A long journey to Kashmir'The Far Field' gets richer by the page, as Madhuri Vijay chronicles the story of a woman in the troubled lands of Jammu and Kashmir.
Shalini, the heroine of Indian author Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel, is restless. Her mother has died, she has been fired from her job, and a close friend snubs her. Suddenly discovering a wooden figure gifted to her by a man, Bashir Ahmed, she decides to take a long, inadvisable trip to find him. Clinging to a folktale heard many years before, a disoriented Shalini ends up in a hamlet 6000 feet above sea level.
That is how we end up at the northernmost edge of the country, in the scenic, troubled lands of Jammu and Kashmir. Not in Srinagar and Gulmarg, romanticised by flower-laden boats and green hillocks, but in a tiny municipality, Kishtwar, and a day’s journey away, in a rustic Himalayan village as dangerous as it is beautiful. This village, the novel’s central setting, is not described from afar, like a distant tourist dreamland. Shalini makes her careful way to and through it with Bashir’s son, Riyaz—the first glimpse of the village is as good as a richly choreographed setting from a play.
“I saw a pumpkin vine snaking across the path, leaves splayed broad and shining dark as an oil spill. Riyaz abruptly cut off from the main track and began to lead us downhill on a trickle of a path, stepping over a leaking water pipe, to a small mud house, its walls painted sky blue, with a flat roof of pressed dirt. A pressed mud porch extended in front; in the far corner was a magnificent buckled tree with delicate pink blossoms.”
The view seen from Shalini’s room is breathtakingly described, creating an immediate ache to experience it with one’s own eyes—one of the greatest achievements a writer can aspire for, the setting emerging as a real place in the reader’s mind.
In this valley Shalini hopes to meet Bashir, an important figure from her childhood, particularly in relation to a mother she has adored. This ‘mother’ character is another remarkable feature. She is quite unlike fictional mothers, difficult to describe or place. She is not the unmaternal, cold mother we sometimes encounter, and she is certainly not the devoted, all-giving mother we frequently meet. She is, for lack of a better word, an enigma, with traces of mental illness and baggage, revealed only toward the end. She is “the woman who cut off all contact with her own father after he repeatedly ignored his wife’s chronic lower back pain; who once broke a flickering lightbulb by flinging a scalding hot vessel of rice at it; whose mere approach made shopkeepers hurry into the back, praying for invisibility; who nodded sympathetically through our neighbor’s fond complaints about the naughtiness of her five-year-old son, then said, with every appearance of sincerity, ‘He sounds awful. Shall I slit his throat for you and get it over with?’.“
A strong, powerful, extraordinary character—a mother that bestows joy and affection abruptly and then takes it all away; an unpredictable, self-willed woman often engulfed in a ‘fog’, an individual as is rarely portrayed, for fear such a mother would be seen as ‘selfish’, ‘wanton’ and ‘immoral’. At the beginning, the author tries too hard to establish the mother’s ‘extremism’, until the character starts to come alive with a gesture there, an outburst here. She is faintly reminiscent of Rosie in R.K. Narayan’s The Guide, a woman who lives the way her moods direct her to.
Her Kashmiri friend, the clothes merchant Bashir, is also like another beloved literary character—the Kabuliwallah from Rabindranath Tagore’s story of the same name. Although the relation between Shalini and Bashir lacks that unbridled warmth and innocence, his presence brings to their home “a lovely hysteria in the air” that Shalini wants to “inhale deep, deep into her lungs.” Perhaps it is to recreate this childhood memory that Shalini reaches his village, where she ends up in “a room filled with potatoes, in a town hanging over a river, in the company of a surly stranger, and with my own life, as I had known it, vanished utterly.”
From here, as Shalini stays on in Bashir’s village, milking the cow and teaching the headman’s daughter, it is as much an inner meditation as it is the end of the physical journey. She experiences the distress and anguish palpating in the hearts of this war-torn region. Innocent citizens caught in the vicious circle of army-militants-mercenaries, unable to protect themselves, unable to deny or provide support to any group for fear of angering the other, many times at the cost of their own lives. Beneath the pristine mountains and bracing air, trouble brews constantly, until it finds Shalini, threatening to absorb her into its own chaos.
The plot moves back and forth, one chapter devoted to Shalini’s childhood, another mired in her present. In most books that attempt the past-present setting, one portion is inevitably less interesting than the other, forcing readers to drudge through one chapter to get to the exciting one. It is a rare delight to find both narrations well-etched and competing for attention, with their novel characters and happenings, each more heartfelt than the other.
In fact, Madhuri’s style and the story just seem to get sleeker by the page: whether it is the author finding her voice, or the ambience growing on you, or impressions created by a nifty editor. The author is also a queen of subtle, stealthy drama, if such an oxymoron makes sense—the secrets unfurled and mysteries unveiled become unbearably scary, particularly towards the end of the chapters.
However, this fervent and constant attempt to maintain suspense is also the novel’s undoing. There are improbable happenings that do not tally with the characters and their actions. Why, for example, would a person invite another to their home, when they have been trying all their life to hide themselves? Why would one person stay on in a place that is unwelcome and dangerous? Why do sane-headed people suddenly become reckless just to suit the narrative? A certain suspension of disbelief is inevitable while reading the novel.
The novel also carries plenty of clutter, an unnecessary explanation of random days and inconsequential happenings that add little value to the overall plot. It is pleasant enough to read, thanks to the author’s skill, but quite dispensable, only adding to the bulk. The author also loves her adjective—”cool, direct gaze”, “grand, charred mosque”, “small, sensuous mouth.” Sometimes they help conjure a picture. Sometimes they are just irritants, a lazy, overused device.
Even so, the author’s descriptions are sparkling, she is a keen observer and chronicler of human thoughts and behavior, putting into words thoughts we might have but would not know how to express. The novel treats its characters and setting with sensitivity, attempting to examine the wars going around and within people in the state. It barely makes a dent, such is the enormity of the tumultuous reality of Jammu and Kashmir, but it does make a desperate plea for harmony, for upholding the sanctity of human dignity and precious lives.
The Far Field
Author: Madhuri Vijay
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)
Price: Rs 960