Madhuri Vijay on the Outsider’s Perspective of the Kashmir Conflict
The Author of The Far Field in conversation with Kendra Winchester
and Autumn Privett on Reading Women
Continuing with this month’s theme of Chronic Illness and Mental Health, Reading Women Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett along with special guest, Madhuri Vijay discuss Vijay’s debut novel, The Far Field.
From the episode:
Madhuri Vijay: The Far Field is a novel set in India, or to be more specific, in two very different parts of India. It follows a young woman who is from the city of Bangalore in the south, which is a giant metropolis of roughly eight million people. And she travels north across the length of the country to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is the northern most state, to a little village there in search of a man that she used to know, or who used to visit her home, when she was a child and developed an unusual sort of relationship with her mother. And at the time that she makes this trip, her mother has died. It’s a sort of confused pilgrimage. She doesn’t quite know what she is looking for.I think of it as a book that is about the collision of an individual and a country.
But as I’m sure many of your listeners know already, Kashmir is a volatile region, which has been contested by India, Pakistan, and to some degree by China for a very long time. It remains politically unstable today. And so her trip, which begins in a very personal goal quickly turns into something larger and more confusing than she’d anticipated. And she is brought into a position where she has to make certain decisions, and those decisions are not always good ones. And so I think of it as a book that is about the collision of an individual and a country. You know what does it mean when a person, a private citizen, comes into contact with these large geopolitical forces and what forms do they take? That’s how I tend to think of it.
Autumn Privett: You mentioned that the story is kind of a pilgrimage, and it is. And it’s also kind of like a history. It’s just so layered how you write this story. What was the original point of inspiration? Or what first inspired you to write the story?
MV: There was no single point of inspiration. I kept coming back to it in various forms and various avatars over the years. Ultimately, it formed this kind of, I suppose, a patchwork inspiration. But there was no single inciting factor. I grew up in Bangalore, which is in the south as I said. And I grew up roughly around the same time as the Kashmir conflict began. It began in the late 80s, in its current iteration. There have been many versions of this conflict over the years. And so in a strange way, I grew up alongside this conflict. But I had no experience of it even though it was happening within the borders of my own country.
I barely knew growing up that there was fighting going on hundreds of miles north of me. And it seemed so distant that nobody was talking about it when I was growing up. Not my school teachers, not my parents, not their friends. So it formed a kind of dissonance for me when I grew up because I would also . . . there would also be . . . You know, there are Kashmiri men and women who come to the south to work. And so just this idea that you could belong to the same country and have such utterly different experiences of said country. I know it’s somewhat an obvious point, but it struck me for some reason, particularly when it came to Kashmir. And I had, at some point, written a story, a very bad story, about a mother and a daughter and this salesman. It rightfully has never seen the light of day. But those are the characters I eventually ended up returning to after many, many, many, many detours and false starts and dead ends and what have you.
Kendra Winchester: So you’ve mentioned that it’s gone through several iterations. How long have you been working on The Far Field?
MV: The story that I mentioned I wrote in 2010, but I didn’t pick up the idea for a novel until 2012. And then I attempted for about a year to write some version of this book, which you would not recognize at all in this and what eventually would print. The characters were entirely different. The conflict was entirely different. I thought I had to write a certain kind of book. I think it was a case of I had already decided what the blurbs would say and what the jacket copy would say, and I was just working backwards from that. You know it was going to be sweeping and epic, and it was going to have three characters, and their lives are going—their destinies were going to intermingle in unexpected ways. I’d already written the jacket copy, as you can see. So I worked on that for more than a year.
And you know, as is the case with all these predetermined projects, it failed because I simply didn’t care. And there was no mystery. And without a certain amount of mystery and challenge and the possibility of it, it didn’t feel exciting. So I dumped that after about a year and went through several months of not knowing whether I was going to be able to do this or anything else. Then I went back to that very, very bad story. But I started with Shalini’s voice as an adult, and suddenly it was alive again.
AP: I love hearing stories like this just because I love hearing how books are made, and it reminds me of . . . You know, I’ve always heard that most writing happens in the rewriting. It’s just so encouraging to hear that a novel as beautiful as this doesn’t happen in one try. It takes a lot of time and thinking to put into it.
MV: It took a lot, not only on my part and the parts of my closest readers, to whom I gave the book for their feedback, but also on the part of my editors at Grove, who . . . It was three years in the editing process, or almost three years. And so the draft I wrote, even with Shalini’s voice is nothing like the book that is now on a shelf. And I’m so glad all of those years made a difference, and every one of those drafts made a difference.
AP: You mentioned a minute ago about how the structure of the book changed from your original concept perhaps. And I felt that the structure was really fascinating, and you know, there’s like one half of the book and then there’s kind of a second half of the book. Could you talk a little bit about how you worked through deciding how to tell the story that way.Usually the oppressed women in Indian fiction is sort of lively, but she’s oppressed. And here’s a woman who suffers many of those similar deprivations, who is also kind of mean.
MV: Part of it was deliberate. Part of it was accident. The more I began including those childhood chapters, the more I realized how crucial they were. And I think at some point, I had thought, oh you know, I’ll just get rid of these. This is just for me to excavate the background of this novel. And perhaps I won’t need it. But they seemed so potent that I realized that they had to be there. And then at some point, I realized that the narrative, and I think I like to do this, I like narratives that mirror. You know, it’s sort of a neat trick. But I like neat tricks.
