‘The Far Field’: Forever bystanders

The Far Field is a work of monumental scope, and yet, Vijay treats the personal as delicately as she does the political

‘The Far Field’: Forever bystanders
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Percy Bharucha

Madhuri Vijay’s stunning debut, The Far Field, begins in tragedy. A tragedy that is very much of our own making. Born from the impatience of remaining a bystander far too often and for far too long; from the passivity and listlessness of youth and the insularity that often accompanies prosperity.

It is from this haze of idleness that the protagonist, Shalini, emerges and finds her will to act – to be decisive. Her actions acquire unforeseen and fatal repercussions that remain her cross to bear for life. Her well-meaning intentions are undone by her obliviousness as an outsider. In the end Shalini and Bashir Ahmed, the one she seeks, end up nursing a common wound. In his words, “Allah was keeping me alive, beti. Allah wanted me alive so that I would never forget what I was.”

Madhuri Vijay’s stunning debut, The Far Field, begins in tragedy. A tragedy that is very much of our own making. Born from the impatience of remaining a bystander far too often and for far too long; from the passivity and listlessness of youth and the insularity that often accompanies prosperity.

It is from this haze of idleness that the protagonist, Shalini, emerges and finds her will to act – to be decisive. Her actions acquire unforeseen and fatal repercussions that remain her cross to bear for life. Her well-meaning intentions are undone by her obliviousness as an outsider. In the end Shalini and Bashir Ahmed, the one she seeks, end up nursing a common wound. In his words, “Allah was keeping me alive, beti. Allah wanted me alive so that I would never forget what I was.”

It is in the chronicling of Kashmir that Vijay’s prose truly shines. Without sentiment or indulgence, she presents an intimate portrayal of conflict. She traces the streams where it spills forth from the hills into homes. In the homes of Abdul Latief and Amina, Bashir’s daughter-in-law, Vijay pulls off a singular feat: through mundane household objects, ‘the salmon-coloured sink’, ‘the tiny TV in the corner’, ‘the books with gold-edged pages’, she manages to overcome the baggage that surrounds the word ‘Kashmir’. She surmounts the vast chasm of indifference that lie between the rest of India and Kashmir – a chasm caused by distance and perception – and makes intimate this sealed-off world.

In this intimacy, we learn of Abdul and Zoya’s search for their son, the secret behind the random strangers that halt at their home. In their stories and of those like them, the readers are reminded of their own privileges and the freedom they take for granted. Like Shalini, the reader too gawks in astonishment at the self-censorship the natives employ over both thought and action.

Shalini finally reaches the tiny, enchanted village that Bashir Ahmed spoke of. Stories where the leopards, mysterious saints and chudails have been replaced with gunfire, food scarcities and men who break legs.

In the midst of this chaos, Shalini finds in Amina a sisterhood that she has never known. Here emerges a Shalini that the reader can scarce recognize – one who abandons her life of predictable comfort and security for that of toil and unpredictability. “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.”

We now feel for Shalini, whose reckless naivety has so far been a liability upon those that have taken her in and made her quest their own. Vijay carves her characters with the deftness of a veteran and boldly and unapologetically presents them in their full flawed glory.

The Far Field is a work of monumental scope, and yet, Vijay treats the personal as delicately as she does the political. At the heart of the novel lies the poignant relationship between Shalini and her mother, her reluctant attachment to her father and her deep affection for Zoya and Amina. In a world of shortened attention spans and self-first ideals, Vijay manages the unthinkable. She transports us out of our isolated geographical bubbles and makes accessible a land and people that mostly appear only in highly sanitised forms – in tourism ads or news bulletins.

The Far Field is fiction that is not divorced from reality in any way. For this reason alone, the book comes highly recommended. After her stellar debut, one hopes that Madhuri Vijay will write often and soon.

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