Space for a Messy Meditation on Violence: The Millions Interviews Feroz Rather


I met Feroz Rather one verdant summer in Kashmir, almost a decade ago. We got talking on a bumpy bus ride while passing neon green paddy fields and had a far-reaching conversation about Michel Foucault, poetry, and our approaches to writing. At the time, Feroz was an MFA student at Fresno State, and I was an anthropology Ph.D. student doing my fieldwork on trauma and violence in Kashmir. Since then, we have both remained engaged—from adjacently appointed genres, fiction and ethnography—in questions of violence, writing and the politics of representation, ethics, and justice.

Our conversation that day, one of many, was always refracted from the contextual specificity of Kashmir: a place that has been under military occupation by the Indian state since 1990 and is currently the most militarized place on earth, but which also has a much longer history of colonization that stretches back to 1586, when the last Kashmiri king was deposed by a Mughal invader. Despite facing brutal military and counterinsurgency repression in the last few decades, including the loss of approximately 70,000 people, the disappearance of 8,000, and countless other violations registered and unregistered through human rights documentation, Kashmiri demands for national independence and political self-determination have not ceased; in many ways, they have crystallized and deepened. Across the built landscape, overwriting the ugly infrastructures of occupation are scrawled stinging phrases designed to unsettle the occupiers: “Go India Go Back” and “We Want Freedom,” written in big, bold, unequivocal letters.

Earlier this summer, Feroz published his first book, a collection of short stories called The Night of Broken Glass (Harper Collins, India). The book arrived in my mailbox with a short note from Feroz, and I began reading, soon, feverishly, as if the book might explode in my hands. The short stories are compact, but they bleed into each other, much like the “tentacular” nature of state and military violence Feroz describes. The narrative spillover—a mirror vessel for the subject matter of violence itself—also shows how grievous forms of vulnerability and harm ripple through the social topography of one village in Kashmir.

I am still working on my ethnography on violence, subjectivity, and trauma, and the questions below reflect some of my pending concerns and questions. The following conversation, which we had over Skype one August afternoon, pivots on themes of import to writers interested in political violence, oppression, and existential struggles of all kinds. Feroz reminded me that stories are not meant to be redemptive but reflective.

The Millions: I want to start by asking about the nature of the violence you describe in the book. The violence seems multidirectional—it is rhizomatic, on many different scales and registers. The village and its social topography become really important to this project. Was that something you intentionally wanted to convey?

Feroz Rather: I think that if you really inhabit a zone that is occupied, then it is not just the physical violence but the violence of the language of the order that has been imposed, so violating and violent, that one wants to register. There is a semiology of violence so pervasive that one can escape it only with an extraordinary intellectual or artistic effort. In my own small way, I was interested in rupturing this pervasive semiology. This proliferated in writing about the violence comprehensively: not just the violence inflicted by the state or military—though that remains the dominant theme of the book—but the violence of caste, and violence against women.

Early in the book there is a scene where the ghost of Ilham looks at Inspector Masoodi and the former feels that Sarnath lions would jump out of the metal buckle of the belt and gnaw at his bones. That is a perfect example, now that I think about it, of the pervasiveness of the violent semiology of occupation. Later, in “Rosy,” the radar shifts toward caste and gender. When Jamshid steals figs for Rosy, her father and grandfather take Jamshid out into the yard and beat him with a willow switch until there is blood on his forehead. Earlier, in the same story, a girl gets groped in an overcrowded bus, something that happens quite often in Kashmir. I suppose it’s the willingness to write about violence comprehensively—not just the institution of state but other forms of institutionalized violence, and what happens to the body when the forms of violence converge and intersect.

But you’re asking me a different question: How is it that the village becomes a territory of violence?

TM: Yes, state violence, but also intimate violence, gendered, and caste-based violence. Women’s bodies are violated in different ways. The social relations in the village sometimes register state violence but they also transmit it, sometimes unintentionally. You seemed to be showing violence as a social phenomenon, as a form of sociality.

FR: I didn’t do that consciously. I just wrote the stories from different points of view. There is Rosy’s point of view in “Rosy,” but then we get Jamshid’s point of view in “Robin Polish.” So if you do that, it fleshes out the different interactions that happen in the social. You narrate something from the point of view of the father, who is a cobbler, and you narrate something that comes closer to the point of view of the son, who is a charismatic preacher. Then the school-going girl. I think when you string together all these different narratives, they create the social whole.

In terms of technique, William Faulkner does this masterfully; he delves so deeply into his characters by probing them through their own point of view. It brings a restlessness to the overall structure. It proliferates into different directions like in The Sound and the Fury. When you put all these different chapters together, the reader is the one who makes them whole. Or perhaps the structure is reflective of the writer’s quest for unity or his failure to achieve it. But one is not really conscious of all this when one writes.

TM: In what ways did you reach into your own experiences to write these stories, and how did your own experiences subconsciously inform your technique?

