Book review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
An unexpectedly nuanced look at Kashmir from down south
Madhuri Vijay’s first novel is a beautifully nuanced tale in these times of no nuance. The author dunks us deep into the family scrum of the protagonist, 30-year-old Shalini, and we are hooked. Scrum it is, because beneath the 30-year-old woman’s laconic account of her life and times until now, bubbles a million emotions that often find their way up to sear the surface of her skin, of the story’s skin.
By and large, Shalini delivers her account in a monotone but so engaging is that monotone and the story she narrates that we stay with her till the very last page. That said, it is a story crafted out of a series of improbable events, to borrow Lemony Snicket’s language. These happenings propel a wafer-thin plot.
There is a family in Bengaluru with a mother whose mind is slowly slipping its moorings, and doing so in spectacular fashion. There is the businessman father trying ineffectually to block with his finger the big hole that has suddenly rent the family fabric; only, many other holes appear and there’s just so much a man can do. To complicate matters, along comes a Kabuliwala-type character, except this man is a Kashmiri doing the rounds of India’s hot plains selling pherans, kurtas, salwars, stoles and shawls.
A fraught friendship springs up between the woman of fragmenting mind and the stoic mountain man, Bashir Ahmed; with the wide-eyed and apprehensive child Shalini the sole witness to their inexplicably deepening bonds.
And, as Shalini faces up to family facts and faces down some lurking demons, the reader suddenly realises that this is a Kashmir story, a Kashmir book.
Having gradually acquired a clear-eyed, dispassionate love for her mother, Shalini feels an urgent need to go in search of Bashir Ahmed after the older woman’s death. Except, she hasn’t a clue about where in the strife-ridden Valley he lives. Undeterred by that, she sets off.
We have read some compelling Kashmir stories by authors like Mirza Waheed, Basharat Peer, Rahul Pandita — Kashmiris writing about their homeland. In The Far Field, Vijay gives us a southern perspective on Kashmir. Miles away from what is happening in the Valley, most South Indians form an opinion about the disturbed land from skewed newspaper reports, partisan television montages, and their own intrinsic slant on the politics of J&K.
Shalini finds herself living, albeit temporarily, with a Kashmiri family in a remote mountain village hedged by cornfields, learning to eat the food they eat, and living the way they do. In the process, she predictably grows fond of them.
The reader sees the sword poised above all their heads and marvels at the fact that Shalini does not notice it. When it falls, as it inevitably must, it is the reader who winces and looks away, not Shalini. Shalini is possessed of such an aching vulnerability that the reader often catches their breath. She is also possessed of an intelligent naiveté. \
Why is it, she muses at one point, that the common line of opinion about Kashmir is that its people should be happy with whatever they get, even if it isn’t what they want. Elsewhere, she wistfully states that her account will not make any perceptible difference in the end, and the reader sees the forlorn hope hidden under that thin layer of cynicism.
While no real empathy is forged between the protagonist and the reader, there is a connect, the kind you get while watching a vulnerable stranger moving in unknown territory, not quite sure of her journey or her destination. You don’t quite get why she is doing what she does but you wish her well.
A febrile tension pulsates on each page of this coming-of-age story. The Far Field is an accomplished debut by Vijay.
The Far Field; Madhuri Vijay, Fourth Estate, ₹599
This ran in THE HINDU of 07 Sept 2019.
The writer is a manuscript editor and novelist based in Bengaluru.