“Shalini is looking for any clues she can find to the life of her mother, which always was mysterious to her even up to the end of her mother’s life. What she knows for a fact is that her mother was happiest when she was around this man who use to visit their home in Bangalore when Shalini was a child.” Novelist Madhuri Vijay about The Far Field with host Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
TRANSCRIPT OF MADHURI VIJAY author of THE FAR FIELD
Madhuri Vijay: I’m Madhuri Vijay and this is The Far Field. The Far Field is a novel about a young Indian woman who travels from her home in the south of India to the region of Kashmir in the north of India in search of a mysterious figure from her past and who ends up finding a lot more than she bargain for.
Alka Joshi: Madhuri, I am just so excited to talk to you. I absolutely loved this novel. So Shalini is looking for Basheer Ahmed, and I want to know why is it so important for her to find this figure from her past?
Vijay: Thank you, Alka, for inviting me on the show. It’s a pleasure to be here. Shalini is looking for any clues she can find to the life of her mother, which always was mysterious to her, even up till the end of her mother’s life. And what she knows for a fact is that her mother was happiest, most carefree, most dynamic when she was around this man named Basheer Ahmed, who used to visit their home in Bangalore when Shalini was a child. And it’s mysterious to Shalini, in the way that these things are mysterious to all of us, the sort of laws of attraction, why this man sparked this life in her mother is not really something she understands, but she is convinced or has convinced herself that if she does find him, then she will in turn, understand something more about her mother. And so she invests him with a significance that is probably more than justified, it’s not quite justified rather. It’s almost a spiritual quest that she pins on a very human person.
Joshi: You have taught in Kashmir. And I want to know, what is it about Kashmir that drew you to that region?
Vijay: I don’t actually think that it was any one thing. I had friends that told me about a school there, and the time that I spent there, I spent as a teacher, but the more I started thinking about Kashmir, the more I realized the very obvious yet astounding fact that it ostensibly belonged to the same country as ours, the way that these things are defined, the way that countries are defined. And yet I knew next to nothing about it. I had grown up more or less alongside the most recent iteration of the conflict. So from the late ’80s through the ’90s and into the early 2000s and yet, all as an adult pretty much, as a 20 year old or 21 year old, I didn’t know a thing, what we had covered in my school, history classes was fairly perfunctory, the news, the media, all the portrayals in the news and the media were… There was a particular code.
There was a code to them. They were full of acronyms and everybody was shaking their heads as if you should already know everything about it. And yet, it was singularly unhelpful, especially about the place as place. And Kashmir itself is shrouded in so much legend and the myth of its beauty and the grandeur of its landscape. So it was a place that was already prone to mythologizing made even more mythical and distant because of the conflict. And so, once I had started to think about that, this very gap in knowledge began to interest me because I fancied myself an educated, intelligent person. And yet here I was absolutely stupid about one of the most important and intractable and bloody conflicts in my lifetime. And so I felt very stupid and very young. Always I fancied myself mature. And so that’s partly where that first line of the book came from. It was thinking about distance between experience and innocence, and so that’s why I wanted to start off with that line. I am 30 years old and that is nothing.
Joshi: You know, my father is 89 years old, Madhuri, and so he still remembers Nehru and what he did at the time that Kashmir was being divided and thought about which country is going to get it. And so he is still mad at Nehru for leading us in this place where all the poor [inaudible 00:07:53] do not know what is going on. There’s the indigenous people and so on. Anyway, but I go off track. Let me ask you some more questions. Shalini’s mother is very complicated, at times she is sweet, she is funny, but at other times she’s very remote and sometimes even cruel. Why did you decide to have a mother who is so complex that her daughter has to go all the way to Kashmir to find out what she’s all about?
Vijay: Well, if my therapist asking me this question, I would probably have a different answer. I really don’t know why I’m drawn to characters like that. However, from a craft standpoint in the first iteration of this novel Shalini’s mother was fairly… She was quite more rose, she was so sad. She was an intelligent woman whose life wasn’t quite as wide as her intelligence should have allowed her to have. And so she was your average bored housewife. And somehow at some point in the drafts, her unpredictability started to turn up a little bit and the more it did, the more fun I had writing her. So I cracked it up a little more, and then it allowed me actually to exercise muscles in the writing that I wasn’t getting a chance to otherwise. And it actually made the scenes livelier.
