Madhuri Vijay had never planned to be a writer. Growing up in Bengaluru, she read all the time, and wrote stories but it just didn’t seem like something that could ever be considered a profession. Fresh out of an undergraduate degree in psychology in the US and all set to begin a PhD, Vijay was eventually convinced by her professors to apply for a fiction writing fellowship. For a year, the fellowship allowed her to live with different Indian communities across the world – South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Malaysia – and write short stories. Halfway through the trip, she gave up on the plan for the PhD.
“I was writing every single day,” Vijay said on the phone from Hawaii, where she now lives, “and it was very good discipline but mostly I was just cutting my teeth. I wrote lots of really bad short stories – I just didn’t have the maturity or the refinement.”
Years later, one of those “really bad” stories, about a mother and daughter in Bengaluru, and a Kashmiri man, transformed into The Far Field, an exquisitely-crafted debut novel has won the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature and is longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
The sprawling novel jumps between its narrator Shalini’s childhood in Bengaluru and her journey to Kashmir as a 24-year-old, hoping to understand more about her mother after her death. Restless, unsure, and desperately yearning for some sort of meaning, Shalini is the quintessential outsider, wanting, above all else, to belong. But in a place moulded by complexities, violence – often at the hands of the state – and a history that she doesn’t fully grasp, this naive desire becomes something unsettling and eventually, perilous. With a masterful sense of place, restrained writing and carefully-fleshed out characters, Vijay’s novel is an indictment of simplified narratives about life under military occupation, an exposition of the lure of starting afresh, and a sensitive and insightful portrayal of a parent-child relationship that deviates sharply from convention.
First published in the US, it was a lengthy struggle for Vijay to find a publisher in India who would take on the uncompromising novel, which makes the recognition by literary awards “from home” all the more special, she said. She’s already working on a second novel, now knowing what goes into the process: “You need endurance, you need to build stamina and muscle. Just like if you’re a tennis player, you hit the ball the same way a thousand times until that shot is perfect, in my mind, it is exactly the same kind of practice, repetitious, sort of mindless but you have to keep doing it.”
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The author also spoke to HuffPost India about the decision to set her debut novel in Kashmir, writing about conflict, and why it’s dangerous to romanticise an unfamiliar place as “paradise”. Edited excerpts:
You’ve spent a considerable amount of time teaching at the Haji Public School in Breswana. How did that experience end up shaping the novel and your decision to set a large part of it in Kashmir?
I am very insistent on keeping my time in Kashmir separate from the book. I was there for a very particular purpose – as a teacher and volunteer. It was my sole reason for being there and the work took up all my resources and time. That said, it has obviously shaped at least the landscape of the novel because it is set in a region that resembles the place that I am most familiar with as far as Kashmir goes. But I was interested in writing a novel set in Kashmir a long time before that, before I even went there – I just didn’t realise what form it would take. It was the confluence of these two things that gave rise to the novel. I went back to the school multiple times for different academic years between 2012 and 2016. It was a wonderful experience. It’s really difficult and worthy work and I have a huge amount of admiration for everybody involved with that school.
Where did that initial interest in Kashmir as a setting originate from, as you say even before you had stepped foot there?
It’s a bit of a mystery to me in the way that it must be a mystery to anyone who writes a novel and looks back and thinks “where did that come from?”. The story came out of nowhere. But once it arrived, I kept thinking about it and the more obsessed I became.
I was born in 1987. I’m roughly the same age as the latest iteration of the conflict in Kashmir. There are people my age who have known nothing but the conflict – who are born into it and are still living in it. And once I had started thinking about it, it was impossible not to think about it. It was astonishing to me that everybody wasn’t thinking about it. And that was the case, especially where I grew up – in Bangalore – it wasn’t a topic of conversation. All through the ’90s, I cannot remember anybody sitting down and having a long conversation about Kashmir. Or even being able to eavesdrop enough to pick up the contours of the conflict. I think a lot of people tend to forget this because everything is so present with social media today, so you are backdating the information that you have now. But my parents were ordinary people who had ordinary friends and I grew up in a milieu where we weren’t talking about it. And that started to seem odd to me. Because theoretically we’re part of the same country, yet it might as well have been happening in Botswana.
There is a strong sense of care having been taken in the novel to not exoticize or flatten Kashmir into being limited to Srinagar or the Valley or houseboats, as some of the characters mock the common perceptions of it. Was this something you were very aware and apprehensive of while writing?
I’m apprehensive about that no matter what I write. If you think of exoticisation as an artistic trap, then the antidote to that is to make people as complex as you can. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of a political challenge. I was thinking about it purely as an artistic challenge. It didn’t matter to me whether it was a Kashmiri character or a character from Bangalore, they had to be given the same amount of artistic depth and respect.
The book was published in India shortly before the abrogation of Article 370 and all that’s followed in Kashmir with the clampdown on rights, communication and access. What has that experience been like – to have the book’s publication almost coincide with this?
I think my experience is irrelevant given the scale of what is going on. It’s incredibly angering and saddening and one really doesn’t know what to say. I think that was part of the tactic – to leave people floundering and speechless. That has certainly succeeded. I hesitate to even make any connection between the book and what is happening because it’s two completely different scales and it just wouldn’t be ethical in any way to compare them.
I was there the day that the internet came to Breswana. We watched the tower go up and it was such a huge deal. It changed the way we taught and it changed the way these kids learn. We could suddenly show them all these things about the country and the world and they could communicate with anyone – they were tweeting to JK Rowling and she was tweeting back! There was such excitement because of that, and so much possibility, and they’ve been deprived of that, and cast back in their education. I’m only talking about a few hundred kids but it is true for all the students across Jammu and Kashmir. And students are also just one aspect of it all.
