The chain of events connecting a privileged young Indian woman, her volatile mother, and a tale-spinning Kashmiri merchant leads to tragedy in a story of religious conflict and domestic damage set in contemporary India.
Taking the classic form of a journey, Vijay’s vivid debut moves from sophisticated contemporary Bangalore to a harshly beautiful Himalayan mountain village as Shalini, a 30-year-old woman haunted by memories of her sarcastic, restless mother, recounts her painful accumulation of wisdom. As a child, Shalini’s home was periodically visited by Bashir Ahmed, a clothing merchant, one of a very few people attuned to Shalini’s mercurial mother. Although Bashir Ahmed could tell magical stories, his home life in Kashmir was becoming threatened by Hindu-Muslim tensions provoked by militant activism and the brutal response of the Indian army. Now, attempting to resolve her feelings about her mother’s death nine years earlier, Shalini feels Bashir Ahmed might hold the key and travels to remote Kashmir to find him. Her comfortable life is replaced with something more basic as she discovers small communities, kindly individuals, friendship, attraction, a possible new role for herself—and secrets. But Shalini is naïve, and her efforts to help others, and herself, ultimately prove catastrophic. Shuttling between past and present and exploring complicated themes of parental fealty, identity, and religious schism, Vijay’s ambitious novel is at its most magnetic when recounting Shalini’s immersion in a different world, her embrace by new kinds of family, and the lessons she learns. But its epic length sets up expectations of equally immersive political history, and here the storytelling is cloudier, staffed with clichéd characters. Most memorable are the scenes of stripped-down joy in the mountains where the author’s elegant, calm prose and intense evocations of people and places come into their own.
A striking debut, stronger on the micro than the macro.