There is a Kashmir that tourists know about: the one with houseboats, carpets, the one called the Paradise on Earth. There is another Kashmir the world knows through the newspapers, that of militants, a place embroiled in the Indo-Pak border conflict. Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel is a “fictional” attempt to know Kashmir from both extremes—the latter more than the former—through the lense of a woman visiting here for the first time.
The Far Field is a confession by Shalini, a 30-something living in Bangalore. The first and the last chapters of the novel start with: “I am thirty years old and that is nothing.” The chapters in-between are the account of Shalini’s journey to Kashmir in search of Bashir Ahmed, a Kashmiri salesman, who used to visit her home when she was a child, but who disappeared from his home in the mountains six years ago. The picaresque narrative involves talking about a lot of things she has kept secret: Shalini’s tormented relationship with her mother, a woman called strong but not as a compliment, and her (the mother’s) relationship with Bashir.
The plot of the novel emerges from several moments in Shalini’s life: her childhood with her parents, as a teenager when she sees Bashir Ahmed last, the time when her mother passes away, the time she starts on her journey to find Bashir Ahmed, and the moment that is now.
To my child’s mind, Bashir Ahmed belonged exclusively to the world of afternoons, with their high, walled shadows and elongated silences, to strange stories and unusual gifts. My father, on the other hand, belonged to the steady world of evenings, to comfortably rumpled office clothes and the house lit up, to homework and inner, to the fading of energy and the coming of sleep.
Such visual recollections bind different points in time of her life: on one page, Shalini is a child; on another, she’s in her mid-twenties in Kashmir. Vijay’s prose rearranges, re-orders and unveils the different stages of the characters’ lives, especially Shalini’s, neatly taking the reader in and out of various episodes of her life.
But this remembrance narrative gets complicated when Kashmir is super-imposed. The author was born and raised in Bangalore, as is the narrator. It is hard to miss the tone of Kashmir-as-an-exotic-place, a setting quite suitable for a quest—as seen through the eyes of non-Kashmiris. It’s the same old story: Kashmiris as caught between the militants and the Indian army.
Kashmir, for many Indians, is geography syllabus married to scenic beauty as shown in Bollywood films. If this novel is the only thing that brings certain readers the closest they have been to Kashmir, Vijay’s writing, well, checks the box of the description of the landscape:
We made our way down a mud track littered with animal shit and plastic bags, broken shoes and chocolate wrappers, to two thin concrete pillars supporting a bridge. We passed between them, and here I stopped, because below us was the river. I’d learned its name as a child in school, and that it was one of the five mighty rivers of the north, but I had not been prepared for such a vital, living thing. The water was tray in places, slate blue in others, and, farther off, a tawny green. The roar was so loud it seemed to dampen the sun’s glare, so that it felt momentarily as if we were standing in shadow. The bridge itself was of old wood, its green paint flaking, the beams cradled within twisted metal cables as thick as my calves.
The novel has garnered much praise (and has even been shortlisted for an award in India) for the way it talks about the situation in Kashmir since the 1990s. However, the attention seems misplaced: the novel seems less about Kashmir than a story perhaps serendipitously set there. If Vijay is making a point, other than a literary one, about Kashmir, it’s easily missed. The novel is full of Shalini, her observations about the place and the people, her desire. The novel ends abruptly because, well, the novel has to end somewhere.
Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.