The Far Field  – ★★★
The Far Field is a debut book of the Indian author Madhuri Vijay. It tells of a privileged young woman (Shalini) who embarks on a journey from her home town Bangalore, India to the Kashmir region in search of a man (Bashir Ahmed) who was once her family’s friend. While we follow Shalini’s journey into one region filled with political instability and conflict, we are also taken back and introduced to Shalini as a child. When Shalini was a small girl, she and her mother had a frequent visitor in their house while Shalini’s father was at work. Handsome Bashir Ahmed lavished Shalini and her mother with his affection and kindness, and his departure from Bangalore is still something the family cannot accept. Madhuri Vijay describes the location and her characters vividly, trying to make her story poignant, and we may assume that we will be reading a beautiful story of one girl on a redemptive pursuit of a man (Bashir Ahmed) in the mountains of the Kashmir region. However, unfortunately, The Far Field really ends up to be an unrealistic story of much ado about nothing. There is no real mystery to uncover here nor is there any special insight to be gained from the characters. Perhaps, only Shalini’s random actions surprise and even shock, and not in a positive way at all.
The Far Field has two narratives interchanging each other: one where Shalini is twenty-four years old and going to a little Himalayan village in the Kashmir region to search for Bashir Ahmed; and another narrative where she recalls her childhood and her relationship with her mother – both she and her mother once made a close friend of a handsome door-to-door salesman Bashir Ahmed. This friend then stopped visiting Shalini’s family under yet uncertain to us circumstances. The book also starts strongly, with the narrator Shalini hinting at some mysterious event that had taken place in the past – a mystery that is connected to Bashir Ahmed, a man who left Bangalore when she was a child. Shalini also hints to us that she was to blame for the disappearance of this man from her life, and we may think initially that, perhaps, this novel will be akin to Ian McEwan’s Atonement , with the narrator taking us on her perilous journey to redeem herself and bring peace and finality to her herself and her family. Shalini does embark on a journey, but the process and the result are far from an intriguing mystery we may have envisaged at first.
One of the good elements of The Far Field is the writing and the distinctive voice of the narrator, for example, there is this interesting sentence when Shalini describes her father: “he had the intelligent man’s faith in the weight of his own ideas, and the emotional man’s impatience with anyone who did not share them” [Madhuri Vijay, 2019: 6]. At the start of the story, Shalini also appears very sympathetic to us and we do start to root for her since she is this young and directionless girl who has just finished university and is grieving the death of her mother. Shalini has an unfulfilling relationship with a young photographer Hari and does not know where her life is supposed to go, until she spontaneously decides to track down an old friend of her family – Bashir Ahmed – and goes to a far-off region in the Asian continent to find this man that may not even be alive now.
One of the major problems for me when reading this novel was that I thought the story lacked realism. We have a naïve and inexperienced young woman going across India and reaching remote regions of the country all by herself, and all the people that she meets on her journey show her nothing but kindness and hospitality, willing to help her, such as the families of Abdul Latief and of Riyaz. This is fine, but then, at some point, Shalini goes out of her small room, which she is renting on her own in a cramped hotel filled with poor people in an unknown area, and on the streets flirts with a lone soldier, asking him for a cigarette. She has met this solider only a second ago in an area where it is hard to say who is one’s enemy or who is one’s friend, but then thinks immediately that she “wants to become this soldier’s student”. Shalini does not think much about possible dangers facing a young and inexperienced woman travelling alone into a region torn by conflict and random violence (something which is hard to believe happening in real life). Another issue is that, quite suddenly, Madhuri Vijay then decides that that her book is better as a thriller after all, and, in the last hundred or so pages, we encounter a strange whirlpool of events that all begin happening to Shalini. This main character is always the centre of the world in this story, forging best of friendships with people she met just hours ago and even flirting with an army commander, who treats her as an honourable guest.
The Far Field is a debut novel that promises a very interesting story set in one very curious corner of the world. It is therefore a pity that Vijay’s novel ends up to be so unrealistic, as well as ludicrously plotted and characterised, losing its compelling force completely near the end.