Feroz Rather is a doctoral student of Creative Writing at Florida State University and his work has appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, Caravan, Warscapes, Berfrois, and Himal. His most recent essay, “Poet in Srinagar,” appeared in the anthology Mad Heart, Be Brave: On the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali. The Night of Broken Glass is his first book.
In his debut novel The Night of Broken Glass (HarperCollins India), Feroz Rather digs into the storied landscape of Kashmir and the vast array of people who inhabit this embattled country. Characters not only struggle under the brutality of state occupation, they wrestle with issues pertaining to gender, caste, and their own fragile bodies. Given the current political tensions in Kashmir, Rather’s book is timely and vital. An excerpt from The Night of Broken Glass—from a chapter titled “The Cowherd”—accompanies this interview and can be found at the interview’s conclusion.
Karen Tucker: For a book in which political violence and trauma play significant roles, there’s a striking amount of tenderness in The Night of Broken Glass. Even the opening, which introduces the bullet-riddled terrain of Kashmir and features a narrator who was once imprisoned and tortured, contains more grace than bloodshed. Will you share a little about your decision to start this novel with a story of a man quietly dying of cancer?
Feroz Rather: There is no doubt that military occupation means pervasive violence. And it seems to me that the very transactions of life are halted because of the presence of more than half a million Indian soldiers in Kashmir. In literature, though, one seeks to alter that real-life scenario by registering smaller moments which remain outside the consciousness of the occupier.
I was once visiting a market in my hometown, Anantnag, and a bomb exploded. Without pulling their shutters, native shopkeepers ran towards the van carrying the injured, hoping they could help save a life. Moments like that, you know.
“The Old Man in the Cottage” is probably the story closest to me and the first one I wrote for this collection. Though I attend Florida State University’s wonderful creative writing program, as you do, like the Romantics, I believe in being naïve and not programmatic. It was not a conscious decision but the fortune to dawn upon a voice and a feeling.
KT: There are many explosive moments throughout the narrative, but one of the most startling comes in “The Pheran,” when you briefly switch the POV from third- to first-person plural with, “We are tied to the rebellion with blood.” In an instant, the third-person narrator is revealed to be a community, making the scene all the more expansive and powerful, and yet at the same time deeply intimate. Please talk about this fantastic move, and your intentions for it.
FR: I think that line suggests the political mood of the people. Writing about Kashmir is like trying to move a heavy rock someone has forcibly placed on your chest.
There is so much America gets to know about far-off places in the world. But so little is known about Kashmir. That is the triumph of aggressive propaganda machines that create such a hard shield about what is going on inside Kashmir that not much escapes. Also, because we are defenseless, there is desperation. In this particular case, there is the desperation of a father whose one son is wrongfully incarcerated and, when he takes to arms, his other son who goes to see the rebel is shot dead.
KT: In addition to this novel-in-stories, you’ve also published a number of essays. Why did you choose fiction as the means of exploring the horrors of Kashmir instead of creative nonfiction?
FR: Kashmir might remain my subject forever, but I am also interested in the form of the novel. When I think of the novel, I see it as a complex, variegated, human expression of Europe’s moral restlessness. I take immense pleasure in recreating the scaffolding and in erecting the arcs as I participate, like I am now, in the novels of Balzac. I draw immense pleasure in seeing how there is this sort of tectonic movement and pressure that different realms of human activity exert on each other which novelists are so great to explore by following the movement of a single protagonist. The novel charts that sort of tug by recreating the protagonist’s turgid interiority.
In applying the form of the novel to my own agrarian, caste-ist, dogmatic society, controlled by a couple of nuclear post-colonial nation states, who, frankly speaking, are nothing but brutal and belligerent in their own ways, there is a special set of challenges I am dealing with here. Kashmir resists a clean narration, and the universal metaphysical chaos is enhanced by the particularities of politics. That is why the book is restless and shifts into different points of view.
KT: Was there a specific moment when you knew you were going to write this book? An inciting incident maybe?
FR: I do not think like that. Books seem to me like storms or realms of constant agitation, both before they are written and afterwards. That is why I cannot put my finger on that particular point on the thread of time.
KT: The best literature often leaves readers with new, larger questions once the book has ended, and it’s possible this is also true for the writers of those works. Once you finished your manuscript, did you find yourself left with questions about Kashmir that you didn’t anticipate when you began?
FR: I realized that if one does not contemplate on one’s past, one will continue to suffer politically. That is very much true of Kashmir. There seems to be no end to the oppression and meddling of the outsiders because we as a people do not know who we are and how we ought to behave and negotiate our place in the world. The novel is the place to raise and ponder that question.
