Sitting with the old cloth seller in between the walls in the far mountains, Shalini could feel the presence of her mother over the chest in the corner, with her tilted head and closed eyes, just like the living room in Bengaluru, the three of them sitting in a semicircle.
‘The Far Field’ published by HarperCollins, the debut novel of Madhuri Vijay has won the prestigious 2019 JCB Prize for Literature and have been shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
‘The Far Field’ is a novel of the journeys as reminisced by a 30 year old Shalini – journeys through childhood trailing behind her strong, sarcastic mother; a journey of love, grief, mistakes, failures, acceptance – of self discovery; a journey from the South of the Indian subcontinent to the very North, into the mountains.
A grieving, clueless 24 years old Shalini spends her days staring at the dark, slow moving slug and getting impossibly high on weekends. As a need to get out of this vicious cycle and to bring back purpose into her life, she lands up in Kishtwar, a Kashmiri town, to find someone. Someone, who apart from herself, was able to understand her mother-complete with her combativeness, restlessness and sarcasm.
In her quest, she stays in homes with green steps and half coloured mudwalls, beside a burnt mosque and a hidden waterfall. She stays with families made incomplete by Kashmir. A Kashmir, which helped them find the families that they are today. Shalini is welcomed with such warmth and a sense of comraderie that she decides, “This is what I choose.”
Kashmir, in this novel is described from an outsider’s point of view, with tiny snippets from Kashmiris and the army – the ever-going war between the militants and the soldiers; the effect of power as well as poverty. The very fact that Kashmir has always ever only belonged to herself, and the impossibility of becoming Kashmiri.
Families have been defined and redefined, and effortlessly portrayed throughout the novel- in storytelling afternoons, in perfect holidays, in a gathering to remember the disappearance of a dear son, or even in a train compartment full of strangers.
The continuous presence and ever-present-absence of Shalini’s Amma- her moods and actions, the careless strictness, that either makes one scurry off or admire her; her relationship with her little beast- the shared secrets and the kept ones, though all from Shalini’s point of view adds another level of indulgence and purpose to the novel, as the chapters are frequently alternated between life in Bengaluru and that in Kashmir.
Though this larger than life character is very prominent, it does not necessarily overshadow the other characters. In fact, the female characters- Zoya and Amina holds on to the reader, poking us insistently, to know more about them.
Apart from the lively character portrayals, the landscape descriptions- the steep uphill journey, hanging bridges over roaring rivers, patches of cornfields, or something as simple as the decorations for a house party engages the reader wonderfully.
The surprise elements, whenever introduced, are suddenly unveiled and then immediately normalised, as though known all along – the whole process seemingly effortless.
With her debut novel, Vijay proves to be brilliantly confident with her words. As the cover of the book holds a quote from Pankaj Mishra saying: ” Ingeniously conceived and elegantly written… a first novel of startling accomplishment.”