A friend of Shalini’s father, he makes a sudden appearance at the end and has unexpected, perhaps unwarranted, sex with her before betraying her.
The idea of a journey to a distant, nearly impossible, land is central to literature. A journey that as much unravels as it eventually complicates the life of the protagonist in the garb of offering a resolution ends up with greater questions.
Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel The Far Field, which has received the JCB Prize for Literature and is also shortlisted for the DSC Prize, charts the journey of the narrator Shalini, who at the age of 24, sets out to trace a Kashmiri cloth-seller Bashir Ahmed. Bashir regularly visited her Bangalore home when she was a child and became close friends with her mother. An anticipation of a romance between the two lurked around. He “arrived without warning and plucked her away”, yet, Shalini was convinced that “she never touched him”.
Her mother is now dead, a suicide, incidentally, in the guest room of their home. Shalini has lost her job and to lend some meaning to her life, she places herself in the militancy-torn mountains of Kashmir. She doesn’t know Bashir’s address, but chasing the threads of a tale he had narrated long ago at their Bengaluru home she manages to reach his family. In a way, she follows the threads of her own life.
“I am thirty years old and that is nothing.” The novel opens with this sentence, as she begins recollecting her life and betrayals, juxtaposing the events in Kashmir with the turmoil in her family. A mother who followed little social norms, who was “tugged along by the mysterious and unknowable currents of her mind”; a pragmatic businessman father unable to address the family crisis. The narrative moves in alternate episodes, Bengaluru and Kashmir, before it firmly places itself in militancy.
It speaks about the maturity of the novel that as it details the sorrow of Kashmiris caught between the Indian army and militants, it doesn’t attempt to offer any sympathy or solution. The author leaves the characters confronting their choices. Bashir’s tragedy could also be attributed to the choices he had made.
But the bigger question is: Can a crisis as complex as Kashmir be portrayed through the eyes of a rank outsider, apparently ignorant about the issue, without compromising the narrative’s authenticity? The novel skillfully crosses this path. Conscious of bearing an outsider’s gaze, it delivers a comment on ‘mainland’ Indians who refuse to understand Kashmir. In a well-crafted sequence, Shalini’s father throws a party to introduce Bashir to his friends, where he is expected to be paraded as an exotica and narrate that while “the militants were causing trouble” in Kashmir, “the army was keeping them in order”.
It remains convincing in most parts except the brigadier’s episode. A friend of Shalini’s father, he makes a sudden appearance at the end and has unexpected, perhaps unwarranted, sex with her before betraying her. Considering that the novel’s climax and her return journey to Bengaluru is predicated upon the brigadier, this section, in its sudden twists, doesn’t square with the conviction seen in other parts.
What equally doesn’t work well is the good amount of flab the narrative carries on its skin; many passages could have been easily trimmed. It nevertheless remains engaging. Its simplicity, which at first appears unflattering and unassuming, gradually makes a home. One ignores the plain realistic narrative, devoid of any stylistic devices or innovations as one expects of a novel, and accepts the work for its intrinsic merit.
It is a deeply political novel without attempting to indulge in rhetoric. Except for a few instances like when Shalini screams at the brigadier who has fraudulently arrested Bashir’s son Riyaz, the novel reveals itself in nuances and undertones. If subtlety is an artistic merit, The Far Field is superior to the other recent Kashmir novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Nothing out of the ordinary, it nevertheless is a genuine debut.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist