore. . . Within, like a Conrad short story, time was languid, uninterrupted and murderous; without, time was rushed and fractured, a prelude to a funeral.

Under the Wall there is something called the "Tunnel" and within the Tunnel is Café Barbarica: the haunt of the terror-inspiring Inspector Masoodi. Masoodi is known for the atrocities that he has inflicted on many, atrocities whose graphic descriptions are found in a number of stories in Rather's collection.

Together with Major S and Force 10, Masoodi is the usherer of "new militarized time" in the "depeest circle of hell", also known as military occupation in Kashmir.

Rather writes that each soldier is "a shadow of the sovereign in a castle of bones" and that it is difficult to imagine the moral landscape of such a soul, which "vacillated between fear of getting exterminated and the terrible duty of exterminating."

How Many Bodies Does a Pheran Wear?

For most of us, clothes are a part of our identities; they're the markers of our place in the social structure and they often hold cultural significance. For the characters in Rather's book, clothes, especially the pheran (the traditional outfit worn by both Kashmiri men and women), are integral to their sense of self. 

There is Gulzar, the young cowherd of sixteen, of the story 'The Old Man in the Cottage', who never takes off his long woolen pheran, whatever the season. Then there is the fisherwoman of the story 'The Pheran' who, just like Gulzar, wears her pheran despite the heat of summer.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy describes Kashmir as a place where "the dead will live forever; and the living are only dead people, pretending." The same thought is invoked as Rather's collection asks,

What are the screams like when a dead body cries?

These living-dead and dead-living are shrouded by their pherans. As Abdul Rashid takes out his son's (Shahid's) pheran at the end of the story 'The Pheran', Safir notices that it has three holes in the front, at each of the places where Shahid was shot. Rather writes,

It had become Abdul Rashid's ritual each night to come into the room, take the pheran out of the trunk and hold it up to look at it so that the memory of his son's murder was freshly engraved in his mind. 

Intersections: Gender and Caste

I have only one issue with Rather's book: women's voices are scarce in the collection, though (thankfully) not completely absent. In the short story 'Rosy', for instance, the protagonist says, 

I remembered the feeling of betrayal in Nuzhat's eyes, as though all of Kashmir had failed her. I am a woman and Nuzhat is my dearest friend. I felt her rage, her desperation, her hurt.

However, most of the time, the experiences of women characters in the stories are talked about, but you don't hear their voices directly. This is perhaps symptomatic of how women's narratives from conflict-torn regions are silenced. 

What is especially significant about the collection, however, is that it takes into its folds the narrative of how Kashmiri society is sharply divided on the lines of caste. The protagonist in the story 'Rosy' says,

The world is cruel; it ties us to the stanchions of caste. . . I want to burn down the edifice of the whole damn society who believe that your soul is black dirt because you are Sheikh while mine is made of white and gold feathers because I am a Syed.

Definite trigger warnings for graphic content. Otherwise a well-written and masterfully crafted collection.

One wonders if the title of the collection is inspired by Kristallnacht or the pogrom (an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group) against Jews throughout Nazi Germany in November 1938, carried out by paramilitary forces and German civilians.

The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather, published by HarperCollins Publishers India, 2018.

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