The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
When I had first read the blurb of this book, I’d found it very ‘plain’. Yet, the mention of Kashmir aroused my curiosity and on searching I found some really good reviews. Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced. After all, it was written by a South Indian author and receiving good reviews from Indians- my biased mind was already decided upon what the ‘position’ of the book would be.
Fast forward to #IndiaUnfreedoms as part of which I was planning on reading more on issues in independent India that prevented some people from being completely free, and my wish to read some good work on Kashmir- I was vaguely reminded of this book (mostly, it’s very pretty cover!).
The book has since won the JCB Prize for Literature (2019) and the praise for the book has increased manifolds. It has made into many lists of books on Kashmir- one of which recommends it specially to know the complicity of the Indian State in what has become of Kashmir. Obviously, I couldn’t delay picking it up anymore.
The story is about a Bangalore born and bred woman, Shalini, in a trip to Kishtwar in Jammu and Kashmir, looking for Basheer Ahmed- a cloth salesperson whom her mother had befriended back in Bangalore. Her stay in Kashmir gives her (and through her to the reader- Indian reader, in particular), a glimpse into the workings that lead to Kashmir’s plight. Through events which are routine to the residents, but baffle Shalini, the Indian reader is shown the presence of militancy sympathizers, their motivations, counter-motivations and the precarious placement of Kashmir at the intersection of two types of terror- one by the militants, one by the Indian State/ Army.
The real beauty of the story lies in that it doesn’t focus on acts of terrorism, nor on pages and pages of Army brutality, but on myriad emotions- the relationship between a mother and daughter, between friends, between strangers, on love, desire and lust. Laced with many strong female characters- from the independent Shalini, to her fiery mother, the resilient Zoya, and to my most favourite- the friendly and funny Amina, it is a most endearing tale of relationships in the backdrop of geopolitical strains. For most parts, the militancy in Kashmir, killings of Hindus, struggle for Kashmir’s independence from India, are so well merged into the background, that you’d only be worried about the characters’ lives, brilliantly kept at the fore.
What this book also reminds us very explicitly is our privilege in sitting comfortably and talking about Kashmir- how Kashmir is nothing more than a ‘dinner party’ discussion for us, how far removed we are in our understanding of the ground realities of Kashmir, and how easily we can detach ourselves from the fate of that land- how much ever we claim to love it, how much ever we oppose the Indian State’s heavy handedness in Kashmir, we will, at the end, fall back into the comforts of our lives, far distant from Kashmir, sometimes in geography, and always in hard realities. The story leaves us wondering what more price needs to be paid for freedom in one of the most heavily militarized places in the world.
Excellent. (Aug 2020)