Madhuri Vijay paints a timely reminder of the world's place in the battle over Kashmir
Vijay's debut novel, 'The Far Field', just won the JCB Prize for Literature – widely considered India’s most valuable literary award
It’s impossible not to be reminded of the undercurrent of opaque desolation that flows through the words of The Far Field, Theodore Roethke’s famous poem, while reading Pushcart Prize-winning writer Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel of the same name.
Both texts have a meditative quality to them, preoccupied as they are with death, dying and, most importantly, transformative journeys. Roethke opens his poem with the line: “I dream of journeys repeatedly”, while Vijay starts her novel with: “I am 30 years old and that is nothing”. That line tells us something significant – we simply don’t know it yet – before she takes us on a journey to a village in the part of Kashmir that belongs to India, “a village so small, it appears only on military maps”.
few writers wield such tight control over the language so that they can soak their stories in sorrow, tension and a sense of impending doom without once seeming contrived or resorting to cheap narrative ploys
That is our introduction to Shalini, the self-aware and honest, yet stirringly naive protagonist and narrator of Vijay’s The Far Field. Last month, the book won the JCB Prize for Literature – widely considered India’s most valuable literary award, with a cash reward of 2.5 million rupees (Dh127,890) – and is shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
It’s not difficult to see why, because few writers wield such tight control over the language so that they can soak their stories in sorrow, tension and a sense of impending doom without once seeming contrived or resorting to cheap narrative ploys.
Shalini is 30 at the start of the novel and tells us about events that transpired six years ago, when a man she knew vanished from his home in the mountains. His disappearance, we are told, was precipitated in part by Shalini, “because of certain things I said, but also the things I did not have, until now, the courage to say.”
It’s an important detail, because it tells us that, while Shalini is old enough to be a reliable narrator, she is not nearly old enough to be important to the larger scheme of things, if such a thing is even possible. Can one person’s existence or absence be of any consequence in a bloody conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, sprawled as it has been across decades?
The book begins with Shalini’s return to Bengaluru, the city of her birth, after her mother’s death. The two shared an erratic, inscrutable relationship – not close in the way mothers and daughters conventionally are, but they understood each other better than almost anyone else in the world.
Shalini is witness to some of her mother’s most unguarded moments and heartfelt longings and knows, even as a child, what secrets she must guard. “My mother considered me, her only child, a suitable accomplice for the greatest secret of her life,” Shalini says.
Understandably, her mother’s death leaves behind a hole Shalini has no idea what to do with, despite her supportive, but ultimately clueless father’s best efforts. Three years on, she is as adrift, purposeless and uninterested in life as she was the day her mother was cremated. A long-forgotten memory floats to the surface and on a whim, Shalini finds herself on a train to Kashmir in search of Bashir Ahmed, a travelling clothes salesman and the man she is convinced her mother was secretly in love with, armed with nothing but a few hazy details she remembers from the stories he told her when she was 6. He was the only other witness to her mother’s truths, much more so than Shalini’s father, who never quite knew what to make of his mercurial wife.
It’s tough to separate the many competing strands of storytelling that are woven through The Far Field’s central premise of a lost young woman in search of something she has little chance of finding.
As much as it is about Shalini’s ill-conceived journey to resuscitate her last remaining link to her mother, it’s also about her desperation to belong to someone, something, somewhere. It’s evident in the needy way she clings to her hosts, Zoya and Abdul Latief, quickly inserting herself into their lives and their household, as they too wade through the grief of having lost their only son after he was picked up by the army and never returned.
It’s a story about religious conflicts and political havoc, as Shalini slowly sinks into the realisation that Kashmir, the one that exists outside the storied romanticisation that Srinagar enjoys, has wounds that have been open and bleeding for longer than she’s been alive.
It’s a story about power and powerlessness, it’s about outsiders and insiders, and the finality of each role. It takes many unspeakable tragedies, but Shalini eventually learns what everyone on the sidelines – no matter how entrenched they believe themselves to be – ought to know: “For people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence.”
The Far Field never loses sight of Shalini’s irrelevance and that is an important consideration not only in the context of the book, but also in relation to the more complex goings-on within the India-administered Kashmir of today.
It is worth noting that The Far Field was released in India only months before the sudden abrogation of Article 370 of the country’s constitution in August that stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of the autonomy to frame its own laws.
In such an environment, Vijay’s insistence that her protagonist be seen for what she is – a wealthy, privileged and well-intentioned-but-largely-ignorant outsider – is a timely reminder of the world’s place in the ongoing political theatre in Kashmir. Outsiders must only ever allow ourselves the humility of spectators.
Updated: December 8, 2019 09:08 AM