On the third day of their captivity, Mohsin found himself sitting beside Tariq, their bare backs against a stone wall. The cell that they were brought into at noon smelt pungently of blood, urine and excrement, its thick stone walls muffling the echoes of wails and shrieks from neighbouring cells. The only exit to the outside world was a heavy door with iron bars on the opposite wall, which led through the dimly lit hallway to the Tunnel.
Mohsin’s left hand was handcuffed to Tariq’s right. The food that followed the beatings and starvation animated them and Tariq burst into tears. Suddenly, struck by a thought, he stopped sobbing and said, ‘Imagine God being subjected to our pain.’
Mohsin rebuked him sharply for even thinking such a terrible thing and warned him that they were no longer on the ledge beneath the bridge to gather rocks from the bed of the stream and discuss strategies to pelt Force 10 as he passed by in his cavalcade of jeeps through the marketplace. They were in a damn prison where they might be beaten to death; Tariq shouldn’t start his philosophy lecture there and talk drivel.
‘You’re a fucking coward,’ Tariq hissed back.
Mohsin yanked the manacle and Tariq yelped and shouted, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
Mohsin turned away, his face filled with loathing. He wanted to yank at Tariq’s wrist again and break away from him – his vile, noxious friend.
‘Why, then,’ Mohsin asked in a perplexed tone, ‘did you come out of your house? Was it only to throw stones at the police?’
‘I am troubled by my memory, Mohsin,’ said Tariq in a quiet voice. ‘I ran into a soldier six years ago, during the summer that I turned eighteen. On returning home after my fateful encounter with him, I joined Father and Mother for lunch, and put the memory of the two pigeons that he had made me kill out of my mind. Later that day, I retired to my bedroom on the third floor – ours is an ancient house, you know. Every time I went inside, no matter how much I used the broom and rag, the grime on the wooden floor and the withering wooden walls would return. Over a period of time, I grew used to it: the sandy, brown stuff smelling of mould and lassitude.
‘The sun was above the Wall in the west and when I went into my bedroom after lunch, I began to feel drowsy. I shut the windows, drew the curtains and lay on my bed which was right up against the window. I put a pillow under my head and picked up the remote control from the windowsill and switched on the TV. It was time for Upheavals, a documentary series on the History Channel about Latin America that I followed religiously.
‘I was deep in a scorching, brown desert on the border between Mexico and Texas when an unexpected gust of wind pushed the window open, the shutter knocked against my arm, and I dropped the remote control. The string that held the curtain snapped and like an unfurling flag, the curtain flew across the room. Through the window I watched as the sudden storm raged across Srinagar and shook the Wall. The stream that passed by it had finally lost its stagnant stupor and was swelling, swirling and flowing. And then the two pigeons entered. I quickly pushed the window shut; I wanted to capture them. But the pigeons had turned into stupendous metallic creatures. Their eyes were red, their beaks sharp, and their wings gleaming. If they bite me, I’ll bleed to death, I thought. They circled overhead, their wings like little swords; they tore against the sheets of still air inside, causing the eternal grime from the floor to rise. They flew in tangents, grazing and bruising the walls, until they landed on top of the TV. The pigeons pecked frenziedly on the screen behind which a mutiny was going on. They, the pigeons, terrified the gun-toting gringos on horseback and the Mexican rebels cheered. The spectacle continued until the horses whinnied, their hoofs trampled and a slaughter began. In their mad fury the pair of pigeons attacked the screen with their beaks, their hoary feathers swirling and floating before me. My head clanged inside and I felt giddy, as if the pigeons were circling not in my bedroom but inside my head. I watched this drama as though in a bizarre dream with breathless astonishment until the birds escaped through the window that the violent wind had banged open again.
‘As soon as they left, the rebels fell and mingled with the dust on the ground and the storm abated. I lit a cigarette and stood by the window. The Wall was erect and the waters in the stream were still and as muddy as ever. As the sun sank behind it, the sky turned a dull purple hue and copper clouds moved into the middle over the Wall. My room was deserted and the pigeons were gone as though they had never existed, as though beyond the Wall that blocked my vision of Srinagar and the last glimpses of that day’s sun, they were dead – eternally dead. Although I was sad, I didn’t feel wracked with guilt. I never was guilt-ridden. What was there to be guilty about as long as one lived and longed?
‘I remember on that day I had walked out of my house for the shrine where you and Father go to pray these days – where both of you fool yourselves that the dead saint is alive and that you are earthly vassals of some divine god. Ha, ha! What dogmatic fools you are, to be sure! Faith, my friend, is the consolation of the weak and foolish. It’s only good for those who can afford it, whose quest for life and curiosity to contemplate reality it can douse with the promise of a halo of light. But not for those whose feet are planted firmly on the ground, not for those who are not blind to the veins cut open by time, and not for those who are tuned to the History Channel and watch and reflect on the human waste and the scale of human cruelty. Imagine the mounds of dead bodies in the sand. Imagine the mosaics of blood on the wall. Inhale the stink of your shame, Mohsin.
I know you think I am completely wrong in my conception of the world and after-world. The only thing I cannot accept is your claim that you’re unafraid of death because you are. And you think if Force 10 kills you, you’ll become a martyr and live eternally in a world that is just and lasting. Bullshit. What kind of fool’s paradise are you living in? And how dare you think of paradise when Kashmir still exists on earth. Why the fuck don’t you understand that the occupation itself is the deepest circle of hell and there is no hell beyond it? Remember one thing: men and women are merely men and women, and whenever and wherever they are shackled, their movement curtailed and their freedom taken away, they will rebel and launch a hailstorm—’
The door opened at that moment and interrupted Tariq’s rant. Force 10 moved towards them in the semi-dark, the keys clinking in his hand. He directed the light of his torch at their faces, piercing their eyes with the sharp beam of light. Then he grabbed the manacle that shackled the boys together and unlocked it.
