Debutante author Madhuri Vijay on living through the 'monstrous consequences' of India's vast geography
Twenty seven-year-old Madhuri Vijay remembers her time in Kashmir during the 2013 Kishtwar Riots, when her family back in Bengaluru was concerned about her safety, but remained largely unaffected by the events unfurling at another extreme of the country. In her debut novel, The Far Field, Vijay talks about the impact distance has on lives, and the 'monstrous and arbitrary consequences' of India's geographic vastness.
Madhuri Vijay's debut novel The Far Field draws heavily from her life, where she grew up in Bengaluru, and later taught in Kashmir.
By situating her protagonist in Bengaluru and Kashmir, Vijay wanted to emphasise on the kind of impact such huge geographic distances can have on the lives of people living in the same country.
Vijay teaches children at a school in the US, and believes her experience as a teacher has only enriched her process of writing.
Debutante author Madhuri Vijay's career as a writer hasn't been serendipitous. In fact, most of her life choices have been steered in the direction of professional writing — from her school years in Bengaluru, to shifting base to the US where she earned an MFA degree from the University of Iowa — Writers’ Workshop. Hence, arguably, Vijay's journey with words achieved its first significant milestone earlier this year, when her debut novel, The Far Field, stirred readers and critics alike.
The story poignantly internalises the turbulent politics of Kashmir, as her protagonist, Shalini, packs her privileges and curiosities, and sets off on a soul-search to the mountains, all the way from Vijay's own hometown, Bengaluru.
While 30-year-old Shalini walks a tight rope between handling the growing distance with her estranged father, a slew of unsatisfactory jobs, and memories of her deceased mother, she often finds herself walking down the lanes of her past, where she chances upon the mysterious figure of a charming Kashmiri salesman, Bashir Ahmed. He happened to be her mother's friend, but has gone missing from their lives for nearly a decade now.
Propelled by the perplexing instinct that her mother's death is somehow linked to Ahmed's disappearance, Shalini embarks on a journey that unearths difficult truths. On reaching the remote Himalayan village where she hopes to meet Ahmed, Shalini is taken in by a local family with a twisted, complicated history. Eventually, their secrets spill over into her life, which is now mired in the political conflicts of the state, threatening to turn violent any minute. The premise of the Pushcart Award winner's debut novel is haunting, uncovering rather assuredly, the different ways in which the personal, more often than not, is overwhelmingly political.
In a conversation with Firstpost, 27-year-old Madhuri Vijay talks about the consequences of living in a geographically vast country like India, how the word "privilege" has influenced the arts in our times, and the perks of teaching young children while being a writer.
Why did you choose to situate your protagonist in Bengaluru and Kashmir in your debut novel, The Far Field? How much research, or perhaps even a soul-search, does one have to go through in order to flesh out such a complex Bildungsroman?
One of the strongest arguments for setting the book in Bengaluru and Kashmir was that I was grew up in the former and spent a long time living and teaching in the latter. More crucially, however, is the fact that these two places lie more or less at the opposite ends of India, and I wanted the novel to explore the effect that kind of distance might have on people. An example from my own life: I was in Jammu and Kashmir during the 2013 Kishtwar riots, and I remember how little impact it made on my family in Bengaluru, who worried about me, yes, but were otherwise unaffected. To me, it seemed like the most important thing happening in the world. Yet, if I’d been in Bengaluru at the time, I likely wouldn’t have paid attention either. The consequences of geography are monstrous, especially in a massive country like ours, because they are so arbitrary. An obvious point, perhaps, but one that never ceases to stun me.
Kashmir, as we all know, continues to be an emotionally and politically charged issue in the subcontinent. Its politics barely ever ceases to be tense. Your novel, while deeply personal, also navigates its way through the said politics. What did you have to keep in mind while dealing with such a subject, and how do you translate that into personal pathos?
First, I would argue that no place can or should be reduced to a mere “issue”. In the rest of India, we tend to think of Kashmir as no more than the sum of its violence, but such a narrow view does a deep disservice to the people living there. Second, I agree that Delhi-centric view of India would hold the so-called “Kashmir issue” as paramount, but in South India and certainly in Bengaluru, where I’m from, it’s nowhere near as pressing. I’m generalising, of course, but it is a general truth (whether we wish to admit it or not) that we, in the South, don’t consider Kashmir all that relevant to us, despite the large number of Kashmiris studying and working in our towns. Obviously, I did a lot of research in preparing to write the novel, but I had to resist my impulse to put it all on the page. Instead I tried to write from a perspective of an average person in the South — intelligent, educated, but not particularly attuned to the nuances of what we have learned to call the “Kashmir issue.”
You've grown up in Bengaluru and spent a large part of your life in the US as a student, and now as a working professional — a life bearing a certain amount of privilege, as one may say. Your novel constantly and almost blatantly points to how damaging privilege can be to a person, who does not have the acumen to handle it well. Why did you choose to emphasise on this point?
I have been staggeringly fortunate on more fronts than I can count, and I certainly think that class is a vital topic for all artists to consider. That said, it is disappointing that the novel has been reduced, in some quarters, to a cautionary tale on the ‘evils of privilege’. No doubt, this reading is due mainly to my failures as a writer, but I think it’s also due to the fact that “privilege” has become our dominant cultural watchword, as well as the lens through which we view most issues of our time and, increasingly, most art. Personally, I tend to shy away from any interpretation of art that insists on a single conclusion, theme or moral.
How much have you drawn from your personal life while writing your novel? How close are you to your protagonist, Shalini, in person?
Apart from the fact that she and I are Bangaloreans of roughly the same age who happen to like whisky, we are not similar. That said, the entire novel is personal, how could it not be? It is intimately influenced by the milieu of my childhood, by my experiences of travelling in India as a woman, by my friends, family and acquaintances, by books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched, by the time I spent in Kashmir — in short, by everything that I am. Yet, paradoxically, it is nothing to do with me.
The Far Field has garnered largely positive reviews. What helped you make the story and characters so relevant to people across the world?
If the story is indeed relevant, I wouldn’t dare to venture a guess as to why. I’m extremely happy with the way the book has been received in the US and UK, but that’s all I feel qualified to say.
What does a day in your life look like? You're a school teacher by day — do you think as writers in 2019, one can afford the luxury of pursuing writing as a full-time career right from the beginning? A lot of new Indian authors have repeatedly spoken about how writing isn't a full-time job for most, unless you've been a best-selling author for over a decade.
I wrote most of the novel while working as a teacher, and I fully believe that the experience made the novel richer and fuller than it would have been otherwise. Writing is an isolating experience as it is, and, speaking solely for myself, too much isolation can be a hindrance. Another fortunate benefit of teaching young children is that they neither know nor care about how many words you managed to write that day or whether you’ve hit upon the perfect metaphor — working with them is a refreshing and humbling reminder to keep one’s work in proper perspective.
Finally, what story are you planning to tell next? Has the process of getting a story and its characters out of your system — as you mentioned in a recent interview — become easier with time?
I know lots of writers working on their fourth or seventh or ninth books, and they all tell me that nothing about writing gets easier with time. But, for the moment, just to be working on a new novel, with its limitless potential — for success and utter catastrophe — is more than enough.
Dhar tells us about the challenges of approaching such explosive material, Gaurav’s legacy and what he believes about the existence of ghosts.
Nongkynrih gives non-Khasis an extraordinary introduction to a people and culture that little is known about.
To contend with Paulo Freire’s ideas about education, knowledge, the meaning of freedom and classroom dynamics is to re-examine the human condition afresh and seek to commit oneself to the discovery of true freedom.