The last place a grieving young woman should go is to a low-level war zone. And yet, that’s what Shalini does in Madhuri Vijay’s devastating The Far Field, several months after her mother’s death. Shalini recalls enough details about her mother’s friend, Bashir Ahmed, to locate his village in Jammu and Kashmir. She abandons her home in Bangalore (Bengaluru), stuffs a bunch of money and clothes into a rucksack, and takes a train north with no goal other than a vague plan to find Bashir and tell him about her mother’s death. This wish leads Shalini to blunder her way to the worst thing she’ll ever do, an unforgivable act that she will atone for the rest of her life.
Shalini is the daughter of privilege; her father owns a factory and she never wants for anything materially. Her mother, however, is volatile. The woman runs hot and cold so quickly that she begs readers to diagnose her. Shalini is constantly on guard, worried that something she’ll say or do will set off her mother’s anger or scorn. This combination leads Shalini to think that she is a little wiser, a little savvier than everyone else—but she always has her father and his money as a safety net to keep her from messing things up too badly. Her father paid out a “donation” to get her into a good college, in spite of her lack luster grades. He even gets her a job after her mother’s death, to keep her from sliding too deeply into depression. And when she decides, against all reason, to go north to Jammu and Kashmir, he gives her even more money and arranges a useful military contact for her if she gets into trouble.
The Far Field moves back and forth in time, from Shalini’s ill-starred journey to the north to when she was 13 and her mother made a strange friendship with a clothing peddler from Kishtwar, Jammu. Bashir Ahmed had a talent for entertaining Shalini’s mother. He told stories when he dropped in. These stories—all of them turning morals on their head and possessing deep irony—can hold Shalini’s mother’s mercurial attention. But Shalini catches on to the fact that there is something adulterous (though not literally) about the relationship. Bashir returns to Jammu permanently after a disastrous dinner party and never returns to Bangalore. It’s hard to say exactly why Shalini wants to find him again, but I senses that Shalini had her own relationship with Bashir. Unlike her distant father and troubled mother, Bashir offered Shalini a parental affection she was missing. Shalini could be a child around Bashir in a way she couldn’t with her own parents.
When Shalini arrives in Kishtwar, she arrives like a big rock in a deep lake. Everyone around her is wary, tense, and carrying heavy emotional burdens from years of conflict with the Indian Army and separatists. Dozens or hundreds of men have been disappeared. Shalini is able to bond, eventually, with some of the surviving relatives before she finally makes contact with Bashir’s family. As with Bashir, Shalini feels at home with his family in a way she never seemed to in Bangalore. She wants to stay, even though everyone else thinks she’s nuts. They’d leave in a heartbeat if they had the wherewithal.
Of course, the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir is never stable. When a group of mysterious agitators start to kick up trouble, Shalini’s tentative peace comes crashing down. I read the last half of The Far Field in a rush, heart in my mouth as Shalini’s mistakes and the political tension collide to ruin lives, shatter Shalini’s burgeoning sense of self-worth, and tear the two tentatively connected families apart. I picked this book up partly because of a blurb Anthony Marra gave and I am so glad I did. The Far Field has a lot of the same tragic characters and storyline, set in a beautiful, rugged place torn apart by historical conflict that Marra’s novels have. The more I read of this novel, the more I loved it.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.