Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
Somewhere a woman is inexplicably vicious, rude and soft by turns. Elsewhere soldiers break the legs of other men because power, rage and religion are good enough reasons. Strangers in simple homes in a remote, ravaged land open doors and hearts to an uninvited guest who comes from realities and places far removed from theirs. There is cruelty and compassion juxtaposed against each other in a single frame, a strong leitmotif of Madhuri Vijay’s hauntingly beautiful debut, the much acclaimed The Far Field; the title presumably borrowed from Theodore Roethke’s poem by the same name. The book won the JCB Prize for Literature this year, besides being nominated for others. The timeliness of her tour de force could not be more on point in these times of grim altered realities of a region, no longer a state with rights,
At 30, Shalini, in confessional mode tells us the story from over six years ago, when a man she knew “vanished from his home in the mountains”. The story she recounts goes even further back in time when as a six-year-old girl she remembers a dark haired stranger with light green eyes, standing at their doorstep trying to sell to her mercurial and acerbic mother, clothes from a yellow bundle. Shalini, her mother’s “little beast”, is the unwitting keeper of her mother’s secrets.
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An only child in a dysfunctional nuclear family living in material comfort in Bangalore and numbed by her mother’s sudden death, Shalini adopts a desultory existence spiralling into nothingness. Pushed by a disengaged but concerned father into action, because “without action, there is only waiting for death”, she journeys to Kishtwar in quest of that heart-shaped memory from childhood - Bashir Ahmed, the Kashmiri salesman, teller of rapturous stories to a little girl, and the only one that managed to put a smile on her capricious mother’s face. She hopes to trace him in distant Kashmir, seeking some sort of closure to her mother’s death. An unusual solo journey that leads to a beautiful and misconstrued region, where doors are warily opened, and at times arms are flung open in open embrace. Shalini is that outlier who will see the beauty and also grow to love it, without really comprehending the complexities of existence of a people that are captive in the land of their birth, where religious divides are razor-edged and where the tentacles of politics play big games. It is the choices she makes that will determine or jeopardise the destinies of others.
The Far Field is rich in poignancy, in story and characters. Shalini who comes from a position of wealth and privilege is somewhere bereft of emotional moorings, her imperfections and incertitude lending her dimensions that do not necessarily endear. She comes closest to finding a sense of familial belonging with Abdul Lateif and Zoya the couple she shelters with in Kishtwar. An affinity tentatively evolves from a place of shared grief of having lost those they loved the most, between the reticent Zoya and Shalini. In the village in the mountains, friendship is unexpectedly and generously bestowed on the latter by the ebullient Amina.
Right alongside the personal story, and inextricably intertwined with it is the forever fraught strong political narrative. In a strident inebriated voice at a party thrown for friends so that they could ‘meet a real Kashmiri’, Shalini’s father addresses Bashir Ahmed: “I think that for more than forty years, India has taken care of Kashmir. We have given you jobs and roads and power and hospitals. So it doesn’t seem like too much to expect some gratitude in return, instead those people you have up there blowing up buildings, shouting slogans for Pakistan, burning Indian flags and whatnot.” It is the typical pontification of one who feeds on unidimensional narratives. Bashir’s response is reflective of how nuanced the issue is: “There are many others who think the same way, who think that people should be happy with whatever they get, even if it isn’t what they want.”
Structurally the story goes back and forth in time, as the protagonist reminisces about the uneasiness of growing up with her parents, alternating that with the narration of her Kashmir odyssey.
It would be hard to fault Vijay’s work; it brims with confidence. There are just a couple of places where an insightful reader can sense the turn of events. Elsewhere, an oddly wedged sexcapade is a mildly jarring note. At the other end of the spectrum is the moving passage of a parting: “They were gone before I woke. They must have left while it was still dark. I imagine mountain paths rolling out under their feet, fog peeling with the heat of their breath. I imagine Aaquib walking ahead of his mother, in his faded Superstar Happy t-shirt, hands clasped behind his back, his sturdy little legs carrying him toward an unfathomable future. I think of that boy all the time. He will be older now, taller, naturally, with his grandmother’s firm jaw, and his grandfather’s green eyes. Quieter and more solemn than he was when I knew him, which makes sense, given everything that happened shortly after. A dutiful boy with a heart-stopping smile, popular with his peers, adored by adults, but with a door in his heart that sometimes falls open without warning….” Vijay masterfully weaves emotion with words. There is honesty in her prose, her descriptions are detailed to a point where places and people come alive and leave an indelible impression.
The Far Field is an experience, brilliantly executed and deeply felt. Long after one has read the last page and respectfully kept it aside, the story of over 400 pages lingers within like a dull ache and you will it to say something more. Some stories leave a little hole in your heart.