FR: Well that’s what it is—somehow letting your unconscious come out! But I have one peculiar memory, as far as the Bijbehara massacre [in which “at least 37” people were killed on October 22, 1993, on the way home from mosque] is concerned. The day after it happened, my brother happened to pass through the town. When he came home, I asked him, “What did you see?” He said, “Nothing but the shoes.” That’s what I had. That’s all I had.

TM: The shoes—

FR: The shoes. So I had to weave a narrative around that and how, for Gulam [the cobbler], his relationship with shoes is so intimate. For him, the shoes are the person. So after the massacre, he hangs the shoes on the walls of his room, making a gallery of the shoes. It’s his way of memorializing what happened.

TM: What is the relationship between writing and violence for you?

FR: I think that the act of writing in a way involves wreaking creative violence. When I think of James Baldwin, I think of a fearless progenitor who, with a fierce mastery and out of some deep necessity, bulldozes the pre-existing edifices of language to create his own. That is what writing is for me. Every writer who is original, who is at the head of a tradition, what they do is that they represent a rupture, an experience through language when the magnitude of the experience exceeds language. Violence, in the case of Kashmir, exceeds the limits of language. Occupation has choked us inside and none of us can breathe freely; none of us can be happy. And that’s what I felt while writing The Night of Broken Glass, as the violence could not be contained in the narrative. That is also reflected in the writing itself, which becomes jagged and, at times, deformed, raw, unprocessed. Although editing helps, I know it is not smooth.

Toward the end of the book, I—or the figure of the writer—go into Gulam’s room and ask him to narrate the story of the Bijbehara massacre, and Gulam says that what he saw was like being inside the mouth, the fangs, of death. I felt like using this violence in the book to bulldoze the semiology of occupation. I felt like rebelling, sometimes through digressing, sometimes through poetry, sometimes by being messy with the narrative; it can take different forms. I want to use language in a way that feels dislocated, to use adjectives in a way that feels improper but also creative …

While writing, I was very close to the scenes of violence. I had some physical distance from it, but not really [all the short stories were written in Tallahassee]. I feel like a successful piece of fiction, as they define it in America, is the one that measures the impact of violence, which happens in a very short time, as it spreads throughout the narrative. I think that in my book that happens sometimes, but at other times, we are colliding with it.

TM: The other thing I thought you did so beautifully was the temporal attention you gave to showing violence and trauma as intergenerational and sedimented through history. There were moments when you talked about the longue durée of colonization in Kashmir and the traces of violence, the way the Sikhs [who ruled Kashmir till from 1819 to 1845] used to hang bodies off the bridges, for example. It’s a subtle background hum that’s always there …

FR: Yeah, I don’t see the present as something unrelated to what has happened before. I think that whether it was the Dogras, Sikhs, or Mughals—who are also talked about in one of the stories—I see that we have been constantly occupied. It’s an occupation in continuity and violence in perpetuity. I won’t say that history is repeating itself, but I feel like outsiders are inflicting violence on us. But you know, in a structuralist view, I don’t believe in circular notions of history, as if today’s violence will give way to a peaceful tomorrow. History has been perpetually unmerciful towards us. History is perpetually cruel. The powerlessness of the powerless constitutes the power of the powerful.

TM: There’s no progression necessarily.

FR: Yeah. And that’s why it was important to find out … we have been here before. We have been occupied for many centuries now. But I’m glad you picked up on that; no one has talked about it in relation to the book yet.

TM: I found it really interesting that you were also probing the subjectivity of the colonizer. Of course, there’s such a rich history of this—from Frantz Fanon to Baldwin to V.S. Naipaul. In “The Pheran,” you have a line where you describe a soldier as living between “the fear of getting exterminated and the terrible duty of exterminating.” Those who are perpetrating violence in this book are also haunted, literally …

FR: I would like to have the chance to write a novel which meditates on this question, a book that is dedicated to exploring the grooved psyche of the colonized in its variegated complexity.

In the story “The Boss,” we see the protagonist has achieved a position of power but is reluctant to recognize that he’s colonized. That tension within, that reluctance, that I’m not subjugated—that should be the subject of a novel about Kashmir. That will be a ruthless but an astute and honest observation of our society. Here is a society that has been colonized for centuries; what has it done to us? How has it made us capable of being brutal to our own? The character of “The Boss” was not always brutal; he had an idealistic youth. He’s deeply traumatized as well. I think that’s a very healthy tension to explore …

That’s what Naipaul did very successfully. Reading A Bend in the River helped me greatly, but also, “The Lagoon” by Joseph Conrad. Both shed light on the ambivalence of the colonizer and colonized in a zone of occupation … Naipaul is the most brutally honest writer, and what he does is what you were talking about: explore the scars in the psychology of the oppressed. The worst kind of violence was inflicted by our own, by the renegades or the former rebels who were coopted by the state [known in Kashmir as ikhwaen]. How is it possible?

Naipaul himself became a bit of a renegade—he was wounded, because of poverty, because of the lack of institutions and a vibrant literary tradition—but he crossed over to the side of the oppressor and looked at the oppressed from that perspective. In “The Boss,” I have just begun to explore that.