So from a craft standpoint, I think one reason that she is like that is because it made the writing just more interesting than if everybody were just [inaudible 00:09:45], didn’t speak more than two words. She injected fun and unpredictability and tension into every scene that she was in. But the funny thing is the minute that rightly choice was made, everything, all the other characters started to change as a result of her, and so the book became different. And I find it so interesting to think that a choice made partly out of my desire to have a wider range, in the end becomes such an integral part of the book that one could believe that her character was what came first, but it wasn’t really the case.
Joshi: You alternated the novel between what is happening with Shalini and Kashmir. And then, what was her life like, as a young girl in Bangalore when Basheer Ahmed was coming and selling his wears to them. So why did you decide to alternate this life between what’s happening with Shalini in the present and what was happening with her, as a young girl in Banglore?
Vijay: When I first began writing the novel, I actually started with Shalini as a child. And actually it began as a story in which there was no Kashmir section at all. So I had a Basheer Ahmed like figure, who came to this house and there was a mother and a daughter, and they had this sort of a relationship. But when I started to expand it into a novel, I realized that there wasn’t going to be enough. And it was actually a suggestion from a teacher of mine and a friend and a teacher. He said, basically she should just go there. And he was right, because all sorts of possibilities were opened up to me the minute she decided to get on a train and go, but I was still interested in the childhood sections. And it did seem to me that it held the key to something. Because when I tried to write only the adult sections, I kept coming back to the child. And so in the end, it just felt like I couldn’t do without either one. I had to have both. And so that’s why the alternating structure stayed.
Joshi: Shalini is a lone wanderer. Now what’s the significance of a woman traveling alone?
Vijay: I think it’s fairly significant. I think it would’ve been a very different novel if Shalini had been a man, or if she had been traveling with a male friend or with her father. I’ve traveled a lot in India alone. From the time I was a teenager, I’ve been on trains, in buses, in hotels. And there’s a particular armour you put on, if you’re a young woman traveling alone, you get this, there’s a, prickliness a defensiveness, sometimes a kind of blankness that you put on, when you’re traveling alone. And people respond to you with curiosity, sometimes with resentment and the weird sort of irritation, oftentimes with the desire to protect, I’ve been taken under the wing of so many people in so many situations and they arrange my life for me.
They’re like, “Okay, tomorrow we booked you this. Now you are going to go with them. We’ve got you a driver,” and they sort of want to do things for you. And I wanted her to be alone so that people would react to her. The fact of her aloneness invites interference. And a lot of what happens to her in Kashmir, happens because of interference because people decide, all right, now you’re going to go up to this village. So there she goes. And her life changes. So I wanted her to be in some strange way, a conduit for other people’s dynamism and action, so they put their desires into her and then make her do things. And then she finds herself in interesting situations.
Joshi: Shalini goes to two different families while she’s on her journey and she ends up staying with them and she finds a lot of comfort from both of them in different ways. Why is she so drawn to these families in Kashmir?
Vijay: I think that she has come from a family situation that was very tightly knit. So for the most part, well, almost exclusively, really in her life, it’s just been her and her father and her mother. If you notice in the book, there are no other relatives. There are no grandfathers, there are no aunts, there’s no neighbor knocking on the door with whatever gulab jamuns or whatever, they’re very lonely people. And there’s a claustrophobia in this, except for Basheer Ahmed. He’s the one who enters and pierces this very tight structure.
So for her to be on her own and in these other families for the first time, I think it’s like a drug, to see other possibilities of existing, within other structures to insert herself into other lives is, I think very intoxicating and comforting and strange and alluring. And for her, it becomes a game and it only becomes a problem, then it becomes more that a game. And she really doesn’t just want to try on the clothes, she wants to keep them.
Joshi: Yeah. I found that so interesting. And then Shalini finds herself drawn to Riyaz. Now I want to know what is it, that’s drawing those two people together. One who’s only grown up in Kashmir, one who grew up in Bangalore?
Vijay: Right. Well, I think from the moment that Riyaz and Shalini meet each other, on some level they recognize that they have had similar childhoods. What I mean by that is they have had in some way, an absent parent. So Riyaz is Basheer Ahmed’s son. And for large portions of his childhood, his father was gone in Bangalore. He was with Shalini’s his mother essentially, or he was traveling and making a living. Whereas for Shalini, the absence was a more subtle one, but in some ways, they’ve had a similar experience of parental absence. So they recognized that right away. So that’s something that draws them. And I think they represent a sort of a stereotype to each other. They both mistake each other for, or idealized versions of what they want.