‘If you move or open your mouth, I will drill holes in your head,’ he warned them and dragged Tariq to the door and tied him to the bar in the centre. Then he came back to Mohsin and said, ‘Follow me.’
Mohsin obeyed, but with his eyes shut, unable to look at himself after three days of torture and relentless beatings. He did not want to see the defeat in his eyes and a broken body covered with innumerable gashes. He glanced away from his reflection and looked at Force 10 who gestured to him to walk to the Tunnel.
Past Café Barbarica, Force 10 opened a door to his right and pushed Mohsin into the office that was suffused with sunlight. The walls were washed white and supported a highvaulted ceiling.
‘Stand there in the middle,’ Force 10 ordered Mohsin and walked out through the front door.
Inspector Masoodi was seated behind the table, resting his arms on the soft arms of a leather chair. Rumour had it that Masoodi believed in the same God that Mohsin did, the God about whom Tariq was sceptical. About Inspector Masoodi it was said that wherever he was posted in Kashmir, he built an opulent mosque where he prayed five times a day from the front row. He was a clean, uniformed man with a florid face and a thick, groomed moustache. With his black baton, he tapped the wooden table top, and Force 10 entered with Mohsin’s mother.
Inspector Masoodi gazed coldly at Mohsin. He placed his baton on the table and folding his arms across his chest, he sat back in his chair.
‘Your son is a miscreant,’ he said to the weeping woman. ‘He has strayed from the path that God ordained for us in the Qur’an.’
‘Is it I who has strayed?’ Mohsin shouted indignantly. He could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He felt the pain of the beating seeping into every inch of his body.
‘Mohsin, shut up,’ his mother said.
‘You can see for yourself that this kid has no manners,’ Inspector Masoodi said. ‘It’s all the same – he who breaks the law of the land, breaks the law of God.’
‘He’s innocent,’ the woman protested.
‘He is a miscreant,’ Inspector Masoodi said.
‘I beg of you, please let him go.’
‘I will let him go if he recites from the Qur’an,’ Inspector Masoodi said, leaning forward, his elbows on the table. ‘I will let him go if he recites the chapter, Al Fatiha, the line: Guide us on the straight path.’
‘Mohsin, please do whatever he says,’ his mother begged him.
‘Do you honestly expect me to recite the Qur’an in front of this man?’ Mohsin asked, incredulous. ‘Does he even know how perverse he is?’
‘Do whatever he says, Mohsin,’ his mother repeated. ‘Where does the recitation of the Qur’an fit into the business of custodial torture?’
‘Mohsin, your mother begs you.’
‘Mother, not on my life, not in front of this hypocrite,’ said Mohsin.
‘Then you will rot in this prison,’ Inspector Masoodi said, rising. He pointed the tip of his baton towards Mohsin’s chest.
‘Inspector Sahib, he is innocent,’ his mother wept.
‘Mother, I’m anything but innocent. I throw stones at the soldiers and police. I’m a criminal and my crime is that I am besotted with the spectre of freedom. I won’t stop pelting policemen like him until all of them have been driven out of Kashmir.’
As Force 10 led Mohsin back through the Tunnel into the hallway, they could hear Tariq singing:
Bring me back my moment,
bring me back my pair of pigeons.
My friend has gone mad, Mohsin rued in his heart. Who could possibly remain sane in this theatre of cruelty? As he walked in through the door, his eyes met Tariq’s and there was a moment of acknowledgement. Mohsin wanted to tell Tariq, ‘I don’t believe in Inspector Masoodi’s God. His God is very different from mine.’
As they approached the washbasin, Force 10 asked Mohsin to remove the shirt. Mohsin peeled it off and hung it back on the nail. He looked into the mirror and his bloodshot eyes stared back at him. His lower lip was torn; his face was grotesquely swollen.
Force 10 stood behind him and looked on impassively. Inside the cell, Tariq continued his insane singing.
‘Can I have some water?’ Mohsin asked.
‘Okay, but hurry up,’ Force 10 replied. Mohsin was taken aback by Force 10’s inexplicable lenience. He leaned over the basin and turned the faucet. Force 10 stepped away to lean against the wall behind him. He lit a cigarette and took a drag and the smell of burnt tobacco and dry weed filled the chamber.
‘Stop singing that damn song,’ Force 10 coughed, ‘or I’ll wring your neck and tear your lungs out.’
Tariq stopped singing. Force 10 dialled a number on his cell phone. Mohsin washed his face and drank a palmful of water. As he placed his hands on the sides of the washbasin, he felt it move slightly. Mohsin looked at Force 10 in the mirror. He was engrossed with the phone and had turned away. Mohsin saw the shaved nape of his neck. Wrapped in the pleasant odour of the smoke, Force 10 laughed luridly and clicked his tongue. He seemed to be talking dirty to a woman.
Mohsin grabbed the washbasin with both hands and moved it. With one swift motion, he tore it off the wall and turned, holding the ceramic basin aloft.
Force 10 fell to the floor, unconscious. His eyes were open, the blood gushing out of the wide wound in his head. There was a long silence until Tariq resumed his song.
Bring me back my moment
Bring me back my pair of pigeons.
Feroz Rather is currently 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.
This is an extract from The Night of Broken Glass, written by Feroz Rather and published by HarperCollins. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum