One of the things Madhuri Vijay’s protagonist, Shalini, does perpetually in The Far Field is eat. She eats a lot of food, in various situations, with a revolving cast of fellow eaters. She eats rice, chicken, vegetables, pakodas, parathas, biscuits, and she drinks chai, lots of sweet chai.
Many a day in her life up in the mountains of Kishtwar, Kashmir is spent looking forward to the structuring quality of the three staple meals, she admits openly that all she wants to do is spend her days having tea and eating dinner with her hosts. In one particularly stunning and comical instance, she is given the news that the whereabouts of the man she travelled a thousand kilometres to meet have been found, and she immediately articulates the stab of regret she’s feeling, because her routine of boiled eggs and sweet chai will no longer exist, and the hardened but kind faces who bring them to her will no longer urge her to have, and then have some more.
The reason I mention Shalini’s food habits and their rather enjoyable presence throughout the novel is because a parallel stands out to me: the unabashed, welcoming way Shalini treats her food is the same way she treats her politics. Even going beyond her anticipation of it, it’s her recognition of its necessity, her constant acknowledgement of how unavoidable it is. You cannot circumvent food, and you cannot circumvent politics.
At the same time, being a newcomer, a foreigner, mostly tactful but occasionally clumsy, Shalini is most understandably disposed to being a recipient – both of the food being heaped on her plate, and of the political trouble heaping up in the hills around her. Eventually, as she does with the food, she will grow to rely on the fact of Kishtwar (and thereby on its politics) to structure her day, her days, her life – a mistake, by all means. So far as the imposed passivity is concerned: she is not unaware of it. Rather, it forms part of the helplessness that helps her narrate her story in the first place.
Even in her powerlessness, in the absence of affirmation and graspable support, high up in the mountains of Kashmir, Shalini shows us that given the right frame and the right impetus, there is no such thing as detachment. As a wonderful example of the personal melding into the political, but also as a stunning display of writing skills, Shalini’s story – which is to say, Madhuri Vijay’s novel – is just not to be missed.
Politics is never off-limits
I’m currently reading literature in German for my Master’s degree and we have a fairly engaging elective on post-reunification literature. A part of this involves reading Thomas Brussig’s small but capacious novel Helden Wie Wir, translated into English as Heroes Like Us. The founding, grounding claim of its protagonist Klaus is that the fall of the Berlin Wall was caused by his penis, a claim he explains to a New York Times journalist on a tape recorder.
Brussig’s novel has, thematically and tonally, very little in common with Vijay’s debut. But one underlying layer of foundation boosts both works: the personal entering messily, clumsily, loudly, and unapologetically the arena of the political. Both Brussig’s novel about the absurd tale of an isolated man with a past as a Stasi employee and Vijay’s novel about a privileged woman beholding a violent present bring us face-to-face with what we very often dismiss as improbable, if not impossible: that something we have been taught our entire lives to denote, delimit, and define – namely, politics – can enter spaces we thought were off-limits, impermeable, and most certainly not “out there.”
I did not read The Far Field with the objective of reviewing it. Antsy with praise that I wished to convey directly to Madhuri Vijay herself, I found an account on Facebook matching her face and name, and promptly sent a message. In it, I thanked her for having written the novel, not because it was timely, but because it was fabulous. I felt limiting the novel’s wonderful potential to the current moment of turmoil we find ourselves in would have been precisely that: limiting.
A little naively, I thought making so explicit and honest a connection of the novel’s sensibility with the nation’s vividly misguided political decisions would somehow take away from its beauty. Despite all of my education and preparation for something like this, I made the mistake of thinking that wielding the novel would be a mistake. In spite of myself, I failed to look the novel’s politics in the eye. It’s a fairly easy injunction to fling around, that all writing is political, that the personal is political. But for a country as swaddled in conservatism as ours, it always requires a second glance, and a third, and a fourth, until we’re finally able to examine our innermost faults as readers, thinkers, citizens, people.
