Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The Far Field - Madhuri Vijay

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A debut that richly deserves the acclaim it received.

One of the reviews said this was about Kashmir that goes beyond the picturesque beauty that camouflages its grim reality.  That is what drew me to it. The novel cleverly highlights political issues against the backdrop of a sort of coming of age novel. I couldn't get a hard copy and had to make do with an ecopy...not a great thing for an old school hard copy fan. I had failed with e-versions before not this time. The story had me from the start and I found myself finishing its 400-odd pages in a couple of days.

Gist:

Shalini travels to Bangalore after her learns of her mother's death. As she drifts through life coping with the loss, she finds something tucked away in her mother's wardrobe that triggers childhood memories. She decides to leave the comforts of Bangalore and travels to Kashmir in search of that childhood connection.

What works:
  • Right from the first page, we find the narrator in a confesssional mode and settle in to learn what is it all about.
  • It is apparent in the first chapter that there is something odd about this modern Indian family. As the father and daughter deal with the loss of the mother - the persona of an unconventional Indian woman floats to surface. It has just the right level of unease and curiosity to urge the reader to keep going.
  • This sense of disquiet is a constant throughout the novel. I revisted the first chapter and it made more sense now that I knew that the narrator was hinting about.  
  • Life in Kashmir is very different from the shikaras and the beautiful views that we associate with it and Vijay's novel touches upon it well. Also the portrayal of the army presence and what it means for the residents opens questions that go beyond the popular patriotic version circulated in the rest of the country.
  • Plus I was interested by the family on the whole. This setup of the modern nuclear Indian family with no baggage of the extended family is a departure from stereotypes. I remember reading an interview where Vijay said the story was set it in the 90s, an era of liberalisation and the Indian nuclear families. It also offers a better foundation for the story, the privacy and the loneliness that comes with that setup.
  • This is not a feel good novel with the ends neatly tied in, Vijay's craft is evident in the way she creates some loaded scenes, such as the dinner party. 
  • It brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend. The friend was upset about the fact that her son was tracing a map of India quite different to what she had known as a child - a whole of chunk of Kashmir was missing. She was in favour of the revoking of article 370 and what it meant for India. I could understand her sentiment and yet it felt somehow selfish. As mentioned earlier, reading this novel gave me perspective about asserting our authority as Indians outside the state while it is a completely different scenario for the Kashmiri residents out there.

This is definitely a novel that gets you thinking about Kashmir and about journeys of self discovery. Vijay is a writer who layers her story on many levels. It would be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

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