KT: If you knew now that you only had one book-length manuscript left in you, what project would you take on? Maybe a less morbid way to put this is: what does your dream book look like?
FR: The Enigma of Arrival is most Proustian of all the Proustian novels. I like Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, too, but I will follow Naipaul and attempt to write a book with the pastoral setting of my own village in Kashmir.
from “The Cowherd”
At sixty, he was still the cowherd of Kanelwan. His real name was Mohammad Sultan Sheikh but everyone in the village called him Sul Watul. He was wiry, with enormous eyes and a hunchback. His sharp chin jutted out below his sunken cheekbones. He wore a grimy conical cap to cover his bald head. Years of consuming snuff had blackened his teeth and gave him an ulcerous mouth. The corners of his lips trembled as he spoke, the words emerging in rancid, frothy torrents.
That morning he sat hunched in the cold, dark kitchen. As the corners of his lips began to tremble, Gulam, his son, glanced sideways at Halim in the corner. She nudged the ladle-like skewer, krootcsh, into the mouth of the mud oven and twisted the long handle. The twigs crackled and a flame leapt above the cauldron of tea. She dished bright embers of charcoal into the firepot.
‘Gulam, give this to Baba,’ she said to her husband.
Sultan snatched the kangid from Gulam and instead of putting it inside his pheran, he raised it over his head saying, ‘I want to burn Anzar Shah’s beard. He stole my grandson from me and shut down my business. Who do I play with? What will we eat?’
There was a long silence. Then Sultan said, ‘His mother’s roasted cunt.’
Halim covered her mouth with her scarf in shame, fixing her eyes on the smouldering fire. Gulam rose and held his father. He pressed down Sultan’s arm that was shaking with rage and lowered the fire-pot to the floor.
Sultan hissed in air through the gaps in his clenched teeth. He glared at his son and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.
‘I told you not to touch me, you coward,’ he shouted.
Halim hurriedly positioned herself between the two men. ‘We’ll find something, Baba,’ she cried, trying to prise Sultan’s hard hands from around her husband’s throat. ‘If nothing works, I’ll go begging in the village.’
Gulam’s face swelled, his eyes bulging.
‘Baba, Baba, for God’s sake,’ Halim pleaded, ‘let him go.’
‘I want my grandson back,’ Sultan shouted, pushing his son away. ‘Why don’t you go and bring Jamshid back from that vile preacher.’
Gulam ran out of the kitchen and stood gasping for breath on the flat rock outside the entrance door. He straightened his hurting neck, breathing hard.
Halim came out and gave him a glass of water.
‘He is becoming a beast,’ Gulam said hoarsely, swallowing the water slowly.
‘If we don’t bring Jamshid back, that is fine. But we do have to do something about the food,’ Halim said.
‘Let him starve. Fucking, filthy watul.’
‘He’s your father,’ Halim took the glass from him and went back inside.
Gulam’s feet were freezing. He went into the corridor where he had put his rubber shoes and slipped them on. He sank into the snow up to his shins as he walked out into the vast grove surrounding the house. It was a forest of mute trees, with trunks grey and bone-coloured, and bare branches laden with snow. He leaned against the trunk of an old elm tree. He was breathing calmly now. The air was crisp and he could see far. When he looked back at his house, it stood out like a dirty-grey hayrick in a pristine, white jungle. To the rear was a spinney of elms leading to the pasture around which wound the river Jhelum, dry and diminished at this time of the year. Three days ago, when it had not snowed and the ground was dry, it was there to the riverbank almost two miles to the north, that Sultan had dragged the cow soon after it had died. It was there that he had repeatedly suggested they go after the food in the house had been depleted.
Gulam knew the cow. It had belonged to Rafiq Galwan. It was a lithe, black animal with a big white spot on its forehead. Over the last several years, it had calved thirteen times, yielding hundreds of kilos of milk to the family. Rafiq Galwan could have sold it to the butcher as it grew old, but he showed exceptional mercy and allowed the cow to age, feeding it fresh bales of grass, even after its udder had dried up completely. He asked Sultan to take it away from the byre as soon as it died. ‘Do not skin her,’ he had told him. ‘Just take her away from here.’
Gulam shuddered as he imagined the carcass, its eyes sad and shiny. I’m not going to go anywhere near there, no matter what, he thought.
He turned around and looked westward. The gulf between his house and the village seemed even wider because of the difficulty of trudging through the snow. The spire of the mosque steepled to the sky beside Rafiq Galwan’s three-storeyed, concrete house. The house had a winged roof of corrugated tin sheets almost as high as the spire. Rafiq had the biggest paddy farm in the village of two hundred households. He owned four cows and dozens of sheep and goats. He was prosperous because he was the most devout murid of Syed Anzar Shah.
