Good intentions in the hands of the naive are as dangerous as a machinegun. In The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel, a young woman blunders into Kashmir in search of a missing piece of family history, inadvertently setting off terrifying consequences for her hosts and those who offer her shelter.
Shalini, the 30-year-old protagonist, understands the high price others have paid for her lack of judgment, telling a story that is framed as the unburdening of her conscience. “I am aware that I am taking no risks by recounting any of this, that, for people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence.”
Her quest takes the time-honoured form of a journey. The strongest figure in Shalini’s life, and in the novel, is her mother: a compelling, incandescent woman with a capacity for casual cruelty, a figure of fascination and fear for the child she calls her “little beast”.
When Shalini is six, a Kashmiri salesman called Bashir Ahmed comes into their lives. He brings stories of the Himalayas and of Kashmir into her mother’s suffocating world in Bangalore, a city far removed from both the long years of conflict in Kashmir, and from its bright, dazzling pull. Abruptly, his visits stop. Returning to her childhood memories, Shalini begins to understand that many mysteries lie hidden in her mother’s spiky relationship with this pedlar of walnuts and shawls.
After her mother’s death, Shalini decides to travel to Kashmir on an impulsive search for Bashir Ahmed; all she has is the name of a village — Kishtwar — and the number of an army brigadier who was a friend of her father’s.
A Far Field can be luminous in outlining a young woman’s struggle to shape her own life, through train and road journeys, by adapting to the hardships and customs of far-flung mountain villages. At the same time, Vijay never loses sight of the fact that Shalini’s innocent recklessness is a liability, for her first hosts and for Bashir Ahmed’s family when she finds her way to them.
“People like you don’t have friends in Kashmiri villages,” a soldier tells her. “Only journalists and human rights people come to places like this. So tell me, what story are you searching for?”
The ordinary lives, humiliations and brief joys of Kashmiris — those who live there through killings, disappearances, searches and curfews — become vivid because Shalini is such an outsider. But what she’s searching for is an indulgence, and the people she places in peril, who call her Murgi — a clueless chicken — can see that, even if she can’t.
One of Vijay’s gifts is that she can make us feel for a protagonist who knows so little, yet yearns so deeply for something beyond her cushioned life: “I had chosen this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty, and even thought I was not yet worthy, even thought I would never belong, I would not leave. I would stay and try.”
Shalini’s quest to understand her mother’s life makes for a remarkable story, and Vijay is likely to be a talent to watch. But the most compelling stories here are not Shalini’s to fully tell. She can witness, and partly share, but not inhabit the lives of Bashir Ahmed and others. For all its sincerity, A Far Field is marked by these gaps and silences.
The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay, Grove Press, RRP£14.99/Atlantic, RRP$17, 448 pages
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