While comparing the similarity of people’s usual reactions to Kashmir and Hawaii in an article, you wrote, “...such is the insidious power of beauty. It is the anaesthetic that allows people who should know better to sigh, shake their heads, and speak yearningly of ‘paradise’.” Riyaz says something similar to Shalini in the novel: “Heaven is not at all what you think.” Was this one of the things you were thinking of through the process of writing – this idea of somewhere else being the “perfect place”?
I certainly think that is what she is thinking about. I discovered her to be a character who’s always trying to project herself into these landscapes, wherever she happens to be. She idealises it, inserts herself into it, and imagines: what if I lived here? What if this was mine? Which is sort of a colonialist impulse, but also the impulse of someone who’s quite lonely and sad. So the interest that I had in that question was because of her. But also, I don’t think anyone who has travelled widely can be completely insensible to that lure. It’s easy to see it from the outside for a few weeks or a month, and to imagine that’s just what it’s like. That was definitely a human impulse that I was interested in exploring.
Shalini does seems like someone wants to leave all of it behind in the most drastic way, any connection to the past. She’s almost trying to start afresh in terms of all her relationships and she wants everyone she meets to like her. What were your thoughts when you were mapping her desire for connections in this new place that she’s in?
There are two things that I was thinking about. One, that the way we behave at home is often not the way we behave in an unfamiliar situation or a place that we don’t think of as ours. You can be quite rude to people you’re very familiar with, but when you’re dropped into a foreign country, you automatically want to be accepted and tend to defer to the terms of that place. That’s a pretty common thing – there’s just this traveller’s impulse to be friendly and to be liked. Because it’s much more painful to be an outsider than not.
Secondly, I think she probably did have this sense that the relationships at home were already compromised. That she’d hurt people and they’d hurt her, that there was no possibility of pure renewal in those relationships. So the chance, as you said, to start afresh is a very sexy one. That you can go to a place where you haven’t made any mistakes. Nobody knows what you are, you can be good again, you can be clean again. It can be very seductive. But of course, anybody who stays long enough in a place will discover that no relationship will stay pristine and fresh and you will make a mistake and you either stay or you go.
There has been a common response to the book of Shalini being an unlikeable narrator. I don’t think she’s unlikeable but she does definitely has a naivete and a self-centeredness. Did you find it difficult or unsavoury at any point to occupy her voice in a first person narrative?
It was definitely a bit claustrophobic. She’s locked into certain patterns – she thinks everybody doesn’t like her, she thinks she’s always made a mistake, she’s always afraid, she’s always going over the same actions over and over again. If I had been thinking of my own comfort, I would have tried to vary her behaviour but that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do for the character because that is just the way she thinks. She’s incredibly afraid of giving offence to these people that she doesn’t know. But by doing so she doesn’t say the things that she ought to say. There were so many times when I would want her to say something or not say something but then I just knew that it wouldn’t be honest. It wasn’t unsavoury but it was like being in a relationship with someone who’s not particularly healthy, and being locked into this intimacy with them and you have to watch them do this. And you can’t stop it.
As far as her being an unlikeable narrator goes, I don’t understand that way of reading fiction, I’ve never understood it.
The relationship between Shalini and her mother is a very strong core of the novel, and a lot of her loneliness seems to come from that. Is that something you knew you wanted to grapple with from the start?
That was actually one of the few things that survived from that very bad short story that I wrote. That was also about a mother and a daughter, and the daughter watching the mother trying to deal with her own problems.
It’s not an unusual approach, of course. I’ve read many novels where a child is trying to comprehend his or her parents. The child’s perspective is quite useful because you can use that innocence to make everything seem so much more stark. I’m interested in parent-child relationships, particularly the moment when the parents are vulnerable and the child first perceives that and then feels the need to step into the role of the caregiver. I find that moment very poignant. The more that I wrote Shalini’s mother, the more interested I was in her. In the beginning she wasn’t quite so vicious, just a little bit sad, but then as I wrote her, she became a little more unpredictable.
Shalini has this desperation to have a closeness particularly to the women she meets along her journey. There’s a yearning for female friendship and companionship. Did you feel like it was her wanting to develop a relationship with a strong woman away from the shadow of mother?
Yes, the strange thing is that I didn’t even realise it, until it was over, that her relationship with Zoya and Ameena had that in common. It’s a novel of yearning, as you say, in many ways, and she’s yearning for a lot of these things and she does stupid things because of that yearning.
Do you think she could have stayed and made a life there, in a new place?
I want it for her but I really don’t know. I think at one point or another, things would not hold. It was pretty precarious to begin with, it was all too much a house of cards, and it had to collapse. She would‘ve had to have gone there with a different attitude. And she didn’t.
What do you think that attitude could have been?
It’s hard to say. She would have had to have been more observant, more savvy, less inward, less consumed with herself, less afraid. I think fear dictated a lot of what she did. I often think about what is the right way to travel, not to Kashmir, but anywhere. What is the right attitude to adopt when you are in a place whose history you don’t share? I didn’t know the answer yet. It’s something that’s fairly hard to cultivate and I don’t think it’s very common. I don’t find Shalini to be very unusual in that way. I know people who go to other places and come back – and they may not have as drastic experiences as her – but they’re still quite insular.
I suppose simply going somewhere else doesn’t change who you are. There’s a lot more that goes into that...
I think people love to believe that they’ll go on a backpacking year and everything will be different when they come back. There is yearning in that too, there’s sadness, and there’s arrogance in that too. All those things exist at once. And that’s the narrative I wanted to turn on its head in the novel – of going off to find yourself.