At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery, –
One learned of the eternal;

And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found in lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman. 

— Theodore Roethke, “The Far Field”

For many readers growing up with the figure of the avuncular kabuliwala, immortalised in Rabindranath Tagore’s short story of a poignant friendship between a little girl and a formidable yet tender travelling salesman from a faraway land, the premise of Madhuri Vijay’s JCB Prize for Literature winner, The Far Field, will resonate with heartwarming familiarity.

What would happen if Mini, the child in Tagore’s story were to grow up and attempt to retrace the kabuliwala’s journey, reaching into the remote heart of his distant, embattled village, to unravel shocking, catastrophic secrets about her friend that would shatter the innocence of memory and transform the mature Mini’s understanding of the world irrevocably?

This is in a crude outline, the narrative trajectory of Vijay’s provocative tale: the afterlife of a childhood friendship as containing the undisclosed talismanic key to a search that will lead the seeker into a labyrinthine landscape of personal and political discovery, a tale at once bold and restrained, searing without being sensational, ambitious without faltering in its commitment to tackle such heavyweight issues as insurgency and military intervention in Kashmir, depression, suicide, and intergenerational conflict.

Urban anomie

There is more in common to Shalini, the 30-year-old protagonist of Vijay’s novel, and her mother when she was Shalini’s age, than she realises as she returns to her home in Bangalore at the end of her college term and settles, as if in a trance, into the rigmarole of a banal internship that involves staring at an open drain and squelching flies, aimless wanderings through the city between drunken parties, and lacklustre weekends of dope and rock and roll at a close friend’s studio.

Vijay is brilliant in capturing the anomie born of deep loneliness and repressed, raw emotions that is both Shalini’s individual burden following her mother’s suicide, and a remarkably familiar affective condition shared by her generation of 30-somethings thrown into a twisted, atrophied world at the deep end. Feeling restless at home with her well-meaning but emotionally unavailable father, and haunted by the memory of a brief but intense period during her childhood that bubbles to the surface when Shalini discovers a crudely cut wooden toy in her mother’s cupboard, she sets off on what seems like a reckless adventure, to find the man who holds the secret to a version of her mother that only emerged in his company.

Shalini’s quest is ostensibly informed by nostalgia and a wish to reanimate her mother by fleshing out her story and battling her untimely, sudden disappearance by turning her life into an object of inquiry and representation.

But it is also subliminally motivated by a desire to decode her mother’s overlooked and misinterpreted psychological complexity, her inarticulate desires and rancour, her sometimes acerbic, often humorous and wildly imaginative take on questions of love, freedom, and choice, that no one bothers to ask her about because she represents the much stereotyped figure of obsolescence and fun: The middle class housewife and stay-at-home mother, her experiences of marriage and motherhood, and ultimately her horrific suicide. In deciphering this aspect of her mother’s past, Shalini ultimately hopes to reconstruct and reclaim her own history and find a sense of purpose.

Stripping of notions

Shalini’s journey to Kishtwar, a small village in Kashmir, exposes her to a complex and fraught world of disappeared loved ones, suspicion and betrayal, and a transformed landscape marked by fear and seething violence. The guest house that Shalini occupies is in fact more of a waiting room, a house in which a community of strangers united by a common loss gather to hold space, grieve, generate solidarity, organise support and help.

Vijay’s depiction of Zoya’s quiet but vital presence in cementing the resilient life of this community through her generous hospitality, communal meals, prayer meetings, and countless cups of noon-chai, is warm and unpretentious. Zoya’s stoic exterior and occasional displays of vulnerability alert the reader to her own unspoken personal tragedy. Kishtwar might be the source of a mythical narrative that captured Shalini’s imagination as a child, but it is also an actual place, a troubled geography with a concrete sociopolitical reality.

Vijay’s critique, albeit compassionately advocated, of Shalini’s attempt to become an insider in the world of Abdul Latief and Zoya is also directed at a larger issue of the ethics of engagement with zones of contention and the narratives of atrocity, pain, anxiety, and dehumanisation that they carry.

Shalini tries to straddle the radically disparate worlds of her urban, liberal, privileged upbringing and the rural hamlets of the Kashmir valley with their agrarian ethos and life of hard labour coloured by the spectre of imminent violence, but her attempts are thwarted by the tragic limits of Shalini’s empathy grounded in liberal principles of salvific philanthropy that fails to translate what is anterior to itself without simultaneously running into the danger of fetishising or appropriating it into a larger narcissistic cause.

Even more significant than her stark depiction of the terrors of occupation percolating into the rhythms and habits of everyday life, is Vijay’s elaboration of the ways in which the protagonist of The Far Field is stripped of preconceived notions and assumptions about community, religion, violence, misogyny, the workings of institutional and bureaucratic apparatuses, and love. But Shalini’s rite-of-passage into political and personal awakening is a pyrrhic victory and comes at the cost of compromising the very world to which she seeks to belong.

Cultures and histories

The story is narrated from Shalini’s first person perspective, in the form of a retrospectively recorded testimony. The form of the testimony while preserving the intimate and subjective candour of the autobiographical mode, also creates a distance between Shalini’s partial, somewhat naive, and largely uninformed impressionistic understanding of Bashir Ahmed’s world, and a more mature, nuanced, self-reflexive, and analytical perspective of her retrospective engagement with the valley and its people, their simple yet complicated lives, and the intricate, arbitrary workings of power.

The Far Field, while tracing a difficult narrative of vast political, cultural, and humanitarian import, does not offer easy, totalising, and predictable resolutions. In its commitment to approach the multiple and mutually intersecting strands comprising the novel: An unlikely yet fulfilling companionship between an upper class Bangalore woman and a salesman of exotic handicrafts, the economic and political struggles of his son’s family in remote Kashmir, Riyaz’s desire to escape the fraught horizons of the valley to find better possibilities in the city, the quiet and pragmatic resilience of Amina and Zoya, the foundation of the major general’s military aggression in megalomania and a frustrated toxic masculinity, a young girl’s experience of childhood trauma as she bears witness to her parents’ conflicted relationship, the inner life of an eccentric and imaginative woman forced to dwindle in the company of a workaholic husband and the loneliness of domesticity, Vijay keeps the productive potential of ambiguity alive.

Reading as part travelogue, part political commentary, part autobiography, Vijay’s novel is distinctive in its embedded awareness of the risk of a monolithic narrative. Her descriptions of the rugged lushness of the mountainous landscape of rural Kashmir are spectacular and a welcome departure from iconographic commonplaces of picturesque houseboats or barbed wire roads. The Far Field reminds us of the necessity of weighing in the question of living and breathing individual beings with particular contexts, cultures, emotional histories, and idioms of articulation, before attempting to make of a place a destination or an example.

The Far Field

The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay, HarperCollins India.