I decided to read The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay in part because much of the setting is in Kashmir, a region in the Himalayas. I vaguely knew the area had ethnic-religious conflict, and I saw this as an opportunity to discover its history. It was a good choice on my part. The narrator is Shalini, a millennial woman from a privileged background in Bangalore, India. Shalini is college educated, emotionally wounded to the point of being callous towards others, terribly naive and ignorant of the ways of the world. She self-medicates of street drugs and alcohol, acts out in a variety of emotionally unhealthy ways, is distrusting and emotionally shut-down. The novel feels like a sad family epic because the wounds from her upbringing cause disaster to innocent families in Kashmir. Shalini’s very presence threatens the security of the families who take her in and whom she grows to love. A blurb from the publisher says, “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.”
Shalini’s mother is a mentally-ill and mercurial woman who can go from loving to brutally caustic in seconds, hence causing turmoil and chaos within the home. The only time she ever seems semi-normal is when Bashir Ahmed, a traveling salesman from Kashmir stops by with his wares. Shalini begins to look forward to his visits because she sees a totally different woman in her mother. After her mother commits suicide, Shalini impulsively strikes out for Kashmir to find Bashir Ahmed. The reason for this poorly made decision is slowly revealed over the course of the story. What happens in the meantime is Shalini arrives in this region without any plans on how to find Bashir. What complicates her poor choices is that the Indian army occupies this region of Kashmir, and the families who take Shalini into their fold are Muslim who suffer discrimination, heavy taxes, harassment from the Indian army. Muslims who are active in the militias against the Indian army are subject to torture and imprisonment. Many are abducted and just disappear. So it’s into this climate of fear and distrust, Shalini shows up. Ron Charles of The Washington Post writes, “Vijay draws us into the bloody history of this contested region and the cruel conundrum of ordinary lives trapped between outside agitators and foreign conquerors.”
The region of Kashmir is in the Himalayas and shares borders with India, Pakistan and China which all have a military presence in this beautiful area. Kashmir is an ancient center of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is conquered by Muslims in the 1300s and then eventually by the Sikhs. The Sikhs lose it to the British in the mid 1800s. In 1946, the Crown divides up the British Indian Empire into Pakistan and India. Thus begins decades of border skirmishes, four wars and military occupation. The “Line of Control” is a military de facto border that divides Kashmir into parts of India, Pakistan and China. Kashmiri Nationalists, who are primarily Muslim want their own autonomy, and there is ongoing insurgency and terrorism against occupying armies. This is such a beautiful area of the world with the incredible Himalayan mountains and valleys. And yet like so many other beautiful areas it is marred by violence and chaos.
Vijay writes with sensitivity and knowledge of this region. She was born in Bangalore, India and studied English and Psychology at Lawrence College. She has a MFA from the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa. Vijay volunteered as a teacher in Kashmir and writes with an understanding of the social-ethnic-political violence in this region. I finished this book with an awareness of the human cost of this ongoing conflict that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Vijay writes that books can “cross cultural boundaries. All I’m doing is trying to give these people a life…” And she does so, beautifully.