TM: What you just said reminds of a recent New York Times article about Kashmir by Jeffrey Gettleman. One of the things he’s talking about in that article is that the scale of violence has changed in Kashmir—that it is much more intimate and closer and has turned in on itself. Is that something that you were consciously or unconsciously trying to write about?

FR: Gettleman’s framework is rather inaccurate. Kashmir is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is a people that predates the existence of these two nations. And as long as Kashmiris are not allowed to exercise their political choice, there won’t be any peace. This war is about the agency of the people of Kashmir.

I am conscious of what is happening now. The decision to be violent—to be immediately violent—has strengthened. I know there’s a feeling of implosion of violence that you are talking about. We can describe it like that: We’re in a zone where violence is imploding, because what does it mean that there are 200 or 300 rebels in Kashmir in total and there are more than 600,000 troops? Or let’s think about what happens during an encounter between Indian forces and rebels. There are maybe two rebels hiding in a house, but there will be 1,000 people throwing stones at the same time trying to protect the rebels from the soldiers. Many young people have been shot this way and killed.

In terms of the book, what does it mean that Kashmir is imploding? I think my pursuit was to save the narrative from completely imploding! At times it felt like the entire book would fall apart. My pursuit was to somehow contain myself, not be swayed by it. I somehow managed to do it. Initially, when I started writing the last stories, I felt, This is not going to work. It will lose all its structure.

TM: Was there a particular scene that you felt would cause it to implode?

FR: The implosion happens in the mind of Tariq when he goes on a rant [in “The Miscreant”]. Tariq is a young man who has gone out in the world. He has had the ambition of being a historian but is rejected by the universities in New Delhi and Islamabad. When he returns home to Kashmir, he rants about what it means to live in the besieged city of Srinagar.

I tried to distance myself from the violence. I didn’t tell the story of massacre directly. It is told through the character of Gulam … Similarly, the most brutal incident of violence in the book—I did not approach it directly but through Rosy’s mother’s elegy, which was an allusive way of storytelling. Later in the writing process, I wanted distance [from the scene of violence] … but there are points where it seems to implode. I didn’t want to control myself always.

TM: I don’t like the word redemption because it has a salvation logic to it. But what about the moments of tenderness and care in the book? Those felt extremely important to the texture of the stories.

FR: There’s a moment when Ilham is about to strangle Inspector Masoodi’s grandson, but when he puts his hands on his throat, the boy giggles. He is so close to committing an act of violence, but he doesn’t. Or the nameless narrator in the first story. Instead of killing Inspector Masoodi, he wipes his spit and takes care of him while the man dies.

These moments tell us that violence pierces the terrain. It can subvert and disrupt the rhythms of personal and civilian life. It can desecrate the body, but the humanity of the subjugated is not completely lost. In war, one encounters extraordinary courage, love, endurance … You’re making me think more about those moments now.

TM: Endurance is really important—and those small acts of kindness are what allow people to endure. Even the nameless narrator enduring this killer, Inspector Masoodi, and allowing him to die a natural death—that is a remarkable act.

FR: That’s the role of an artist, to alter reality through language. It is the artist’s stubbornness—to be just, to not let go, even if violence and darkness are pervasive, at least in the fictive realm … and it can swing both ways. On the one hand, it is about preserving the humanity of the characters, but it is also about exposing their vulnerabilities.

When Major S. is fortifying the camp, he’s imposing an order of harsh solidity. He cuts all the grass and replaces it with sandstones, sandstones so close together that not a blade of grass can grow—cannot even intend to grow. Writing is about subverting that order, that solidity, and preserving the idea of justice in whatever rudimentary or minuscule form.

TM: Now that you’ve shown the pervasiveness of violence, what’s the remainder? What’s left?

FR: I guess the whole idea of this book is reflection. At some level, there’s reflection on moments, individuals, institutions, societies. I do not think … there’s enough reflection. I don’t think there’s enough reflection on the part of the society about what they’ve done, for instance, to the life of a soldier who is posted in Kashmir. While imprisoning, the soldier himself is in the prison. What kind of life has been given to him? Do you think you’ve done a favor to someone who is so indoctrinated with the idea of the unity of the nation and upholding that?

Writing is a deeply personal thing. But the humbler objective is to produce some space for reflection in my own society. I think with the way technology is penetrating societies, we have become less reflective in general. I was reading an essay by Milan Kundera about what mass media will do to society—it will desensitize them and make them less reflective. It will destroy individuality and human capacity to be unique and creative. It will create a whole new sensibility that will be unthinking and consequently oblivious and violent.

You can see how there are mobs of people on Twitter and Facebook who are baying for our blood. Do you remember, some time ago, a couple of former Indian cricket players called for another massacre in Kashmir? That message was sent out and distributed, entertained and consumed, in the world through mass media. There’s more darkness in the offing if there’s no reflection. A novel for me is a space to introspect and inquire: This book is a messy meditation on violence.