The narrator tells the story of leaving home in Bangalore as a drifting young adult to search for a Kashmiri man she knew from childhood. From the start Shalini says that her privilege and naiveté had caused her to do great harm to others in that troubled area. The reader waits for that blow, as Shalini described the family dynamics as she is growing up and at the same time told of the events that unfolded in Kashmir.
Shalini’s mother was toxic and impressively dismissive of all those around her, but won the adoration of Shalini. Over the years of Shalini’s childhood, the occasional visits of Bashir Ahmed, a door-to-door clothing peddler from Kashmir were happy times, as he entranced the two of them with stories. As an adult, she came to understand that her mother and Bashir loved each other.
Years after her mother died, she decided to search for him in Kashmir. On her way to finding him, she spent time in two villages in the mountains, one of them reachable only on foot. She won the affection of some and grew to love the idea of life in a mountain village. She slowly recognized the long-standing forces at work: the Indian army soldiers, militants from other countries, the Hindus, and the Muslims, but didn’t fully understand the implications.
She acted as though her privilege gave her power and that unraveling the faults that occurred in years past could change the situation as she wished. For much of the time her mucking about was merely theoretically dangerous for others and I thought perhaps she was feeling guilty for a misperceived wrong. Then in an act of stunning audacity, she thought she would right a wrong and instead she caused terrible harm to those she loved in the village. By the time she fully realized what she had done, she was safely back in Bangalore and we learn that in the years after this, she has made a comfortable life for herself through work and a connection with her father. This book is her confession.
What a fine storyteller the author is; this is a wonderful tale. You don’t come away knowing what’s happened in Kashmir; you learn that you can’t possibly “understand” that. What a valuable lesson.
I particularly like some of the author’s descriptions. During one of the periods when Shalini’s mother was happy, conversation turned to casual, uninformed talk of Kashmir. Shalini describes her mother’s face: “…her eyes were open and fixed, but the rest of her face was a mask. My first thought was that she looked like someone staring at an oncoming vehicle with enough time to register the impact that was milliseconds away, but too late to do anything to avoid it.” About the high level army man who plucked her out of the village, Shelani says, “…he too was dressed in civilian clothes but he carried himself with the quiet confidence of someone who took authority so much as his due that he was not made pompous by it.” And thus we are forewarned about him.
Madhuri Vijay, The Far Field, Grove Press, 2019, 448 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.