Madhuri Vijay could not make it to Jaipur last weekend to attend the announcement of the second JCB Prize for Literature. The Hawaii-based writer, who was shortlisted for her debut novel, The Far Field (HarperCollins India, 2019), was nine-months pregnant and anticipating the birth of her child. But after she was announced as the winner, Vijay, who was still at home, took out some time to talk over the phone. “I am in utter shock and it feels so surreal. I am still at a point where I am amazed that the book was published at all. I still have a lot of catching up to do,” she says.
The writer, who hails from Bengaluru, succeeds Malayalam writer Benyamin, who won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature last year for his critically acclaimed novel Jasmine Days (Juggernaut, 2018), translated by Shahnaz Habib. His story described the lives of foreign workers caught up in the turmoil of the Arab Spring through the life of Sameera Parvin, a Pakistani radio jockey. The Far Field, Vijay’s debut novel, revolves around Shalini, a young woman from Bengaluru, who sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir, for she is 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. But upon her arrival, Shalini comes face to face with Kashmir’s politics, and also has to deal with the tangled history of the local family that takes her in.
“I decided to engage with Kashmir partly because I had never engaged with it before,” says Vijay, adding, “I grew up in Bengaluru and had a very ordinary and comfortable childhood. At some point, I had this realisation that all the while when I was growing up, the Kashmir conflict was going on, and in Bengaluru, it didn’t touch me at all.” Vijay says she did not know much about it and spoke to people around her, and even they did not know much about it. “The sheer distance between one end of the country and another started to seem a little bit grotesque and that is where my interest in writing about the place came from and so, I decided to write from the perspective of someone who grew up not knowing about it,” says the writer, who worked for four years in Kashmir’s Doda district as a volunteer-teacher at Haji Public School.
She was shortlisted for the award along with four others writers – Perumal Murugan, Manoranjan Byapari, Roshan Ali and Hansda Sowendra Shekhar – and was announced as winner by veteran journalist Mark Tully at a ceremony that took place at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace on Saturday. The winner was adjudged by a five-member jury chaired by filmmaker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen, along with author-critic Anjum Hasan, writers KR Meera and Parvati Sharma, and economist Arvind Subramanian.
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Talking about the genesis of the story, Vijay says, “When I was thinking about becoming a writer, back in 2010, I wrote a short story. It revolved around a mother, daughter and a Kashmiri man who comes to sell clothes in Bengaluru. It was then that these characters appeared in my head and stayed, and I wanted to write more about them. While writing about them, I started to think about Kashmir and why no one is talking about any of it when it was happening with such intensity for over two decades.”
Vijay says she always wanted to write. “I have grown up reading a lot of books and would secretly write stories as a child and make up little poems. But I did not think it could be a profession until I went to college. I took a creative writing class and my professor told me about graduate programmes in writing, which I got into eventually. It was 10 years ago, so it’s been a long time,” says the writer, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Fiction is powerful because it is so fluid and it is so changeable, she believes. “One doesn’t know its breadth of possibility and that’s what makes it so exciting. There is nothing absolute in fiction because there is more depth to be uncovered, and that is useful in the times we live in, as everybody seems so certain of everything. Fiction makes you unsure about the exact nature of the world; that’s one of the things it is supposed to do.”
The writer was in Jaipur on the invitation of the JCB Prize for Literature.
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