The first and last chapters of The Far Field begin with the same sentence. “I am 30 years old and that is nothing,” the novel’s narrator Shalini says. At the outset, it is an admission of a lack of wisdom, a form of naivete. “This country has changed every instant I’ve been alive…and I have been touched by none of it,” she adds. By the end of the sprawling novel, keenly tuned to the events that she has both been witness to, and perpetrator of, the disclaimer takes on an elegiac note, imbued with a bone-deep weariness. In the 400 pages between these twin statements, uncoils a mirrored story – of a childhood in the shadow of a mercurial parent, and of a landmarked by a violent past and present, and an uncertain future.
Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel, which won the Rs 25-lakh JCB Prize for Literature this year and is on the shortlist for the DSC Prize 2019, is ostensibly about a journey. Three years after the death of her mother, an unpredictable woman capable of both casual cruelty and dazzling charm, impenetrable listlessness and fervent excitement, 24-year-old Shalini sets out to Kashmir to find Bashir Ahmed, the only man who she believes ever truly connected with her mother; who knew how to handle her erratic moods — “Bashir Ahmed understood in about five minutes what took my father decades.” The Kashmiri travelling salesman first arrives at their wealthy Bangalore home when Shalini is six, striking a bond with her volatile mother and loosening something within her. He visits regularly over the years that follow, regaling both mother and daughter with stories from Kashmir. For the young girl, whose entire existence orbits around a difficult mother, who affectionately calls her “little beast”, it’s also the biggest secret they share. Bereft and unmoored after her death, Shalini decides to pick at the threads of this secret, to track down the man who she last saw 11 years ago.
Armed with clues from Ahmed’s stories and an envelope of cash from her father, Shalini eventually makes her way to the remote village in the northern part of Kashmir where he’s from, and is taken in by his family — his taciturn wife, his son Riyaz, and daughter-in-law Amina with whom she develops a firm friendship. As she eases into the rhythms of rural life, learning how to milk cows and navigate the steep slopes of the mountains, she begins to find it “hard to believe I’d ever lived without any of them”.
Shalini’s decision is, of course, part of an established tradition of travel as purpose, of going somewhere new to find parts of yourself you never knew existed, to make yourself somehow better. Vijay’s interest, however, lies far from leading her protagonist on an enriching Eat, Pray, Love journey through the mountains of Kashmir. What for Shalini is a land offering the allure of starting afresh is, for its residents, a place that holds a history — and continual threat — of violence, sandwiched between militancy and a state-backed military that acts with impunity and cruelty. In a place where young men routinely go missing without a trace, Shalini’s naivete, inherent inwardness, and ignorance are, at their best, worthy of derision, and, at their worst, actively dangerous for those around her. “Heaven is not at all what you think,” Riyaz tells our protagonist. It’s a hint that the facade that Vijay has assembled so far with quiet grace and tremendous skill has been built for a heartbreaking final act that will see it crumble.
The Far Field is a book about big ideas — the desire to forge an identity (“If I’m not your secret-keeper, your little beast, then what am I?” Shalini wonders), to belong, the keeping and revelation of secrets, the perils of good intentions — and devastating events, especially in its closing pages. It’s a lot to ask of a novel, but Vijay knows exactly what she’s doing. Precise, restrained and possessing a lightness of touch that eludes most writers, The Far Field is most thrilling in its heralding of a voice that is completely assured, and conveys a rare emotional wisdom while sidestepping any hints of the mawkish.
Even as I grew tired of our cloistered narrator at times — the other, arguably more interesting characters never quite emerge with equal nuance — Vijay succeeds most vividly in unspooling the harm that can be wrought by outsiders who have no claim to the history of a place. Quoting Some People, the heartrending poem on war by Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska, the novel’s epigraph states: “Something else is yet to happen, only where and what? Someone will head towards them, only when and who, in how many shapes and with what intentions? Given a choice, maybe he will choose not to be the enemy and leave them with some kind of life.” This choice has never been more relevant to Kashmir as it is today.
(Harsimran Gill is a Delhi-based independent writer)