The Kashmir book we all must read
Winner of the JCB Prize for Literature this year, Madhuri Vijay’s ‘The Far Field’ is essential reading to understand the unfolding crisis in Kashmir
In an ideal world, the fate of a book should be decided by its readers, not by a prize. But in reality, with the explosion of new titles on the publishing scene every year and the clamour of opinion on social media, a title that wins a major prize, or is nominated for one, has a better chance of being discovered. To this end, the jury for the second edition of the JCB Prize for Literature, India’s richest prize for fiction, awarding ₹25 lakh to the winner, has done us a service by selecting Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field this year.
For not only is it an exceptional novel, especially considering that it’s the first book by the 32-year-old writer, it also tells a story that the world would do well to read at the moment. It begins in Bengaluru, before moving to a remote village in Jammu and Kashmir. Scarred by violence for decades and no longer a state since last week, Kashmir has been on the minds of Indians for different reasons over the last three months, since the effective revocation of Article 370 of the Constitution robbed it of its special status on 5 August. Yet, whatever your view on the situation in Kashmir, Vijay’s book is going to make you look at the “problem" through a lens that is trained on the hopes and sorrows of ordinary Kashmiris. She isn’t interested in either valorizing or victimizing her characters. Instead, she captures their resilience and dignity, as well as their treacheries and deceptions.
Shalini, the narrator of The Far Field, is a 30-year-old woman, born and reared in Bengaluru, like Vijay herself. Her mother, who could be exasperating, domineering and loving by turns, died when Shalini was 24. Struggling with her grief, Shalini drifts along, barely managing to hold on to a job, aloofly involved with a stoner photographer called Hari. Her life is bankrolled by her father, a successful entrepreneur. Shalini would have been filled with the ennui of the indolent upper classes had not the loss of her mother left her psychologically ravaged, bruised by self-pity, and with a mild affinity for self-destruction.
After being tactfully fired by her employer, Shalini begins to grow restive in Bengaluru. The desultory rhythm of the city begins to weigh her down. So she decides to undertake a reckless journey halfway across the country to Jammu and Kashmir, in search of Bashir Ahmed, a textile salesman from a small village near Kishtwar in the Jammu region. Bashir Ahmed had known Shalini’s mother for many years, and had forged an unusual alliance with her during his visits to Bengaluru, before he walked out of their lives one day, stung by an unsavoury episode.
Shalini’s plunge into the unknown is understandably fraught with risks, though the most palpable sense of danger she feels during her sojourn is from soldiers of the Indian Army. Be that as it may, Vijay doesn’t allow for easy generalizations. Just as the men in fatigues are capable of casual cruelties, they also come across as pitifully vulnerable—forlorn and afraid in a land far away from home and everything familiar to them.
Shalini’s encounters with Kashmiris are riddled with an undercurrent of hostility and passive aggression. There is unfailing politeness from nearly everyone she meets, a cordiality that’s sincere and affecting. At the same time, a brooding suspicion about the real motive behind Shalini’s visit never fades away, even among those who get to know her closely. Be it Zoya, doggedly looking for her son, abducted by the army a decade ago, or Riyaz, Bashir Ahmed’s son, we constantly run into characters whose moral compasses have been dented by painful circumstances since the day they were born.
Shalini’s understanding of the inner lives of these men and women is nebulous at best, and frustrated at worst. She mistakes ordinary civility, decency and gestures of welcome for trust and empathy. She doesn’t want to return to Bengaluru, but cannot hope to belong with these people, especially with Bashir Ahmed’s family, which hosts her for weeks.
The Far Field, in that sense, is a look into Jammu and Kashmir from outside in. It has benefited from Vijay’s personal experience as a teacher at the Haji Public School in the village of Breswana in Doda district, though, as she told Lounge earlier this year, The Far Field really began with “a kernel of rage".
“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," she said. “These attitudes are not new, of course, but they certainly seem more prone to being publicly expressed these days."
The Far Field may not be able to alter these attitudes radically, but it can perhaps help put them in a humane perspective.