The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay was a tremendous read. Fascinating, absorbing and eye-opening.
I say eye-opening, because even though I’ve read a lot of Indian literature over the years, I don’t believe I’ve read many that cover the conflict in Kashmir. Vijay doesn’t answer all the questions or provide all the answers, she doesn’t even fill in all the blanks, yet somehow this seems like a much truer, more accurate rendering of this constantly shifting, long-ranging, complex conflict. How these things started, who is right or wrong, who did what to who, all get lost in the murky details of history.
The job of historical fiction is to create dialogue between the basic facts (dates, places, names) and interpretation and to give them both meaning and a human face. Historical fiction adds possibility – in the details, the moods, the conversations, the interactions, the daily routines – all that ordinary stuff of our regular lives that usually gets lost in the columns of historical facts.
Vijay has given us one such story, one such possibility, set in and around a small town in Kashmir.
Shalini is from Bangalore but when her mother dies suddenly, the grief she is left with feels like too heavy a burden. So she takes off to Kishtwar, in Kashmir, in an attempt to find the charming travelling salesman that used to visit their home regularly when she was a child.
Bashir Ahmed not only charmed Shalini, but also her mother. A long distance, long-term flirtation existed between them. Ahmed’s back story is filled in gradually via snippets of memory and conversation as the southern Indian view of the the conflict in the north is challenged by their friendship with him.
During her time in Kashmir as a grieving adult, Shalini is confronted by a whole region in the grip of grieving. Although the backdrop is war and political unrest, the story is deeply personal.
Shalini is not the most likeable character I’ve ever read. She’s rather spoilt, selfish and naive. However, the journey she goes on, both physical and emotional is compelling stuff, and I for one, could barely put this book down.
Something else is yet to happen, only where and what?
Someone will head towards them, only when and who,
in how many shapes and with what intentions?
Given a choice,
maybe he will choose not to be the enemy and
leave them with some kind of life.
A poem by Wislawa Szymborska, “Some People”
I unearthed the entire poem and found two rather different translations that I discussed in this previous post. Given it was very easy to find both translations, I’m curious why Vijay (or her editors) chose the less satisfying (to me) and less grittier version of the poem?
Either way, it highlights the elusive, changing nature of conflict and historical truth.
- Longlisted JCB Prize for Literature 2019
- Madhuri Vijay was born and raised in Bengaluru.
- She now lives in Hawaii where she is a teacher.