No freedom from guilt

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 9 November 2019

THE FAR FIELD
Author: Madhuri Vijay
Publisher: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 599

Ours is a story of cowardice — Shalini says this of her and her father. This comes towards the end of Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field. It doesn’t come as a surprise, because right in the beginning, Shalini tells us, Six years ago, a man I knew vanished from his home in the mountains. He vanished in part because of me, because of certain things I said, but also things I did not have, until now, the courage to say. 

Thus the story begins, written in beautiful, haunting, poetic words. Words that you want to read over and over again, to touch, to caress and to whisper. At its heart, The Far Field is full of metaphors, sometimes subtly, but mostly overtly political. For the story is set in Kashmir. That alone is enough to grab everyone’s attention. 

In the early days of August and September, a debate raged in the Indian union, over Jammu and Kashmir, after the special status via Article 370 that was accorded to the region was abrogated. But for all the passionate debates, how many of us know where Kishtwar is? You would have to google it, right? 

And so does Shalini. After her mother dies, she browses through her almost empty cupboard and comes across a toy. It takes her back to the ‘long afternoon shadows’ when her mother would entertain a Kashmiri salesman, Bashir Ahmed at their Bengaluru home. Bashir, the master storyteller, was something more for Shalini and her mother. There were certain undercurrents which Shalini sensed, but kept bottled inside. As the situation in J&K goes from bad to worse in the ’90s, Bashir goes back home and never returns. After an interlude of 10-11 years, Shalini goes back to look him up, finding about his village through a story he had told them about Shah Baghdadi. She googles and then learns that the place is Kishtwar, which has had a relationship with the militants. 

The beauty of Kashmir, described as ‘paradise’ acquires a different tone in The Far Field. You visualise the beauty, but you also sense helplessness, anger, fear, betrayal cradled by Shalini’s friends – Zoya and Abdul Latief. On the opposite side is the Indian Army and during her stay there, Shalini encounters a jawan called Stalin, a Subedar, another young soldier and Brigadier Reddy. Their duty, loneliness, their sense of right and wrong, orders and excesses — all these make The Far Field a very complex page turner. What is very clear though is that the privileged Shalini and her acts (all done with good intention) do not make her a very likeable character. Shalini knows it. That’s why the disclaimer at the beginning. 

A 432-page novel, it is filled with characters, Kashmir being the protagonist and her people like Bashir, Zoya, Abdul Latief, Riyaz, Amina, Khadijah and Aaquib making the supporting cast. Shalini is that blundering, do-gooder who often makes headlines. 

Last week, Madhuri Vijay received ‘The JCB Prize for Literature’ for her debut work. It is well-deserved for its elegant, prose writing on conflict, fractured familial relations, and that primal desire to escape and find oneself.

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