The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay is one person’s journey to Kashmir, amidst political chaos. With a steady increase in the number of militants and the continued war between the locals and the army, Shalini (our protagonist) is looking for answers which are not exactly important in the bigger scheme of things.
Narrated in shifting timelines, Shalini’s eventful childhood and her journey through the mountains of Kashmir as an adult in need of some closure brings out the psychology of different people in various situations. Shalini’s relationship with her mother was rocky and throughout the book, I wondered what exactly she thought of her. She must have loved her but she also hated her mother’s aloofness and unpredictable mood (sunny one day and grim the next). She defines herself as her mother’s daughter but also goes beyond measures to tell us all about her mother’s shrewd nature.
Her father, buried under a pile of work at all times did his best to live with a mother-daughter duo who weren’t exactly the easiest people to live with. Bashir Ahmed, the man who entranced Shalini’s mother with his stories and filled Shalini with rage for multiple reasons (consider this to be her childhood innocence) and also the very same man whose search took her all the way to Kishtwar, is an enigmatic man whose story can best be defined as painful and unfair. As Shalini looks for him after eleven years of separation, she meets different people in Kashmir and tries to understand their situation, especially their tryst with the army and the constant oppression.
There is something fundamentally wrong with this book. I don’t think any book will survive the reader’s scrutiny if it has a protagonist who is problematic at best and dumb at worst. While I resonated with everything that the author wanted to convey about Kashmir and its politics, Shalini takes up a lot of space and not in a fulfilling way. She is in need of answers but her questions are vague. She gets easily entangled with the families she meets and only brings about despair and disappointment because she fails to grasp the severity of the situation time and again. Her enlightenment never arrives because she is preoccupied with trying to be the messiah, rather than leaving things beyond her understanding alone. Her words even as a child were mature for her age but completely unsupported by her actions. Her narration borders complaint, as if she doesn’t believe in the solitary existence of a happy memory.
Rich in adjectives, emotions, and metaphors, ‘The Far Field’ is unimpressive. The author’s voice is suppressed by the narrator’s and I found myself getting through this book through sheer will power. I wanted to give Shalini a chance and I did, multiple times. But she disappointed me more and more with every passing chapter. I tried to see the good in this book- the mildly sentimental narration, honest prose and certain characters that pull your heartstrings but the protagonist turned this into a sour experience.
This book may or may not work for you, but it failed to excite me at any given point.
Blurb (as on Goodreads):
Gorgeously tactile and sweeping in historical and socio-political scope, Pushcart Prize-winner Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field follows a complicated flaneuse across the Indian subcontinent as she reckons with her past, her desires, and the tumultuous present.
In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bangalore, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to confront him. But upon her arrival, Shalini is brought face to face with Kashmir’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in. And when life in the village turns volatile and old hatreds threaten to erupt into violence, Shalini finds herself forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love.
With rare acumen and evocative prose, in The Far Field Madhuri Vijay masterfully examines Indian politics, class prejudice, and sexuality through the lens of an outsider, offering a profound meditation on grief, guilt, and the limits of compassion.
*Thank you to the publisher for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own*