PUSHCART PRIZE WINNER Madhuri Vijay’s elegant debut novel, The Far Field, has just appeared from Grove Press. The novel follows one young woman’s search for a lost figure from her childhood, a journey that carries her from cosmopolitan Bangalore in Southern India to the mountains of Kashmir and to the brink of a devastating political and personal reckoning.
Madhuri Vijay is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and a recipient of the Henfield Prize. Vijay’s writing has received a Pushcart Prize, as well as a 30 Below Prize from Narrative Magazine, and has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, Narrative, and Salon, among other publications.
SCOTT BURTON: Place is an important feature in your new novel, The Far Field. It largely plays out in Bangalore and a small village in mountainous Kashmir. What made you want to set the novel in these places?
MADHURI VIJAY: In part, sheer familiarity. I grew up in Bangalore, and I spent a couple of years living and working in a village in Kashmir, so to set the novel in those two places seemed like the natural and obvious choice. But I was also aware that those places haven’t yet found much of a footing in fiction, and that was, I’m sure, part of their appeal. Countless Indian novels have been set in Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta, but far fewer have been set in Bangalore. Likewise, I’ve read a fair number of books set in the lovely and embattled Valley of Kashmir, but none set in the region where I was living. I suppose I wanted in some small way to feel like I was treading fresh ground.
Equally vivid are the characters in the novel. We follow Shalini, the narrator, as she searches for a man from her past after her mother’s death. We discover she possesses a rich interior life as we follow her often-conflicted relationship with the other characters. Was she an enjoyable character to write?
She was fairly challenging, actually. The adult Shalini is so remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even I, as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice. That was originally why I began including sections from her childhood. They were a kind of escape; they allowed me to see her in a way that was lighter and more playful, more forgiving. And it turned out to be the right approach, because the more of her childhood I included, the more I understood and sympathized with her. And that, in turn, made the adult sections easier to write.
Shalini is a highly self-aware character who suspects there may be something broken in her. In moments, the reader feels she is struggling to keep herself together. How were you able to imbue the novel with this unstable tension?
I’m glad you felt that tension; it was an important element for me to include. There are, I think, people in this world who are constantly aware of impending disaster, who cannot bring themselves to trust, even slightly, in the permanence of happiness because they are certain it will be snatched away at any moment. Shalini is one of those people. She reacts strongly to everything around her, she feels intense joy and fear and pleasure and anger and yet she is stuck in a constant battle between those feelings and her behavior. That struggle was useful in keeping the novel saturated with tension.
Throughout the novel, we return to Shalini’s relationships with her parents. It becomes evident that her mother is her favorite, a demanding woman Shalini is eager to impress but also resents. Why did you want to examine the relationship between a mother and daughter?
Literature is rife with portraits of mothers and daughters, and for good reason; it’s a rich seam. In addition to all the usual reasons for writing about a parent-child relationship, I was also writing about a very specific period in recent Indian history, a period when those relationships started to become paramount. The ’90s in India were a time of rapid economic liberalization and consequent social change. The older traditional joint family structure, at least among a tiny section of urban elites, was starting to give way to the Westernized model of nuclear families, i.e., a family comprised of mother, father, and one or two children. There are no other relatives mentioned in the book, no domineering aunts or fussy grandfathers or gossipy uncles, and that was a deliberate choice. I wanted to divorce Shalini’s family from all the old structures, to put them in an essentially modern situation, with all of modernity’s inherent privacy and independence — and loneliness.
I read Shalini’s mother as disillusioned by how her life has gone. Is regret something that interests you?
I’m interested in anyone whose perception of the world suddenly finds itself at odds with reality. For 40 years, you think your spouse is faithful to you, then one day you discover she is not. You think your son is an angel, then one day he calls you from jail. Shalini’s mother experiences this sort of dissonance, I think, about her own life. One could call it regret, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the moment when the switch snaps, when a person realizes she must do something, or die as she is. And that isn’t just true of Shalini’s mother. All the novel’s characters — Riyaz, Amina, Bashir Ahmed, Shalini’s father, Shalini herself — arrive at a moment of crisis and decision, where they must change something vital about their lives or perish. I’m certainly under no illusion that I’ve stumbled into radically new territory here — moments of crisis, after all, have formed the stuff of storytelling for centuries.
Shalini befriends two women in Kashmir: first Zoya, an older woman looking for her son, disappeared in the conflict, and then Amina, a woman Shalini’s age struggling to keep her young family together. What draws you to tell stories of female friendship?
It’s interesting to hear you describe her relationships with Zoya and Amina as friendships. To my mind, they are failed attempts at friendships. In one version of this story, Shalini would have opened herself up to Zoya and Amina. She would have entrusted them with the truth about her mother and, in doing so, allowed herself to be redeemed and forgiven. That doesn’t happen. Shalini never reveals herself to either woman, never manages to muster the courage that true friendship requires. Most importantly, she comes to no grand conclusions at the end of her trip. I’ve always been skeptical of stories in which wealthy people convince themselves that if only they leave their empty, bourgeois lives behind and travel to some poor, picturesque country on the other side of the globe, they will immediately learn some great, life-changing truth about themselves. Shalini has quite the opposite experience, and it is a more honest one, as far as I’m concerned. This is not to say that she learns nothing, just that the lessons are humbler and not always flattering.
Do you feel your novel is making any particular comment on contemporary Indian society?
I think it’s probably dangerous for a writer to be too certain of her novel’s underpinnings, whether social, political, moral, or thematic, and just as dangerous to draw too neat a line between any novel — however faithful to reality — and reality itself. A novel should be allowed to create its own moral order, which may not perfectly align with the moral order of the world in which we live. Having said that, I think I will always find it astonishing that a person growing up at one end of India can remain practically ignorant of the conflict going on at the other end, say, in a place like Kashmir. Ignorance, deliberate and otherwise, was very much on my mind when I was writing the novel, and I mean the kind of ignorance that exists not just in India, but all over the world. The kind most of us practice in one form or another every single day, closing our eyes to the world’s horrors so we can carry on with our lives. If the novel is an indictment of anything, it is of the cowardly, but very human, instinct to look away from ugliness, from the difficulties of others.
One might argue that Shalini’s journey is one of self-discovery. In the process of writing the novel do you feel you got to know yourself better?
I certainly learned a great deal about myself as a writer, my strengths and capabilities, as well as my many tics and evasions. I learned that I am capable of working very hard and for a very long time at what I love, and that I am invariably dissatisfied with the results. But, perhaps most gratifyingly, the writing of this novel has taught me that writing novels is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I consider that as great a piece of fortune as anything.