Kashmir recently arrested attention when Donald Trump claimed Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate on the issue. But weeks before the US president’s utterance, an utterly absorbing novel had brought the Valley to vigorous and thrumming life in the pages of the international press.
Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel “The Far Field”, about a young woman’s life-altering journey from Bengaluru to Kashmir, created quite a flutter, receiving rave reviews, both for its lyrical style and gripping storyline, in publications such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Guardian.
“Every part of the public response to the book has surprised me. I tried to prepare for the worst, namely that the book would appear and disappear without a trace, but readers and reviewers alike have been extremely kind,” Vijay told PTI in an email interview.
Born and brought up in Bengaluru, the 27-year-old US-based author has completed her MFA (master of fine arts) from the University of Iowa.
Winner of the Pushcart Prize, a top American literary honour, Vijay spent several years in Jammu and Kashmir’s Doda district where she volunteered at a public school.
“Teaching there was one of the most challenging and exhilarating experiences of my life and I came to care very deeply for the kids and their families,” she recounted.
Vijay also spent a considerable amount of time in Kashmir as a traveller. She has read extensively about its people and the fabled beauty immortalised in so many books and movies.
“Kashmir, to me, is composed of a particular landscape, a group of people I love and respect, and a cherished set of memories,” she said about her association with the Valley.
Published by HarperCollins, the book traces the journey of Shalini, a 30-year-old from Bengaluru who embarks on a journey to Kashmir to find a Kashmiri salesman she believes has some connection to her mother’s premature death.
The journey turns out to be a transformative experience and carries her to the brink of a devastating political and personal reckoning.
Blending fecund imagination with fine-grained novelistic virtues, Vijay deals quietly with big themes – love, loss, grief, compassion and conflict – and offers a stinging critique of our long-held beliefs in democracy, peace and the rule of law.
She has a Dostoevskian flair for suspense and melodrama, and her narrative has a Stendhalian briskness, enabling quick shifts from the humorous to the intellectual and the emotional.
“Living at the other end of India, I almost never had occasion to think about what was going on up there. My textbooks were unhelpful, my teachers never discussed it, the news was cursory, and even the adults around me hardly mentioned Kashmir, except to cluck over the lost beauty of its landscape.
“This is not to denigrate the milieu in which I grew up, but to point out an obvious, oft-overlooked truth: human beings tend to care more about matters that feel close to them, and Kashmir felt very, very distant from Bengaluru, both literally and metaphorically,” she said.
It wasn’t until Vijay was well into her twenties that she realised the incongruity of this distance.
“It made me ask myself questions about the nature of a country, the nature of a citizen, and the novel was born out of those questions,” she said.
Brimming with astute observations and intellectual clarity, her book turns the conventional understanding of Kashmir on its head.
It encourages a complete rethink on the part of those who, as one of her main characters Bashir Ahmed says, “Think that people should be happy with whatever they get, even if it isn’t what they want”.
Meticulously conceived and richly textured, “The Far Field” is a supernova in the wan firmament of recent fiction on Kashmir.