Last summer, one bright June afternoon, Gulam walked Jamshid to the village. As the two emerged from the grove, they saw Syed Anzar Shah. He was a tall, wide-shouldered man and walked with a light step. His bright face was covered with a white broom of beard. He was clad in a starched white shalwar kameez and black shoes of soft leather, and a black vest. A high, blond karakul crowned his head.
Gulam was awe-struck. He slowed down, gripping his son’s wrist. It was said that Syed Anzar Shah had the power to communicate with jinns. Whenever a jinn transgressed and entered the domain of humans, he was the man to be consulted. He tamed the evil jinns; he fought with them by chanting the knots of words from his rosary. In the little town of Bijbyor across the river, people thronged to his house, Syed Manzil. Young girls in love babbling gibberish at night; men struck with losses in business; housewives with difficult calves; infertile couples; and the heads of the households whose families were held in thrall under dark spells of sorcery.
Gulam led his son to the entrance door of the mosque only after Anzar Shah had disappeared inside.
‘I’ll return after an hour and meet you here,’ he said, kissing the boy’s head. ‘Don’t play with the village kids. Do you remember the last time when Suhail Galwan called you watul?’ Suhail Galwan, who had hurled the casteist slur on Jamshid, was Rafiq Galwan’s grandson.
‘I won’t, Father,’ Jamshid promised and went inside. Suhail Galwan was sitting in the first row near where Anzar Shah was seated on a high wooden chair. Jamshid kept his distance and subsided to the last row.
As Anzar Shah began to recite from the Qur’an, he noticed Jamshid. The kid was aloof and sitting apart.
Anzar Shah stopped chanting and asked Jamshid to stand up. He asked him his name and the name of his father.
If Syed was at the top of the echelon among the castes in Kashmir, Sheikh lurked somewhere near the bottom. If pir signified knowledge, purity and culture, watul denoted the stink of faeces, scavenging and raw leather.
While the other boys and girls in class could not stop whispering, Jamshid sat quietly awaiting his turn in his place. And when it came, he stood up, clasped his hands over his navel, closed his eyes and recited ‘The Cow’, accurately reproducing the 286 verses of the longest chapter from his prodigious memory. The boy’s sweet voice dazzled Anzar.
The next day, soon after the Friday prayers, Rafiq Galwan entered the kitchen. The strong fellow seemed shattered.
‘Sultan … congratulations,’ he said.
‘What for?’ Gulam asked.
‘Today, while delivering the sermon in the mosque in Bijbyor, Syed Anzar said that he has chosen Jamshid as his disciple. He wants him to live with their family in Syed Manzil where he’ll teach him the Qur’an.’
‘He must be joking,’ Sultan said.
‘Really?’ Gulam asked Rafiq. ‘You shut up, Baba.’
‘Yes. He sent me to fetch the lad,’ Rafiq Galwan said.
‘Is Anzar Shah still encouraging you to buy hides from us watals, Rafiq?’ Sultan interrupted.
‘He had nothing to do with that and that is not why I have stopped buying from you.’
‘Can you tell me why?’ Sultan persevered.
Rafiq did not explain. He rose to leave.
‘Please stay and have tea with us,’ Halim said.
‘Some other time, I need to go now,’ Rafiq replied.
‘Let him go back to his pir,’ Sultan said. Then to Gulam and Halim, ‘He won’t tell you, but I will. Anzar Shah is building a shop by the highway. While the father sells verses of the Qur’an he has written on small paper chits, taweez, his son will sell the shoes made in the factories of Punjab. Anzar Shah broke his deal with the shoemakers of Srinagar to whom he sold the hides that he bought from Rafiq.’
The couple ignored Sultan’s bellyaching and went into their room. They sat on the mattress on the floor, with Jamshid between them, a primer in his hand.
‘The old man keeps babbling,’ Gulam said. ‘Don’t ever listen to what he says.’
‘Our Jamshid is very fortunate,’ Halim said, smiling and stroking her son’s head.
The next morning, all spruced up, they took him to Rafiq Galwan’s house. He was standing in the courtyard, examining the cracks in the wall of the cowshed.
‘Don’t heed my father,’ Gulam said to him by way of greeting.
‘Useless and bitter,’ Rafiq replied. ‘But don’t worry. I’ll take your son to my pir right now.’
The couple thanked him and, kissing Jamshid many times, they walked back home. Their hearts were filled with a sad, overflowing joy. How was it possible that an all-important man like Syed Anzar Shah should pay their son any attention? How did this miracle happen?
