Thursday, August 02, 2018

Fractured narratives in Feroz Rather’s Night of Broken Glass

[Did this short review of an intriguing but uneven new Kashmir book for India Today]

In one of the many interconnected stories in Feroz Rather's The Night of Broken Glass, a tyrannical Army major watches Hitchcock’s Rope on TV. As the passage becomes increasingly surreal, his private reminiscences merge with scenes from the film.

Like Rope, which was about a motive-less murder, Rather's book centres on tragic, untimely deaths and destructive hubris. But unlike the film, famously made up of long takes, The Night of Broken Glass is filled with the literary equivalents of slow dissolves. One story plays alongside and informs another. Voices and perspectives change. Chronology is uncertain. Nightmare scenes are told with the lucidity of reportage, and actual incidents related as if they were nightmares. The writing is raw and vulnerable and sometimes meandering, as if to capture the rhythms of oral storytelling.

All this adds up to an unusual, restless narrative that looks at the violence in Kashmir mainly through the experiences of young people who smoke Revolution cigarettes, wear Liberty shoes and strive for “Azaadi”, usually to no avail. A boy makes a rosary out of bullet shells collected by his father. A journalist writes a resignation letter to her boss, denouncing a profession made up of complacent, power-drunk men. (Later, the boss gets to speak to us too.) A story where a man finds himself looking after a cancer-ridden shell of a body, belonging to an inspector who had tortured him 25 years earlier, feels like it might be about grace and catharsis, but the final mood is that of injustice that was never redressed
– a sense of frustration that the tormentor got off too easily (even if he spent his last few months wracked by disease and pain) while the victim spent decades in a state of limbo.

“I did not know where to direct my anger,” a frustrated narrator tells us, and this is true for so many of the victims in these stories. Grand-sounding ideas like forgiveness or benediction hold no meaning in a place where destroyed lives cannot be un-destroyed, and there is no closure even after death. (One passage is in a ghost’s voice.)

The Night of Broken Glass is terrific as a concept, with its many narrative detours and collisions – no safety nets for the reader, no familiar structures we can cling to. In execution, though, this book blows hot and cold. Rather tries to do many different things, which is always admirable in a debut, but sometimes he tries too hard. Many passages are unwieldy and some of the writing is over-earnest, straining for effect. One sample among many: “Wispy white roots drank their fill until they were soggy and satiated, the water soundlessly penetrated the hearts of the soil particles, suffusing the empty spaces in between […] a multitude of trickles descending to touch my bare, twinkling toes.”

That’s a pity, because this author can do much more with less. A single, terse sentence such as “The shop filled with the gloom of humiliation” – after a story is told about a respected man being slapped by a soldier – can be more effective than paragraphs of poorly constructed ornate prose.


[A somewhat related post: on Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider, and a chat with Basharat Peer]

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