Nearness from humanity
So what really happens in the novel? Shalini speaks to us, at age 30, of events that transpired six years ago. It cannot be said that these were things that happened to her, for she always remains an observer, a witness, a crucial step apart, ahead, behind. She is six or seven when she, along with her mother, first meets a travelling salesman named Bashir Ahmed. He comes from a place called Kishtwar in Kashmir and sells exquisite clothes whose captivating, foreign, bundled-up presence – along with the enigma that is Bashir Ahmed himself – soon fills up the Shalini’s Bangalorean living room, then her mind, and then her life.
Speaking of enigmas, our protagonist’s mother herself is quite the unreadable letter – at least so far as our protagonist is concerned. Hungry for her mother’s love, little Shalini overloads her own shoulders with a slew of assignments: she desires to find out more about the salesman’s origins, she strives to contain his charm so that it doesn’t set fire to her parents’ marriage, she tries to read into and then erase what she thinks her mother feels for this salesman, and ultimately, as an adult, with her mother dead and Bashir Ahmed gone she doesn’t know where, she travels to Kashmir and persuades his family to let her in.
Her hopes are always set up in defence of those she loves: as a child, that meant her immediate, biological family, in a Bangalore that offered itself up to her with indifferent ease. As an adult, it comes to mean Bashir Ahmed’s family, immediate and biological towards her in its own way, in a Kishtwar that is all too conscious, wary, and yet welcoming.
Part of the novel’s nearness comes from its humanity – like any other work committed to paper, it cannot be help but be located, be prone to location. And that in itself has the possibility of charm and humour. But the novel’s intelligence shows in that its human faces show, are shown.
This brings me back yet again to post-reunification narratives about East Germany – one of the most crucial narratives left out by the media is, as it was back then, the fact that there are still people living – or at least trying to live – their lives, in more or less the same manner anyone might: a life made up, but also built, out of sunrises and sunsets, food and water, friends and arguments, groceries and errands, money and its impending shortage, and then some more sunrises and sunsets.
The first thing that does is collapse the us-and-them divide. The second thing it does is make us see that all of it – sunrises, arguments, water, money – is political. Politics, history, gender...beheld up close, they stop being the terms they are, they stop dictating their age-old conditions. They become faces, examples, dialogues, anecdotes.
When you see Shalini rising every morning, eating her breakfast, helping clear up, walking a little boy to school, clambering over rocks, visiting her neighbours, eating lunch, helping clear up, taking a nap, having her tea, standing on a verandah, sitting by a window, getting lost in the woods, eating her dinner, helping clear up – you are given a picture of an idyll, yes, a refuge, a temporary phase that Shalini inhabits. But the people around her who do all these things too, who clamber over rocks and clear up after breakfast – they lend it the sense, the unshifting weight of reality that Shalini herself craves.
It’s this craving that pits Shalini as a fantastical figure against the stark (and “stark” in German means strong) reality of Kishtwar and its inhabitants. It’s how sincerely and passionately she loves their mundanity that makes her go too far, committing an unforeseen error in the process. Even as she witnesses army personnel conducting arbitrary checks and panchayat meetings turning into bitter reminders, she cannot help but leave behind on every page the overwhelming relief she feels at being a part of this reality in the mountains of Kashmir instead of that other sky-scraping reality, Bangalore –the real reality, one might quickly add.
It is, of course, Kashmir and Kishtwar and its inhabitants that fill authentically the shoes of the other. And Shalini tries just as sincerely and passionately to destroy this fact, make Kishtwar her own, let Kishtwar own her. We’re left rooting for her plan, devoid though it is of all feasibility. And when it fails, and Shalini is left only with the hurt she has caused others, we’re left in turn with that crucial sympathy we feel for people who remind us of ourselves.
There are many reasons to appreciate this novel. Its timeliness is only one of them. It could be taught in a creative writing class as a contemporary text; it would readily accommodate an aspiring writer’s underlinings as well as a professor-critic’s side notes. It could stand right at the top of a list of books about India, potential tourists could read it and refine, if they had them, their views about the perceived harmony of India’s diversity.
Like Brussig’s breakthrough novel, The Far Field very enjoyably calls for revisiting and remarking – not just because it is unapologetic about its gaze on politics and through it on history, but because it is equally vocal in calling upon us to do the same, to stare down all the reductive, redactive forces – forces that were eventually done away with in Germany, forces that are currently on a foreclosing rampage in India.
The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, HarperCollins India.