And where the action in one half of time mirrors the action in the other half of time. So Bashir Ahmed comes to Shalini’s home. Shalini goes to Bashir Ahmed’s home. You know, Shalini has a sort of semi-flirtation with Riaz. Bashir Ahmed has a semi-flirtation. You know, it’s sort of . . . Each half looks very much like the other half, which of course begs the question, then how are they different? And how in the same sorts of situations, when people make different choices, how do the outcomes vary? So those are the kinds of things that helped me with the structure. But I think it’s fairly classic. The moving back and forth in time, going back to childhood and then showing the sort of repercussions of that childhood. I think that’s a fairly classic hero’s journey.
KW: And I really enjoyed the mirroring that you were talking about. And even sometimes in the same timeline, there will be echoes of a previous scene. You have present Shalini and then slightly younger Shalini and then childhood Shalini. And it’s kind of framed by this confession style of reflective voice. So when you heard Shalini’s adult voice, and you were like, Oh this is a novel. Was that confessional part of it? Something that came to you as well? Or was that something that developed over time as you were working on the novel?
MV: It was always a confession. The funny thing is, she confessed something I didn’t quite know what that was. She said, I’ve done something. And then part of the novel was figuring out what she had done. So that came early, and I knew there had to be some version of guilt. She’s admitting to something. And James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was a big influence for me, especially with that tone at the beginning of the book where you have the sense that it’s already too late. But here is the story. And you know, as far as those repetitions go, I was also thinking of music.
You know, orchestral music or choral music, whenever you repeat the phrase, I was always told, you never repeat it the same time. It has to resonate a different way. Or even, Carnatic music, Indian music, whenever you repeat a certain phrase, you can’t sing it in the same way as you sang it originally. Something has to be added. And so, that’s what I was trying to do with those repetitions. Every time you came back to a certain phrase that a character would say, it would have to gain even more depth. But that very much came from the world of music.I wasn’t interested in mitigating the harshness of what she does. And she has to live with it.
KW: And I think some of the most poignant echoes are with Shalini’s relationship with her mother, which is very complex. And I feel like the childhood timeline is always kind of shadowed by the adult timeline, and that you know what happened is that in the very beginning the book, Shalini says that her mother passed away. So you know her mom is going to pass away, but there’s that mystery of what’s going to happen with her mother and her relationship and her mother’s relationship with Bashir Ahmed. And it sounds like you had this idea for a mother/daughter relationship and the complexities that interplay between them. But what drew you to build their relationship and developing it?
And I mean, I just keep thinking about it. And it’s such a beautiful interplay between characters. But what was some of the discoveries that you made while writing it? And what drew you to that kind of relationship?
MV: I don’t know. I suspect I’ll need many, many hours on a psychotherapist couch to figure out what drew me to that. And I probably won’t like the answer. But I find her fascinating. I find a woman like that fascinating. Indian fiction has a tradition of the woman who was unhappy in her marriage, to whom education has been denied, who is confined to the role of the mother. That is established, I think I know. But I also wanted somebody who was unusual in her willingness to be vicious, which I think is less . . . is likely less common. Usually the oppressed women in Indian fiction is just that. She’s sort of lively, but she’s oppressed. And here’s a woman who suffers many of those similar deprivations, who was also kind of mean.
Your sympathies—well ideally—and certainly mine, my sympathies were divided. On the one hand, I felt very sorry for her. On the other hand, I sort of wished she would be nicer. That was a character I was interested in. And then I’m also interested in what happens when you have an outsized parent, a parent who just casts such a huge shadow over your early years that you are unable to share it, that you sort of have to drag their shadow around everywhere. You know, I know people like this. I know parents like this, who put their children in the position of having to look after them. What does that do to a child who feels responsible for the happiness of her mother or father from a very early age?
And you know, when you when you have people who are suffering from some kind of mental illness, who are alcoholics—the circumstances can be any—but the effect on the child is what I was interested in. Or what does that do to an adult? I mean, as I discovered with Shalini, it does something. You know, she has changed because of the mother she had and the father she’s had. And part of what she does is what she does. And you know that’s individual culpability, but where does that end? And where does the long, looming shadow of her childhood begin?
AP: Why was it important for this story to be told from Shalini’s perspective, say for example, instead of the people she was staying with in Kashmir or someone else who lives in Kashmir? What does her privilege, her perspective bring to it?
Madhuri: That’s a great question. The closest I can come is to say that to me, that felt like the most honest novel I could write. What I mean by that is, I could have written a novel that would have, you know, I could have written a section from Riaz’s perspective. I could have written a section from Bashir Ahmed’s. I could have written one from her mother’s perspective. And I think it would have had the effect of tempering Shalini’s character if you see her through other people’s eyes. You would probably feel a lot more softly towards her than you might otherwise. But part of the novel is concerned with the unknowability of other people. And to have included other perspectives would have made everything more knowable. To my way of thinking, less fraught with possibility because I would have had to answer and had the opportunity to answer a lot more questions and to mitigate the harshness of what she does. And I wasn’t interested in mitigating the harshness of what she does. She does that. She does what she does.
And she has to live with it. Which to me is enough to make me feel sorry for her. For the rest of her life. She’s 30 years old, and for the next 60 years, 50 years, she’s going to have to remember that she did this. Which is a terrible thing in and of itself. To be the one who causes the disaster is perhaps in some ways worse psychically than being the person to whom the disaster happens. And I had no interest in letting her off the hook.
That and then books written by Kashmiris, from the perspective of Kashmir, there are so many wonderful books. I was interested in providing a book about an outsider experiencing this conflict. Not in a sort of romanticized, I went and stayed on our house and it was mists in the morning. Not that way, but to really sort of see it. That was the story I was interested in writing. So for all of those reasons, there was no question that I had to stay with her. And I understand that it opens the book up to all kinds of risks and problems. You lose omniscience. You lose the ability to sort of contextualize because her perspective is her perspective, and it’s flawed. But it felt very necessary to the integrity of the project, of the book.