Book Title: The Far Field
Author: Madhuri Vijay
Published by: Harper Collins India
An elegant, epic debut from a tremendous new talent, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field follows one young woman’s search for a lost figure from her childhood, a journey that carries her from Southern India to Kashmir and to the brink of a devastating political and personal reckoning.
In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bangalore, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to track him down. But as soon as Shalini arrives, she is confronted with the region’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in. As life in the village turns volatile and old hatreds threaten to erupt into violence, Shalini finds herself forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love.
With rare acumen and evocative prose, in The Far Field Madhuri Vijay masterfully examines Indian politics, class prejudice, and sexuality through the lens of an outsider, offering a profound meditation on grief, guilt, and the limits of compassion.
About the author:
Madhuri Vijay was born in Bangalore and taught for many years in Kashmir. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and her writing has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, Narrative Magazine and Salon, among other publications. The Far Field is her first book.
Reading The Far Fields has left me with so many emotions and reflections that are so familiar. We start with 30-year-old Shalini being self-deprecating: ‘I am thirty years old and that is nothing’ and soon there is a sense of unease over the fact that because of her, a young man has vanished from his own home.
As a narrator, Shalini who is also the main protagonist is terse and clinical but that is in parts and perfectly in keeping with the people she is talking about and the ambience she is placed in. She is dismissive of herself and comes across as a distant observer when she brings to us the emptiness of a dysfunctional family made up of herself and her parents – a distant workaholic father and a mother who has no social niceties. The terse tone turns poetic when she discovers the joy of bonding with people, when she explores the beauty of a land that has been distant to her but one she is in close proximity later. It turns meditative when she is exposed to the many layers and many versions of the story of people and incidents. It turns morbid when she is helpless to do anything for anyone, much less herself.
Of her parents, it is her mother Shalini is closer to, but fails to connect with, even as she remains fascinated by her demeanor (the reader will have a vague sense of why her mother is the way she is and find out partly towards the end of the book). When Bashir, a salesman from Kashmir enters into Shalini and her mother’s world, she sees a different side of her mother. But Shalini’ mother who seeks escape from her world fails to see that Bashir too is seeking escape from his world too and almost forces him to go back to Kashmir and ‘not be a coward’. A series of events play out that leaves a trail of loss and trying to cope with circumstances that one has no control of.
Shalini’s journey to Kashmir to find Bashir unfolds and unravels slowly in the way she finds connections with total strangers and the bonds that strengthen. But it brings its own set of conflicts and consequences over a period of time and while it will be easy to dismiss Shalini’s action/non action and judge her, the larger picture is really about how we learn too late, too little; about the contours of relationships and the risks of attachments and how difficult it is to grieve honestly. I loved the fact that the author did not have to lay everything bare but left it to readers to look within to understand the characters and why they do what they do.
Set partly in Kashmir, The Far Fields looks at the larger dilemma of conflict and whose version holds true and for what ends. Growing up in Manipur, a militarised conflict zone, the trauma of loss that does not find a space to be understood or even heard about outside of the state; the steady stream of young and old people who leave to find some peace outside to be met with ‘are you Chinese?’ or ‘Why don’t you want to be a part of the country?’ are familiar territory for me.
And no, one does not have to know how it is to live under the shadow of guns and darkness to feel for every character in this book for it is more than the actual violence but about how much most of us live in isolated comfort zones. Which brings me to what I want to say: if you want to get read something out of your comfort zones, if you are feel that an author should also leave readers to fill in what has not been written but only hinted at, this is the book for you.
*Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field was awarded The JCB Prize for Literature, 2019