The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay is an intensely told story of various hues of love and bonding against the backdrop of turmoil in Kashmir. I wonder why she called it, The Far Field. The more appropriate title seemed to me The Far Away Mountain! The intensity of the novel and style of telling the story makes it difficult to believe that this is her first novel. She won the JCB prize for literature and the Tata Literature Live.
Story spoiler alert: The story revolves around Shalini, the narrator, and her dysfunctional nuclear family of herself, her father and mother. Her mother is what we may term bipolar or a neurotic, so she appears at times. She is sharp tongued and lashes out at her husband, the vegetable vendors, socialites, Shalini’s friends’ mothers, and whoever came her way. The father, who is subdued and almost in awe of her, is caring and as Indian marriages go hugely tolerant of the wayward behaviour of his wife. It was however unclear to me how and why the mother was or became so emotionally high-strung. The characters and the novel takes on the nature of a psychological thriller. Shalini herself is also in awe of her mother. Mothers and daughters are, in my opinion, general tied together by an invisible umbilical code, but in this case the knot was exceptionally strong.
The story takes its strange turn when a Kashmiri cloth vendor visits them. Some kind of unseen, unwritten, unspoken bond grows between this Kashmiri man and the mother that Shalini, even as a child and later as a teenager, senses. The Kashmiri vendor, Bashir Ahmed, becomes a regular visitor in the late afternoons to their home weaving magical stories about the region, the far away mountains he comes from. He calls Shalini ‘beti’ (daughter) and she sits through these sessions in the fading afternoon sunlight mesmerized and also alert to every mood and swing in the mood of her mother. Her father is unaware of these visits and Shalini’s uncanny childlike sense does not allow her to utter a word about it to her father. The author paints an amazing picture of this almost dysfunctional family, and gives the impression of all relationships hanging on edge ready to collapse at one mood swing of the mother.
The father eventually finds out about these afternoon visits and seems to take it in his stride. Bashir Ahmed leaves after a show down with the mother and returns many years later. Her mother invites him to stay with them and surprisingly the father agrees to the arrangement. Shalini is high strung again expecting something to happen. After a disastrous dinner party, organised by the father, she is certain that her mother plans to leave with Bashir. She waits and watches, but Bashir leaves in the middle of the night alone. The mother eventually commits suicide while Shalini has been sent off to College in another town, as her father wants to shield her from the impending doom.
Shalini returns to Bangalore and wanders around listlessly, till one fine day she decides to go to Kashmir to seek out the elusive Kashmiri Bashir Ahmed. Then begins the story of Kashmir, the militancy, missing sons and distraught parents, threatening presence of the army, and hidden secrets tumbling out at every turn. She meets Bashir Ahmed’s son, Riyaz, who tells her his father is dead, but still agrees to take her to his house in the mountains. One day she discovers that Bashir Ahmed is not dead, and is living in-hiding in the same house.
Shalini’s character is shown as unable to trust anyone, not able to make friends as friendship requires one to reveal something of oneself. Amina, wife of Bashir’s son Riyaz, genuinely tries to befriend her, but Shalini stops short of friendship though she enjoys her company. Amina is lonely as Shalini discovers that there is no interaction between the villagers and the family of Riyaz. She soon discovers that Bashir is unfairly accused of betraying the community, and therefore the family is ostracized. Layers and layers of tension unfold among the various characters in the story as Shalini slowly starts to unravel the sequence of events that led to Bashir’s family being boycotted.
Shalini wishes to stay for ever in this forgotten village in the mountains of Kashmir, but events occur that force her back into civilization and to Bangalore. It is clear to her that she is an outsider and will always remain one in the eyes of her ‘friends’ and the community. Her father is rebuilding his life in Bangalore and she slowly adjusts to this reality. She looks out for news of the town, village and people she had come to love. And one day discovers that the army officer who had got her out of Kashmir has wreaked havoc on Riyaz and the family. In an attempted phone call even Amina refuses to come to the phone to talk to her. Shalini is ostracized by the family she loves.
Time and again the narrative shows the cowardice of the characters and Shalini herself. It is a story of betrayals, told splendidly within the chaotic land of Kashmir, swinging between chaos and normalcy. It is a story brilliantly told of how the common people, often the innocent and marginally not so innocent, suffer in the process. It is not a story of heroes, but a story of lack of courage and a feeling of helplessness. It is an empathetically woven story of various hues and colours of love. The story, style of narrative and the characters are mesmerizing. I definitely recommend it to all.
In an earlier post I wrote about a film with a more positive story of life in Kashmir.
Notebook Kashmir: Film on children in an abandoned school