“Without action there is only waiting for death”
The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay, is narrated by a thirty year old woman living in Bangalore, India. She wishes to share the story of how, six years previously, she undertook an impetuous journey that led her to a tiny mountain village in the Himalayas. Here she befriended her reluctant hosts and then inadvertently contributed to the devastation of their already difficult existence. She has thus far maintained her silence about what happened as she believed her urge to speak would make no difference due to the escalating violence in the region. Her need to unburden now is personal.
“lately the urge has turned into something else, something with sharper edges, which sticks under the ribs and makes it dangerous to breathe.”
All stories require a beginning. For the woman, Shalini, the sequence of events being related starts when her mother, in an out of character gesture, permits a travelling salesman to enter their home to pitch his products. Shalini’s mother regularly behaves unpredictably but is adored, and also feared, by her six year old daughter. The salesman, Bashir Ahmed, can somehow cope with the woman’s erratic outbursts and tells the pair a mesmerising tale. He then leaves them with a promise that he will return. His visits, and stories, become a regular and welcome feature in Shalini and her mother’s lives over several years.
Within a few pages the reader learns that, during Shalini’s final year in college, her mother died. Shalini does not cope well with her grief. Realising that she needs to take some sort of action, to stop drifting and treating those around her badly, she makes a spur of the moment decision to journey to Kashmir. Her plan is to find Bashir Ahmed, for reasons she cannot yet fully articulate.
Shalini’s life growing up in Bangalore is one of comfort and privilege, shadowed by the impact of her mother’s behaviour. She has little knowledge of unfolding events in the north of India until she is living within a small community in Kishtwar. They accept the arrival of strangers who are looking for their missing and offer the lone and naive young woman a wary welcome. Shocked by the stories she hears of atrocities, she wishes to help her new friends. In turn they agree to assist in her quest.
The tale moves back and forth between Shalini’s life in Bangalore and the day to day activities in the remote, northern villages where she stays for a time. Her mother’s unpredictable conduct throughout her formative years have left her with a deep seated yearning to belong within an accepting family circle. She can only view what is happening, within and without, through her limited personal lens.
The action unfolds gradually before gaining pace and tension. The joy of reading, however, is in the vivid language and imagery. As an example, the crows, how they become metaphor, is inspired and chilling. Characterisation is subtle and nuanced with development understated yet balanced to perfection. What is slowly revealed is how the effects of individual actions ripple, and how facts are lost in any retelling that is coloured by prejudice. When hurt or damage results, each perpetrator must still find a way to live with themselves. Culpability is kept hidden or downplayed to protect self and public image.
This is beautifully conveyed, evocative writing that presents a shattering tale with rare humanity. The compassion and regret of the narrator will resonate and linger. A breathtaking, unreservedly impressive, recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Grove Press.