Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Far Field

Review by Ann Skea

The Far Field.
Madhuri Vijay.
Atlantic (Grove Press). 2019. 432 pp.
ISBN 978 1 61185 482 4.

I am thirty years old and that is nothing.

I know what this sounds like, and I hesitate to begin with something so obvious, but let me say it anyway, at the risk of sounding naïve. And let it stand alongside this: six years ago, a man I knew vanished from his home in the mountains. He vanished in part because of me, because of certain things I said, but also things I did not have, until now, the courage to say.

Shalini begins her story on this serious note. But like her creator, Madhuri Vijay, she is a superb and fluent story-teller, and the people, places, and events she remembers as her story flows between past and present are vividly present and make it easy to forget her serious purpose.

At the heart of Shalini's story is Bashir Ahmed, an itinerant Kashmiri hawker of beautifully-embroidered Kashmiri clothes. Shalini remembers the first time he knocked at the door of her middle-class home in Bangalore and how, unexpectedly, her mother let him in to display his wares. Shalini, remembers her mother as being a stubborn, sharp-tongued woman who disdained the usual interests of young mothers: "Shopping? I could hear the slow, mocking smile in her voice."

"Promise me, Shalini," she demands of her young daughter after mixing with other mothers taking their children to swimming practice at the local pool, "that if I ever become like one of those brainless, fat cows, you'll take a knife and stab me. Promise."

Usually, itinerant door-knockers get short shrift: "'Oh get lost,' my mother says. And slams the door."

But with Bashir it is different. Shalini, who was six at the time, remembers how he laughed at her mother's caustic responses, cleverly turned them to his own advantage, and somehow managed to captivate her. On his occasional return visits he is welcomed, no clothes are displayed, but each time Shalini, too, is captivated by his wonderful story-telling. Eventually, because of troubles in Kashmir, Bashir seeks refuge with the family and is invited by Shalini's father to stay with them.

Like any daughter, her parents' lives and feelings are largely hidden from her. She sees her father as a hard-working businessman, serious, loving, often unable to understand his wife's prickly personality and a little contemptuous of her lack of education. And she ponders the curious relationship which begins to grow between her mother and Bashir, thinking of it as a secret joy she shared with her mother, and remembering her mother's puzzling behavior and Bashir's strange anger immediately before he left the house for good.

When her mother dies, Shalini discovers a crudely carved wooden animal amongst her clothes and recognizes it as a gift Bashir had given to her (Shalini) on one of his visits:

I carried the creature back to my room, and stood it on my bedside table, the very spot from which my mother had stolen it all those years ago... I thought only of the wooden beast, sitting beside my pillow, and, out of nowhere, a huge, unbearable joy exploded in me. Just like that, the secret I'd shared with my mother was alive again. Looking back, I think that must have been when I decided to look for him.

Shalini's search for Bashir takes her to a remote Himalayan village in the turbulent northern region of Kashmir. She is politically naïve, unaware of the long history of religious conflicts still haunting the villagers. Growing up in a comfortable middle-class Indian family, she has accepted the class distinctions in her own life and the casual well-meaning attitudes towards Kashmir and its people:

...we fell in love with Kashmir when we visited. It was for our honeymoon. We stayed on a houseboat, and every morning this old man would float up in a tiny boat full of these beautiful flowers. He would give us this handful, and he would never take any money for them either.

Shalini's experiences in the remote mountain village in which she lives while searching for Bashir are very different. Like any stranger, Shalini accepts the way things look and only gradually is she made aware of underlying tensions and of her own misinterpretation of the ways strangers respond to her. Life with the family with whom she stays is hard, the village people are desperately poor, the climate is harsh, and living conditions are primitive. She sees the magnificence and beauty of the mountains, but they are bare, unforgiving, and dangerous. And there are bandits, corrupt officials, random military searches, and political unrest.

Shalini believes she has made friends, especially with Amina, Bashir's daughter-in-law, and her small son, Riyaz. And she tries her best to help, but without knowing the reality of the situation, she inevitably makes mistakes, and some of them are dangerous for herself and for others.

Eventually, Shalini has to return to her former life in Bangalore, to live with her memories, to live with the consequences of her misunderstandings, and to remember the people she left in the mountains whose difficult lives she briefly shared. In the end, she considers the purpose of her own story-telling:

I am aware that I am taking no risks by recounting any of this, that for people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence. I am aware of the likely futility of all that I have told here, and, I am aware, too, of the thousand ways I have tried to excuse myself in the telling of it. All the same, whatever the flaws of this story or confession or whatever it has turned out to be, let it stand.

Shalini is a complex and believable character, and Madhuri Vijay tells her story simply and with great skill. This is a compelling and fascinating book, but hidden beneath the surface of Shalini's story is a warning. We are daily exposed to media reports of terrorism and of ongoing conflict in disputed territories, not just in India and Kashmir but around the world. It is easy to sit comfortably in our homes and distract ourselves with other things (like reading this story for example). Or we may try to help in some way. But without deep knowledge of the situation or first-hand experience of it, we, like Shalini, may unknowingly do more harm than good.


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