Set between Bangalore and a village in Kashmir, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field is a disquieting account of stark, brutal differences between life in the urban mainland and life in a military-controlled zone at the northern tip of the country. The narrator, a thirty-year-old woman named Shalini, begins her story by telling the reader that “…six years ago, a man I knew vanished from his home in the mountains.”
Spanning three decades, the novel maps the events that have led Shalini to the present moment. After the early death of her mother, Shalini travels to Kashmir in search of a friend of her mother’s who she believes holds the answers to questions Shalini has had her whole life. The Far Field explores devastating encounters between naivéte and structural violence, unfulfilled characters and desire, and untreated mental illness and youth.
The novel has been short-listed for the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature and long-listed for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The author spoke to Scroll.in about her time in Kashmir, the writing of The Far Field, unlikeable women characters, the paucity of novels set in Bangalore, and more. Excerpts from the interview.
Would you tell us about the time you spent living and working in Kashmir?
Between 2012 and 2016, I volunteered as a teacher with Haji Public School in the Doda district of Jammu & Kashmir. The school, which is run by Sabbah Haji and her family, has gained a formidable reputation over the years, and for good reason: it is attempting something rare in our education system; it is trying to produce conscientious, principled, well-informed citizens, instead of merely churning out ideal candidates for entrance exams.
The years I spent there were amongst the most stimulating, exhausting and exciting of my life. It forced me to confront my many limitations, as well as the limitations in the average Indian’s knowledge about Kashmir. I was living in the Pahari region of J&K, 250 kilometers from Srinagar, yet Indians kept asking me about “the valley,” as if there were no distinction. I once showed a photo of my nine-year-old student to an older relative; her half-joking response was that he looked “like a little terrorist.” These subtle prejudices, and their accompanying arrogance, were eye-opening to me, not least because they are the precise opposite of what Haji Public School is trying to achieve.
In an interview, you mention that few novels have been set in Bangalore so far compared to the number set in cities like Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi. Would you tell us a little about why you think that might be? I’d also love to hear what Bangalore means to you.
To some degree, there is a self-perpetuating cycle at play here, and it’s not limited to India. The same is true of mythic cities all over the world. An aspiring writer who falls in love with Paris because of Hemingway, or with Bombay because of Manto, is more likely to one day find herself living in Paris or Bombay, working on her own book set in the same location. The mythology of these cities is endless, and it is reinforced with every book.
I’ll admit it was the same for me for a long time. I’d read and loved so much of Bombay literature – Baumgartner’s Bombay, A Fine Balance, Manto’s stories, Maximum City – that by the time I began thinking of writing a novel, I’d convinced myself it had to be set at least partly in Bombay. This despite the fact I’d never laid eyes on the city. Bangalore didn’t seem romantic enough for my purposes: Commercial Street wasn’t as iconic as Colaba; MTR wasn’t as sexy as an Irani café. I even made a special trip to Mumbai to scout for locations, as it were.
Of course, this was a supremely flawed strategy, and I finally had to admit to myself that what made all these books great was not that they were set in Bombay, but that they were full of complex ideas and difficult characters. It was a much-needed lesson. As for what Bangalore means to me, it is, quite simply, home.
I am curious to understand where the inspiration for Shalini’s mother comes from. There are so many facets to her personality.
Shalini’s mother was constructed, like all the characters in the novel, through a gradual process of trial-and-error, as well as an obedience to the developing internal logic of the story. The further I got into the writing, and later on the editing, the clearer it became that that she needed to be sculpted a certain way – her acid viciousness, and unpredictability were not mere quirks, but an indispensable part of the puzzle. I had no real-world example in mind when I wrote her; my only allegiance was to the book.
Did you always know you’d write the novel with Shalini as the narrator?
No, actually, I didn’t. For a long time, I worked on an entirely different novel, one in which Shalini didn’t exist. It was terrible for a number of reasons, the foremost being that I was bored by the characters, all of whom were sweet and relatable and only marginally prickly. At some point, I realised I’d rather gouge my eyes out than battle my way through yet another tepid scene full of these tediously likeable characters, so I finally gave up and pronounced the thing dead. Some months later, Shalini’s voice arrived in in my head, and as I began to write, I found her to be a character who refused to reveal herself easily. She would instead thwart and frustrate and hide, and that was far more exciting to me.
How long were you working on the novel? What were some of the questions you grappled with as you worked on the book?
From start to publication, the novel took six years, and the questions changed from draft to draft. A few of them: What does it mean to love or belong to a place, and can you claim to love a place whose history you do not share? What happens when a parent casts a huge shadow over a child’s life? How do people in cities think about the farthest reaches of their own country, if they think about it at all? What is it like to be an urban woman travelling alone in rural India? Can the desire to abandon one life and enter another ever become dangerous? What are the different forms that power and privilege take – in a conflict zone, in a family, in a sexual relationship, between strangers? To what degree are each of us implicated in the actions – good and bad – of our respective nations?
You’ve discussed the way readers have criticised Shalini more harshly than male characters in the novel who have inflicted far more pain. Would you talk a little about why unlikable women characters provoke stronger judgment than male ones?
It doesn’t surprise me that some readers have reacted to Shalini with hostility, and it wouldn’t surprise her either. After all, she admits on the very first page that she has done a terrible thing and that she is fully beyond redemption. Once a person has arrived at such brutal self-knowledge, the derision of others is redundant, isn’t it? More worrying to me is the growing demand readers seem to be making for likability (or its equally egregious cousins, relatability and – worst of all – growth) in fictional characters. It strikes me as an oddly juvenile way to approach literature – or art of any kind, for that matter.
And, as you rightly point out, the largest crimes in the book don’t belong to Shalini, but to the various men around her. Yet none of them provokes the same kind of hostility. What does it mean? I’m afraid it means the same old thing it always has: Women are expected to be more generous, intuitive, compassionate and chaste than men. And when they fail or refuse to conform, they’re punished.
The novel has been short-listed for the JCB Prize as well as long-listed for the DSC Prize. What has that meant to you?
It has meant more than I can possibly explain. All I wanted, during the course of writing the novel, was to see it published and read in India, and so to have had the additional recognition from the JCB and DSC prizes feels like an embarrassment of riches.
What are you currently working on?
A second novel.