November 10, 1938. That morning the Jews in Germany woke up to the sight of shards of broken glass littered on the streets after their synagogues, shops and houses were burnt down. 91 Jews were killed overnight and the Nazis subjected thousands to terror and violence. The earlier night’s horror, a planned pogram against Germany’s Jews came to be known as the Kristallnacht – the ‘Night of Broken Glass’.
Exactly eighty years later, million miles away from Germany, a novel-in-stories borrows its title from the same event, often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. This time, however, the unspeakable horror plays in a different landscape – Kashmir.
One can claim, with some surety, that much has been written about Kashmir: for instance, its daily tragedies with multiple strands of narratives, capturing the panoramic view of violence, injustice, sufferings; the pulsating human story amidst a raging conflict, and a city that’s decaying in its own blood. Yet, the drama of a forthcoming novel on Kashmir – primarily its conflict – is often a great deal more intense and traumatic to its readers than it is to its creator.
Every new literary work on Kashmir brings with it some questions, for example: How the language, the narrative, will bear the unbearable? What if the words fail? How to tell the war stories of Kashmir where violence and death are redeemed by a larger purpose? These are questions answered in Feroz Rather’s The Night of Broken Glass, a novel-in-stories threaded together by narratives crisscrossing between characters who, one way or the other, affect each other’s lives.
Rather’s finely-detailed novel, a fictional take on Kashmir amidst a period of great suffering, is told with authority of experience. Yet, the recurrent, hypnotic imagery moored to the soil of Srinagar and Bijbyor (the author’s hometown), perhaps, adds an authentic date in real time to this novel. And, perhaps, that’s why, in Rather’s novel one might find strong resonance to events and incidents that have changed the course of history in Kashmir in recent time. For example, a boy is shot dead when he goes to meet his militant brother and his father keeps his bullet riddled Pheran as a souvenir. Could that be Khalid Muzaffar, brother of Burhan Wani, the militant commander who was killed in 2016? A tuition going student is shot in his head near a playground, his skull cracked wide open by a teargas shell. Is that Tufail Mattoo, whose killing sparked an uprising in 2010, claiming more than 130 lives?
This, perhaps, is the reason that Rather in one of his interviews claims that he strongly shares a “reporter’s and the memoirist’s impulse”.
Divided into 13 chapters, The Night of Broken Glass, an incredible feat of plotting, pace and language, is arresting, both as the story of people it features, whose lives intersect each other, and as a history of Kashmir’s bloody conflict. However, the most striking part of the novel is how Rather has been able to bring forth the issues of faith, gender and caste, making them an intricate part of his story.
Rather in his novel also speaks explicitly about the violence in Kashmir as violence itself. His words are mined with strange menace, which slowly dissolve throughout the novel and perturb everything in its wake by its visceral imagery, capturing sprawling tale of horror and the absurdity of Kashmir’s conflict. ‘
To understand the living in Kashmir, many might say, it is necessary to begin with the dead. That’s why, perhaps, Rather begins his novel by telling the story of a dying old man, who used to murder at will.
While there are people in the novel who bear the brunt of the conflict one way or the other, it is the ever-so-present rage, passion, sentiment, love, hatred – a cocktail of raw human emotions – in equal measures, that form the only true character in Rather’s novel.
However, the most fascinating part of the novel is not its stories or the characters, but the setting – the homes, streets, alleys – that radiate the ethical uncertainty and confusion that only comes from enduring a war-without-end. This is where Rather’s terse, relentlessly readable novel, that feels like poetry, comes across as sharply observed and psychologically penetrating.
While much will be written about the characters in Rather’s novel – Major S and his willful brutality, Ilham the militant and his revenge, Gulam and his understanding of conflict – the real champion, however, in the stories that feature is the stagnant city, the silent sufferer amidst all the chaos.
In The Night of Broken Glass, the city howls at night, a sense of dread rises, perhaps, waiting for an outpour of grief or a plaintive holler. The next minute a car passes through a bridge and the driver is shot with countless bullets. The city continues to live next day. Another day, another killing. That’s Kashmir. Nothing changes.
Impregnated with deep affinities of revolutionary spirit, The Night of Broken Glass is a mournful song, an elegy to the people of Kashmir, who live and die in equal measures.
After I finished reading the novel, I had this strange unsettling feeling. It reminded me of something I witnessed two years ago.
The year was 2016. Kashmir was seething in anger. The death of Burhan Wani had brought a flood of people on the streets. Most of them were young – their blood flowing through streets, without much fuss, like blood. More than sixty people had already been killed and newspapers across the world were featuring dead, blind eyes of young Kashmiris on the front pages.
Inside a Srinagar hospital, I met an injured boy from South Kashmir who had been hit by pellets in the eyes. He recounted to me a nightmare he had been having since a week.
“I have this recurring dream,” he started, his blood-shot eyes fixed towards his mother who sat next to him.
He then continued. “I am sitting on a riverbank – perhaps, Jhelum –, and its waters flow with such ferocity that I feel its currents deep inside my skin. I can’t see a thing because my eye sockets are filled with sand. But I hear mournful cries of men, women, children and old. They scream all night, and when the voices stop I regain my vision but see no one around. There’s no blood, no dead bodies, just broken glass. What does it mean?”
I had no answers. But had it been today, I would have read that boy from South Kashmir few verses from the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska that very well captures Kashmir’s everyday tragedy.
Feroz Rather uses the same verses as the epigraph for The Night of Broken Glass. It reads: “History didn’t greet us with triumphal fanfares/ It flung dirty sand into our eyes.”
Did it not?
(The Night of Broken Glass; Feroz Rather, Harper Collins, ₹399)