As soon as they reached home, Gulam, who had never spoken to Anzar Shah, began to think of thanking him in person. He needed to find him a gift.
‘You should ask Rafiq for work,’ Halim suggested.
So back he went, to ask for work. Rafiq was stingy and reluctant. Gulam had to negotiate hard until Rafiq agreed to give him the task of repairing the wall.
At the end of his two-week stint, cutting hay and preparing clay to stack the fresh bricks, instead of money, Gulam asked Rafiq for a lamb.
‘I’ll give you a lamb, but you owe me one complete month of labour,’ Rafiq replied.
Gulam agreed and took home the white-fleeced lamb where Halim fed it green willow leaves and lined its eyes with kohl and daubed its hooves with henna. The very next day, a Friday, Gulam put on his best kameez and shalwar and set off for Bijbyor with the lamb in his lap.
A passenger boat ferried him across the river. He entered a wide street lined with shops on either side. He recognized Anzar Shah’s voice booming out of the loudspeaker. He made his way along the edge of the highway, a group of six children followed him, heckling and bleating like roused lambs. They trailed him up to the mosque.
Gulam cursed them as he opened the picketed gate and quickly walked in. He strode across the lawns and mounted the stairs leading to the veranda. When he turned around, to his relief the gang of children had disappeared. Little bastards of Bijbyor, he thought. Town boys making fun of a village bumpkin.
He put the lamb down on the steps, holding on to its ear, in order to remove his shoes. Through the loudspeaker, Anzar Shah continued his sermon:
‘Those who make a living by skinning dead animals, those who make leather by plunging into stinking ditches, are committing an act that is impure, makruh. It is as disgusting to me as adultery. In my area, in all our thirty-four villages surrounding our little pure town of Bijbyor, these people must abstain from this contaminating practice. They must or we will see what to do with them.’
Gulam was startled. He pictured his father’s face, furrowed in rage. The lamb shook its head making Gulam lose his grip of its ear. He chased after it with one shoe as it gambolled away on to the highway where a speeding truck ran over it.
When Gulam returned home, he went directly to his room. Halim was lying on the mattress on the floor. Her face was pale and her eyes were sunken. As the winter deepened and their stock of food dwindled, her hips narrowed and her skin became dry and desiccated.
‘I am going to faint with hunger,’ she said, grabbing Gulam’s arm. ‘I wonder why Syed Anzar Shah prohibits eating a dead animal, when we have to kill it anyway?’
‘The old man has corrupted you,’ Gulam said to his wife and left the room.
When he entered the kitchen, his father taunted him. ‘Even the strongest men become meek in their women’s beds,’ he remarked.
‘Fine,’ Gulam sighed, giving in. He too was feeling frustrated with hunger.
The snowflakes were drifting down from a sky luminescent with a soft, white light. Gulam followed his father to the pasture. On the way, he glanced back once and saw in the distance the roof of Rafiq Galwan’s house. Smoke was rising from the chimney, pushing the snowflakes upwards. He wondered what kind of sumptuous dinner was being cooked there. His mouth watered and his stomach rumbled. A snow-laden bough broke with a loud crack and a dog howled in the distance.
It took them almost an hour to reach the river bank where the cow’s carcass lay, covered with a shroud of fresh snow. Had it been summer, the shrivelled old beast would have gone sour and putrid in the heat because of the open wounds caused by the jagged rocks on the ground as Sultan dragged it. It would have attracted and maddened the village dogs feasting on its flesh.
Sultan wiped the tip of his nose, pink and runny in the cold, with the coarse sleeve of his pheran. He dusted off the snow from the corpse’s neck and handed Gulam the axe.
Gulam struck a blow but nothing happened.
‘You’re hopeless,’ Sultan said, snatching the axe from him. He flung his pheran on the snow. Then, taking a deep, contemplative breath, he delivered terribly strong blows on the carcass. An entire flank came loose.
Gulam picked it up and stepping away from his father, put it on his shoulder.
Sultan raised the axe higher, delivering blow after blow upon the dead beast, hitting its head and haunches. He struck it along the spine repeatedly. He turned red in the face and his breath became hoarse. But he did not stop; he continued to hack away at the animal’s belly, spilling out its entrails.
It was getting dark and the snow had stopped falling.
‘Come, let us go now, Baba,’ Gulam said. ‘We have enough meat. Let us go home, Baba.’
Sultan was deaf to his son’s calls. His eyes filled with tears and he threw the axe away. He picked up the pieces of meat he had shredded and hurled them at the trees. With his bare hands, he dug out the guts from the cow’s belly and flung them on to the branches of the surrounding trees. He scampered about, yammering to the trees, laughing and crying simultaneously as night fell.