Winner of the JCB Prize for Literature 2019, The Far Field is a remarkable debut novel by Madhuri Vijay. I was particularly keen to read this book as it is set in Kashmir. Inspite of this being her debut book, the author Madhuri Vijay wins over the readers with beautiful narration. It feels almost lyrical and yet simple enough for even the beginners to enjoy the story.
The Far Field follows the story of Shalini, a privileged young woman living in Bangalore who is grieving after her mother’s death. She remembers a charming salesman – Bashir Ahmed – who used to frequent her home when she was a child. His infrequent and unannounced visits used to fill their home with laughter and fables and life. Then one day Bashir disappears from their lives, and never returns. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir, Shalini is determined to confront him. And so she journeys from her comfortable home in urban Bangalore to a remote mountain village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Shalini is finally able to find Bashir’s family but she finds herself entangled in the tragic past of the family. As she seeks to unravel the events leading to her mother’s death, she makes some terrible choices which could destroy the very people she has come to love.
With beautiful and elegant prose, the author remarkably invokes the sights and sounds of each locale in vivid detail. Be it the bustling streets of Bangalore, the tense atmosphere in Kishtwar or a small, remote mountainous village with spectacular views- all are brought to life with author’s attention to detail. The setting in Kashmir and its inherent political strife & tensions catalyze the events and bring the readers face to face with the grim realities of the terrorist-hit Kashmir.
If I talk about the characters, I didn’t like neither Shalini nor her mother. Shalini’s mother is rude, audacious, selfish and erratic who lives in her own cocoon. Though she loves her daughter but isn’t bothered how her unpredictable behaviour is affecting the little girl. Shalini also seems a bit psychologically imbalanced, selfish and immature whose hasty decisions have disastrous consequences. Almost every character in the book be it Shalini, her mother, Riyaz, Khadiza Begum or Zoya seem to be emotionally distant and this makes the book a chilly read. I can understand why Kashmiri characters were portrayed this way. Their outward reserve and wariness of the outsiders could be attributed to their living in an area marked by decades-long conflicts and violence. The only character which really stands out is the vivacious Amina, a Kashmiri villager whose hospitality towards Shalini spells doom for her family.
Shalini’s journey is a coming of age story- the story of a woman searching for personal identity in a place caught up in political turmoil. The author has done a marvelous job of developing her characters and creating ambience and atmosphere. The novel is at its best while describing the beauty and loss in Kashmir. The sections that focus on Shalini’s time in Kishtwar and the remote mountain village in Kashmir are the best in the book.
This is indeed an astonishing debut. Madhuri Vijay’s narration is gorgeous and evocative. Her theme is intriguing and setting epic. The characters are complex and multilayered with complicated histories. The writing is extremely powerful. The only this that I didn’t like about the book is the way army has been negatively portrayed. There are always two sides of a coin. The author has beautifully brought out the pain and anguish of Kashmiri people but in the process, she has branded the army as villain which is not fair.
This is the kind of book that unknowingly creeps up on you and stays. The end is quite chilling and comes as quite a shock. It’s a slow novel but has lots to offer. This is a coming of age and complicated family drama set against the backdrop of Kashmir conflict. This story of grief, loss, love and betrayal is profound and heartbreaking. It’s hard to believe that this is debut novel. A must read!
Title: The Far Field
Author: Madhuri Vijay
Genres: Political fiction
Originally published: 15 January 2019 by Grove Press
Page Count: 432