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Friday, Dec 06, 2019

Peak position: How Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel won a Rs 25 lakh prize

The 32-year-old first-time novelist, The Far Field, sets her book in Kashmir and Bangalore, plots deftly, and offers readers glimpses of a lesser-observed world

books Updated: Nov 18, 2019 12:39 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
(ILLUSTRATION: Gajanan Nirphale/Hindustan Times)

Even among book critics there are clichés. Show me a first-time author whose prose is confident, whose plotting deft, and I’ll show you a review calling it an ‘assured debut’.

With Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field, which has garnered plenty of press in India and abroad (mentions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and Washington Post) that phrase is absent. Perhaps because Vijay’s book is itself complicated and devoid of cliché.

Her protagonist is a young woman, but she’s hardly a heroine. Shalini is an accountant from Bengaluru, unmoored after her mother’s death, who heads to the Himalayas hoping to find a once-frequent, long-disappeared visitor to their home, and through him, find closure.

That visitor was a charming salesman from Kashmir, but he’s no kabuliwala. Shalini is privileged, but she isn’t particularly clued-in. Her mother, acid-tongued, prickly, is far from the stuff of Indian sagas. And unlike the usual formula featuring city folk who head to the hills, Shalini doesn’t find peace, wisdom or the meaning of life.

Instead, the 448-page novel weaves present with past, private tragedy with politics, and violence with love. The Bangalore scenes largely stay within Shalini’s home; the Kashmir ones steer clear of houseboats and the Valley. It’s a Kashmir story beyond the headlines. And it is especially poignant given that the communication blockade in the region has now stretched for three months.

On November 2, Vijay beat out established names like Perumal Murugan and Manoranjan Byapari to win the JCB Prize - India’s richest literary award for fiction at Rs 25 lakh. The Far Field is on the shortlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. That award, to be announced mid-December, comes with a cash prize of $25,000 (close to Rs 18 lakh). It’s also long-listed for the 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, alongside new work by Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Gilbert and Zadie Smith. Not bad for a first book. But not entirely a surprise.


Bengaluru-born Vijay says she grew up in a house filled with books, and with parents who took her to the library and encouraged her to read widely. She’d earned a double major in psychology and English from Lawrence University in the US, and was preparing to start on a PhD, when her professors convinced her to apply for a fiction-writing fellowship. It was a year-long engagement. Vijay lived with Indian communities across Africa and Asia, and wrote short stories.

They were terrible, she’s said in several interviews. But they did two things: teach her the discipline needed to write every day, and make her realise, six months in, that she wanted to be a writer.

One of those stories featured a mother, daughter and Kashmiri man. Vijay showed it to her old English professor at Lawrence, who urged her to flesh it out into a novel. And so she did. Her 30-page draft ended up as part of her application to a writing course.

Except it wasn’t just any course. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is America’s oldest and most prestigious creative-writing programme. Think of it as Harvard for aspiring authors and poets, only pickier. While Harvard’s admission rates hover at 5%, the focused two-year residency at the University of Iowa admits barely 2.7% of applicants. Alumni include America’s Poet Laureates, Pulitzer winners and other luminaries. Once you’re in, publishers pay attention. And Vijay got in.

In 2011, Vijay’s short story, Lorry Raja, about a 14-year-old labourer who gets hired as a lorry driver at a construction site, won first place at the literary magazine Narrative’s 30 Below Story Contest. It was also selected for the Pushcart Prize (which honours work from small presses) and the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology of 2013.

Crucially, she also then spent three years volunteering as a teacher in rural Kashmir, at the Haji Public School in Breswana. Vijay has said that the years spent there helped her understand how little India knows about the region.

So when the time came to write a novel, it sort of fell into place. That old short story was broken down and remade into a longer, richer tale, drawn from Vijay’s experiences of Kashmir and a generation that had known nothing but war.

The Far Field took six years to finish. It’s many tales in one - there’s the outsider trying desperately to belong, there’s a look at what years of militancy can do to a community, there’s a wresting away from parental shadow, there’s an examination of prejudice and privilege. Vijay says she wasn’t sure it would be published in India - one editor even told her to soften up bits in keeping with the political climate.

She didn’t. It was always going to be an assured debut.