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Beyond reach: a tale of discovery in an alien land

Accomplished fiction often has one of two kinds of characters: those who are out of their depth in alien lands, and those who are interlopers

By Nayantara Mazumder
  • Published 3.04.20, 1:35 AM
  • Updated 3.04.20, 1:35 AM
  • 2 mins read
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Shalini, the protagonist of Madhuri Vijay’s wonderfully expansive debut novel, The Far Field gives up her sophisticated, comfortable life in Bangalore and struggles to find her footing in the rugged, hostile terrain of Kashmir. (Image used for representational purpose) Shutterstock

Accomplished fiction often has one of two kinds of characters: those who are out of their depth in alien lands, behaving like fish out of water, and those who, like cuckoos, are interlopers ruffling feathers in new environments. Shalini, the protagonist of Madhuri Vijay’s wonderfully expansive debut novel, The Far Field, is both the cuckoo and the fish on foreign shores — she gives up her sophisticated, comfortable life in Bangalore and struggles to find her footing in the rugged, hostile terrain of Kashmir. However, the more she loses herself in her explorations, the more she learns about her own country, her mother and herself, her journey disrupting worlds she had never imagined could exist.

Shalini tells the reader at the very beginning, “I am thirty years old and that is nothing” — a confession that she is at the uncertain age where she is neither too young to be unaware of the world, nor too old to have wised up to it. As she narrates this story, she is in the depths of grief, unmoored by her mother’s death nine years ago, shaken by the brutality she has seen and the calamity she has precipitated. During her life, the only time Shalini saw her mother truly happy was when the handsome, green-eyed, travelling Kashmiri merchant, Bashir Ahmed, visited, regaling both mother and daughter with tales of his beautiful homeland. Shalini eventually grows to believe that Bashir and her mercurial mother had, perhaps, fallen in love.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, Fourth Estate, Rs 599
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, Fourth Estate, Rs 599 Amazon

Determined to discover the truth, Shalini sets out on a long journey to Kashmir to track down Bashir and, by extension, her dead mother whom she never really knew. This is not the best of plans — she has little more than a handful of details about a man she thinks her mother loved — and would have been somewhat amusing if it were not fuelled by grief. Shalini ends up in a rural backwater that is a far cry from the pulsating metropolis she left behind. With the help of kind strangers, she learns of the religious tensions in the region and the unhealed wounds within broken communities.

When Shalini finally reaches the village in which Bashir’s family lives, she learns that he is not there, and is devastated when she finds out why. Her attempts to help others, as well as herself, ultimately prove disastrous. What seems at first to be the tale of a young woman’s private grief gradually begins to fill up with the energy of religious and political strife. The reader suddenly realizes that Vijay has masterfully pulled them into the violent history of this conflict zone, and the terrible fate of ordinary people caught between militants and the army. While Shalini is always on edge around the military personnel she sees everywhere, she never fully understands how her life of privilege — and her identity as an Indian from the mainland — protects her from the danger they pose to the Kashmiri people.

“Heaven is not at all what you think,” Shalini says to a man she likes. She is right, but cannot comprehend the true meaning of her own words: as she keeps moving through Kashmir, and is regularly treated with kindness, she struggles, and fails, to understand her hosts’ constant sense of powerlessness. With remarkably evocative prose, Vijay not only provides a searing critique of oppression through the eyes of an outsider, but also offers profound insights into guilt, family, sorrow and compassion.