An image search for Kashmir, India, yields photographs so varied in their types of beauty that it seems impossible they come from the same region: Rolling hills, mountains, snowy vistas, greens so green they seem psychedelic. But nestled in the midst of these images, one finds a funeral, raw and massive, from an article headlined “Professor Among 10 Killed by Indian Troops in Held Kashmir.”
Madhuri Vijay sets much of The Far Field, her debut novel, in Kashmir, in part due to this tension between the sublime and the sad. “Within the national mythology of India,” Vijay tells me, “Kashmir is ever present.” Movies are set there; the beauty is well-known. But Kashmir is a region claimed by three different countries (India, Pakistan, and China), which has led to an Indian military presence and regular violence. “I grew up in the south [of India], which is very far from Kashmir, so my sense of it was always vague”; accordingly, Vijay often heard from adults in her life some variation of the same sentiment: It’s so beautiful. What a shame. “The more I began to think about it,” Vijay says, “the more outrageous it seemed to me that I hadn’t been thinking about it all my life.”
The Far Field focuses on Shalini, a 30-year-old woman mourning the death of her mother. Her entire life she has been shielded from turmoil by her wealth, turning her eyes from horror toward, instead, the relatively minute struggles of privileged people entering adulthood. But now, grieving, she sets off to Kashmir to find a man who disappeared years before—a man who once knew her mother and who may be able to illuminate a shadowed corner of her family’s history. What begins as a detective story slowly morphs into something grander: a story of political upheaval. Yet the personal story—Shalini’s own first-person point of view—is always in the foreground. For Vijay, “the personal and the political need to be inextricable, even indistinguishable, from each other for the book”—any book—“to work.”
The novel took six years to write. Although Vijay attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she wrote none of the book there, instead composing the earliest version of The Far Field while living and working as a volunteer in Kashmir. “In the first draft, I was writing the book I thought I was supposed to write,” she says. “A book that had clear precedent in contemporary literature: three narrators, a sweeping saga. It felt safe. But it also eventually felt dead.”
What Vijay eventually landed on was a book that felt riskier, more exciting—one that narrowed in on the point of view of Shalini. She doesn’t seem particularly aware or interested in the history around her; she’s sort of a lousy friend. She’s a little self-absorbed. In short, she’s like a lot of people we all know—complicated.
“There’s a distance between what she feels and what she’s able to express,” Vijay says. “And that leap between emotion and articulation is, in many ways, one of the central concerns of the book. I think she’s also a character hungry for consolation. That hunger leads her to be a bit blind, and she’s not unusual in that regard. I know lots of people like her: smart, widely traveled, but at the same time self-absorbed, who regard travel as a kind of vanity project. The novel is, in part, a criticism of those kinds of people.” In other words, the humanity in Shalini runs deep, and when Vijay talks about her narrator, I sense great affection, though not always approval. “There is, in her, a fundamental longing for family and protection that sometimes causes her to go too far in certain directions. I don’t think of her as particularly insensitive to her surroundings. In fact, she feels too many things at once and can become paralyzed as a result.”
On some level, the goal was to write an unsafe book—not something, as Vijay puts it, “cheaply provocative,” not something that includes inflammatory content gratuitously, but something that takes “readers to places that are not the usual places.” And as a novel, The Far Field took Vijay to unusual places as well. “I remember the feeling I had on so many days, closing the computer, saving the manuscript. I had no landmarks. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing. I liked that feeling.” (She laughs here. “This all sounds very bombastic,” she says. “Vain!” But it doesn’t. It sounds like the journey of a writer—the removal of signposts—even if it’s a journey not often discussed.)
This sense of “unsafety” is reflected directly in Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir, a dangerous place she barely understands, where threats are potentially everywhere. “When you have a female narrator acting recklessly as opposed to a male narrator, that adds, for the reader, a level of discomfort that is perhaps unconscious. We’re familiar and comfortable with stories of solitary men traveling through foreign landscapes, leaving behind broken hearts and destruction, but we recoil when a woman does the same….It’s also different, there’s no question, to be a woman on a train, on a street, in a conflict zone. And every moment, [Shalini] is aware of her vulnerability, even if she may not acknowledge it. Yet it is a vulnerability that’s tempered and countered by the protection that comes from wealth and privilege. She can give her dad a call and go back home at any moment. There is the push and pull of risk and protection that only comes about because of who she is.”
Reading The Far Field, and going on this journey with Shalini (and Vijay), I kept thinking of the films of Alfonso Cuarón and the way he balances the personal with the political. Roma or Children of Men are movies about specific characters, closely realized, while in the background there’s a canvas of a larger world, always set against them, always vibrating toward explosion in the margins. I mention this comparison to Vijay. “The political isn’t trumpeted,” she says. “It’s not clean and obvious, and it shouldn’t be. It should work in every scene, in every moment. I have no idea whether I’ve succeeded in this regard, but it was important to me to try.”
Benjamin Rybeck is the author of a novel, The Sadness. The former general manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, he now lives in Brooklyn.