NEW YORK – Imagine a gentle Kashmir that welcomes Indian nationals, read Hindus, with traditional hospitality. Where native, conservative Muslim residents open up generously their home and hearth, bare life-threatening, convoluted secrets and conspiracies to a complete stranger with innocuous ease; a young woman in her early twenties who flits in and out at her will dressed in cosmopolitan attire, of jeans and tops, from town to rural countryside infested with militants and soldiers, with almost gay abandon. Gets a job offer as a teacher in a rural community within days; tinkers with the possibility of settling down in a village nestled between mountains.
If you can get past some of those sheer incongruities, or nascent possibilities – as you may have it, then Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel ‘The Far Field’ (Grove Atlantic, $27, 432 pages; hardcover) is a charming read, with enough pace, vibrant characters, and plot twists to make it riveting till the end.
In particular, the narrator Shalini’s mother is the kind of willful, eccentric character who can carry a book on her own. Her persona of a Bangalore-based Tamilian woman with scathing sarcasm and unfamiliar wit, is startling. At times, one doesn’t know whether to cringe or to delight in her acerbic ways and complex personality. Think of a tall, stern looking woman whose only seeming purpose and goal in life is to speak banal, ugly truth with a single, cutting dialogue, to make the world wilt. You might get the picture.
The mere mention of Kashmir is a volatile and emotional subject for not just residents of that state, but for all of India (forget the Pakistanis, who become combustible). Perfunctory remarks of its stunning beauty apart – best encapsulated by Mughal Emperor Jehangir who declared headily in the 17th century, “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here” – there’s always the queasy feeling that this is a state which most Indians who reside outside of it, know little of. Bar Indian soldiers posted there for long.
Jingoism apart, Kashmir is that piece of heaven and hell which many tourists get only a glimpse of, then are happy to be back home alive. When they read of a bomb or gun attack that leaves scores maimed and killed, at a place they visited and took family photos, it only adds to their mixed feelings and doubts. Questions abound, many left answered, perhaps for posterity. The least of which may be: why do most Kashmiris consider people from all over India as foreigners, even though the state is a part of India?
Fiction on Kashmir and its struggle with militancy and military might has been pouring in over the years, but it’s remarkable for two debut works to come within a year from two US-based Indian-origin writers. Before Vijay, who is now based in Hawaii, there was the remarkable collection of short stories, ‘The Night of Broken Glass’ by Feroz Rather (HarperCollins), a Florida-based writer. Rather’s book was released only in India, though.
While Rather’s work painted unsparingly the raw side of the impositions on Kashmiris, and their depleted lives, Vijay’s work has a quasi-dream-like feeling to it. Both writers have a highly evocative style of writing, with meticulous, poetic attention to detail.
In ‘The Far Field’, the narrator Shalini, at the beginning of the novel is a 30 year-old single woman in Bangalore. She’s jaded, resigned to her innocuous routine – which includes weekly drinks and dinner with her widower father, an entrepreneur.
Shalini, an only child, narrates her eventful life, the death of her mother. And of an earlier tumultuous life, when a handsome man from Kashmir, Bashir Ahmed, who went from house to house selling clothes to sustain himself and his impoverished family back home, one day came to their house, and became close to her mother.
The recounting of Bashir Ahmed’s preposterous advent into Shalini’s household is likely inspired from Tagore’s arguably greatest short story ‘Kabuliwalah’, but in a perverse, neurotic manner. Vijay even introduces a time when Ahmed gives Shalini as a child some dry fruit, like Tagore’s Kabuliwalah.
Shalini’s mother seemingly falls in love with Ahmed, who has myriad secrets of his own. Her household’s grip on life crumbles suddenly one day after Ahmed disappears, goes back to Kashmir.
A decade later, after her mother’s untimely death, Shalini takes the momentous decision to go to Kashmir to search for Ahmed, the man who upended her and her parents’ lives.
Vijay’s incisive, lyrical prose at times never veers from uncanny attention to detail. She builds up characters and situations like a virtuoso, reins in climaxes, before springing a surprise, makes readers feel they suddenly stepped into a quagmire.
‘The Far Field’ is well worth a read. Just don’t read too much of Kashmir in it.