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‘It began from a kernel of rage’: Madhuri Vijay

  • Pushcart winner Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel is an ambitious doorstopper set between Bengaluru and Kashmir
  • In this interview, she speaks about the challenges of writing unlikeable women and facing pushback from publishers

Death and disappearance dot Madhuri Vijay’s new novel.
Death and disappearance dot Madhuri Vijay’s new novel.

First came a short story in 2010—about a mother, a daughter and a Kashmiri man. Following it, the writer—Pushcart Prize-winner, Bengaluru-born Madhuri Vijay—was moved to write a “novel about Kashmir". After years of work, and editing and publishing hurdles, her doorstopper of a debut, The Far Field, is out in India in July.

Death and disappearance, dangerous choices and devastating personal and political epiphanies drive this powerful story, which has been praised by writers like Pankaj Mishra and Nikesh Shukla. In an email interview, Vijay spoke to Lounge about her own journey as a writer, her “mirrored book", and her protagonist’s experience as a solo female traveller. Edited excerpts:

Early on, your narrator Shalini says her urge to speak has “turned into something else, something with sharper edges". Her mother never told stories. The other key character, Bashir Ahmed, told too many. Why do you tell stories? What made you tell this story?

The short and unsatisfying answer, I am afraid, is that I don’t know. Writing, for me, is one of those impulses that doesn’t hold up under questioning. I suspect it’s because there’s no logic whatsoever to it. I write because I can’t not write, because nothing in my life entices, frightens and thrills me in quite the same way. As for this story, it began as all my stories do—from a kernel of rage.

At 400-odd pages, this is arguably a long book. Can you talk about plotting (a circular story), spatial and temporal shifts, and your characters’ moments of crises? Did you give yourself signposts? Was there an itinerary, or was it more impulsive?

In the first draft, I put Shalini on a train to Jammu, and all I knew was that I would keep writing until she came back home to Bengaluru. It was the broadest of trajectories, but it helped me keep the end in sight. All the other structural aspects—flashbacks, temporal shifts, moments of crisis, set pieces—arrived in much later drafts. It also became clear at one point that I was writing a mirrored book, with past events imitating and warping those in the present. I could not have decided such a thing in advance—the structure emerged as a necessary consequence of the characters.

What was it like to write ‘The Far Field’ in real time, when the political situation has got worse?

I cannot deny it has been a strange experience. My book is set firmly in the past—first in the 1990s, then in the mid-noughties—so I had the benefit of hindsight, but every time Kashmir exploded (after Burhan Wani’s death, say, or after Uri or Pulwama), I could see the attitudes I describe in the book being played out around me. These attitudes are not new, of course, but they certainly seem more prone to being publicly expressed these days.

‘The Far Field’ was first released in the US. I understand you faced a pushback from Indian publishing precisely because it’s a novel about Kashmir. Can you talk about this strategic silencing—editing—of stories? What is the role of the (Indian) writer today?

First of all, let me say I have great sympathy for those working in Indian publishing today; it’s not an easy job and must require a delicate balancing act. The pushback wasn’t confined to the Kashmir issue. One striking example was when an editor told me it was highly unrealistic for Shalini, a girl from Bengaluru, to speak Hindi, since all schools in Bengaluru teach Sanskrit (I wish someone would tell me what to make of this bizarre and patronizing assertion, since I am a girl from Bengaluru and I had more than 10 years of Hindi in school).

What the whole experience taught me is that it is dangerous to have a homogenous publishing industry centred in a single place, whether it be Delhi or New York or London. The risk then is that the people who populate that industry only look to publish books that confirm their own assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes, which serves nobody, least of all readers. And the writer’s role in this whole fiasco? I wish I had the answer. Perhaps it is just to write as passionately as you are able to, and then to be as stubborn as you can afford to.

Politics aside, this is a book about a mother-daughter relationship. Shalini can be called an “unlikeable" female protagonist. She is also a female traveller, journeying the length of India and into Kashmir. Unlikeable women in fiction are still unpopular. Solo travel is still very much gendered (on and off the page).

The fact that Shalini is a woman travelling alone to a place like Kashmir affects every page of the novel—how she moves through public places, the seat she chooses on a bus, the way she talks to other people, the way she is received by them. I have been travelling alone across India since I was a teenager, and I know that an odd, defensive passivity sets in after a while. If Shalini hadn’t been a woman, I don’t think Saleem would have arranged for her to go up to the village. He would have let her go on her way, and the entire novel would have collapsed right there. The importance of her being a solo female traveller cannot be overstated.

The matter of her so-called unlikeability is slightly different. I am not surprised by how many readers despise Shalini and I am fairly sure she wouldn’t be either. After all, she warns you on the first page that you will come to know exactly what she is and what she has done.

To my mind, there is courage in such a merciless representation of one’s own character. What I find disturbing, however, is that readers seem to judge her far more harshly than they do the brigadier—as if his actions are ordinary and acceptable, yet hers are deserving of condemnation. It is a chilling idea, yet perfectly in accordance with the differing standards to which men and women—real and fictional—are held.

Sana Goyal is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, researching African literature.

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