So to Riyaz, mission of Shalini is… She’s emblematic of the big city, of an anonymity, of freedom, of escape, of just getting out of this place where everybody knows him and everybody knows his past, and he’ll never be rid of it. And for Shalini, Riyaz he is emblematic of this life where everything seems so set and so determined and full of routine. And there’s a kind of stability in it, oddly enough, in this particular rural life that where she knows what’s going to happen day after day. And so I think they both idealize each other’s lives of what they imagine to be each other’s lives and invest their affection in sort of a Mirage, I think.
Joshi: And I think what I felt is that the two of them, in being together, they bring Basheer Ahmed, the way that it used to be back to life. They’re both sort of living that life through each other being together.
Vijay: Yeah. That’s true.
Joshi: You wrote once that a writer is a magpie or a vampire, I remember. And I thought that is really an interesting way to talk about writers. We are sort of sucking information, we’re like sponges. So talk a little bit about what you meant by having a writer be a magpie or a vampire.
Vijay: Well, I’m sure I’m not the first person to have said that. And in fact, I don’t remember having said that, but I think it just means that you are constantly, whether you know it or not, whether I suppose it’s conscious or not, you are collecting think things, gestures, and the shape of somebody’s clothes, or an odd phrasy over here, or a particular sad story or some gruesome detail from some news piece that you hear, and these things sort of float around without any home for a while and then somehow combine in unexpected ways. And that’s really all I mean by that. This book and everything I’ve written, it’s got patches of things that I’ve read or heard or seen, or have been told. So, that’s really all I meant by that.
Joshi: What do you think the novel taught you about yourself?
Vijay: The writing of the novel? I think it taught me that writing a novel is very hard. And it also taught me that perhaps most useful trait a writer can have apart from talent or inspiration or even education is really endurance and tenacity to come back day after day, then to have a draft and then to come back day after day, and then to have a second. The work is so tedious and so unglamorous, and it really feels mindless at some points, but it taught me that I do have this particular kind of endurance. I am able to do it without giving up, just throwing my hands up and walking away. So above all, I think that’s what it taught me.
Joshi: Wonderful. You have Shalini’s father playing LPs and in fact that is the way that you end the story. So tell me, what kind of music do you like?
Vijay: I’m also magpie when it comes to music. I really listen to anything. I rely on the people to tell me what to listen to. Everything, from Punjabi folk music to Joni Mitchell to whatever to [inaudible 00:22:22]. I love more or less any kind of music. I used to sing Indian classical music. I used to learn Indian classical music, Carnatic music, when I was younger. I don’t listen to that as much anymore, but it strikes a very deep chord with me. Choral music, I really love choral music. And you name it, I listen to more or less everything. I listen to all the records that Shalini’s father listens to. In the book I put all those in because I like them.
Joshi: I figured as much, I do the same thing when I write too. I put in all kinds of things that I really love. So is there anything that you would like for your reader to take away about your novel after reading it?
Vijay: No. I don’t have a particular lesson as such. And in fact, I think I would say that if the reader finishes my book and comes away with a slightly less certain version of the world than I’m satisfied, I think a novel is a really great instrument, not to shape opinion or to enlighten, but to obfuscate and to make more complex. So I think that if you come away with the sense that human beings are mysterious and the world is difficult and sad, that’s enough for me. And I don’t need anybody to be enlightened or educated or anything like that and I certainly don’t seek to be enlightened or educated or even inspired or made to feel good. I absolutely do not seek that from the books. I love the books. I love make me think that being alive is very difficult but it’s a very noble enterprise. So, that would be the pinnacle for me, but failing that, just a sense of mystery, perhaps.
Joshi: Madhuri, you’re a young mother, you’re a new mother. And so how are you finding time to write these days? Are you working on something you’d like us to know about?
Vijay: I am working on a novel, which I have been working on actually since my daughter was born. She’s two now. Somebody told me that in the first year after you have a baby, you’re not going to work at all. And so I took that as a challenge and I produced a draft in the first year after her birth, but I think the sleep deprivation shows, because it makes no sense at all. That’s about all I have at the moment under my belt. So I’m going to have to go and see what I do with that. I think now that COVID is slightly easing, maybe it’s not, who knows, it changes from day to day. And she’s at the age where she can be put in a daycare or whatever. Then I think I’ll have more time to actually go and sort out this horrible mess that I’ve made.
Joshi: Madhuri, thank you for being here with us to talk about The Far Field. Congratulations on such a beautiful novel.
Madhuri: Thank you, Alka. It was my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Joshi: And thank you for watching A Word on Words.I’m Alka Joshi. Keep reading.
Madhuri Vijay Recommends
Baumgartner’s Bombay, by Anita Desai
Age of Iron, by J. M. Coetzee
Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir, by Farah Bashir