An excerpt from The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay: Winner of the JCB Prize for Literature 2019

I am thirty years old and that is nothing.

I know what this sounds like, and I hesitate to begin with something so obvious, but let me say it anyway, at the risk of sounding naïve. And let it stand alongside this: six years ago, a man I knew vanished from his home in the mountains. He vanished in part because of me, because of certain things I said, but also things I did not have, until now, the courage to say. So, you see, there is nothing to be gained by pretending to a wisdom I do not possess. What I am, what I was, and what I have done—all of these will become clear soon enough.

This country, already ancient when I was born in 1982, has changed every instant I’ve been alive. Titanic events have ripped it apart year after year, each time rearranging it along slightly different seams and I have been touched by none of it: prime ministers assassinated, peasantguerrillas waging war in emerald jungles, fields cracking under the iron heel of a drought, nuclear bombs cratering the wide desert floor, lethal gases blasting from pipes and into ten thousand lungs, mobs crashing against mobs and always coming away bloody. Consider this: even now, at this very moment, there are people huddled in a room somewhere, waiting to die. This is what I have told myself for the last six years, each time I have had the urge to speak. It will make no difference in the end.

But lately the urge has turned into something else, something with sharper edges, which sticks under the ribs and makes it dangerous to breathe.

So let me be clear, here at the start.

If I do speak, if I do tell what happened six years ago in that village in the mountains, a village so small it appears only on military maps, it will not be for reasons of nobility. The chance for nobility is over. Even this, story or confession or whatever it turns out to be, is too late.

 

 

My mother asleep. The summer afternoon, the sun an open wound, the air outside straining with heat and noise. But here, in our living room, the curtains are drawn; there is a dim and deadly silence. My mother lies on the sofa, cheek pressed to the armrest, asleep.

The bell rings. She doesn’t open her eyes right away, but there is movement behind her lids, the long return from wherever she has been. She stands, walks to the door.

Hello, madam, hello, hello, I am selling some very nice pens

Good afternoon, madam, please listen to this offer, if you subscribe to one magazine, you get fifty percent—

A long-lashed boy with a laminated sign: I am from Deaf and Dumb Society—

“Oh, get lost,” my mother says. And shuts the door.

 

 

Somebody once described my mother as “a strong woman.” From the speaker’s tone, I knew it was not intended as a compliment. This was, after all, the woman who cut off all contact with her own father after he repeatedly ignored his wife’s chronic lower back pain, which turned out to be the last stages of pancreatic cancer; the woman who once broke a flickering lightbulb by flinging a scalding hot vessel of rice at it; the woman whose mere approach made shopkeepers hurry into the back, praying for invisibility; the woman who sometimes didn’t sleep for three nights in a row; the woman who nodded sympathetically through our neighbor’s fond complaints about the naughtiness of her five-year-old son, then said, with every appearance of sincerity, “He sounds awful. Shall I slit his throat for you and get it over with?”

This was the woman whose daughter I am. Was. Am. All else flows from that.

PRAISE FOR THE FAR FIELD

“Consuming . . . Vijay’s command of storytelling is so supple that it’s easy to discount the stealth with which she constructs her tale, shifting time frames with seamless ease and juggling a wealth of characters who cling to the heart. The show-stealer is Shalini’s mercurial mother, an ‘outrageous queen’ of capricious gestures. Vijay smartly resists psychoanalyzing her, implying that the china-shop bulls in our families can be survived but never entirely explained away.” – NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

“Ambitious . . . Vijay’s descriptions of the mountains, the people and their everyday lives are beautiful, and that makes the hidden ugliness all the more disturbing; this is a seriously impressive debut.” – THE TIMES

A beautifully nuanced tale in these times of no nuance . . . A febrile tension pulsates on each page of this coming-of-age story. The Far Field is an accomplished debut.” – THE HINDU

“A masterful piece of fiction. Vijay writes with an assurance surprising in a first-time novelist, and is a delight to read. And while this is an in-depth expansion on the history and people of Jammu and Kashmir (humane but never sentimental), it is her protagonist who compels most, as Shalini watches her certainties gradually taken away from her and then returned laden with nuance and complexity.” – OBSERVER

“Vijay probes grand themes—tribalism, despotism, betrayal, death, resurrection—in exquisite but unflowery prose, and with sincere sentiment but little sentimentality . . . Kashmir itself emerges in vivid details: the taste of salted chai, the ‘dark rise of the mountains, freckled with their hundreds of glittering homes.’”" – NEW YORKER

The Far Field is most poignant when it exposes the unintentional havoc of good intentions . . . For the vast majority of us, who hear of the troubles in Kashmir only as a faint strain in the general din of world tragedies, The Far Field offers something essential: a chance to glimpse the lives of distant people captured in prose gorgeous enough to make them indelible — and honest enough to make them real.” – WASHINGTON POST

“Ms. Vijay is an effortlessly assured prose writer . . . The book’s length led me to expect something slow and atmospheric, but to my surprise I snapped it up in two sittings . . . The Far Field is illuminating about the persecutions in Kashmir, but at its heart it is about the ironclad laws of class by which all India is ruled.” – WALL STREET JOURNAL

“What makes this compelling book so page-turning is not the larger political situation but the drama of small, fraught human interactions . . . Vijay’s mastery of traditional narrative skills wouldn’t be out of place in a classic 19th-century novel . . . The Far Field is an impressive performance. It will be fascinating to see what Vijay does next.” – SUNDAY TIMES

“A courageous, insightful and affecting debut novel.” – THE ECONOMIST

“Madhuri Vijay's supremely accomplished debut novel . . . is an expansive and wonderfully immersive work . . . gives us a brilliant outsider's view of an exotic, off-the-beaten-track realm and a compelling portrayal of a character gradually unraveling due to forces beyond her control. This is a stunning novel that skillfully grapples with the complexities of human relationships. Madhuri Vijay's career looks very bright indeed.” MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

“Luminous in outlining a young woman’s struggle to shape her own life . . . One of Vijay’s gifts is that she can make us feel for a protagonist who knows so little, yet yearns so deeply for something beyond her cushioned life . . . [A] remarkable story, and Vijay is likely to be a talent to watch.” FINANCIAL TIMES

“Stunning . . . The Far Field chafes against the useless pity of outsiders and instead encourages a much more difficult solution: cross-cultural empathy.” – PARIS REVIEW

The Far Field is a book about big ideas . . . It’s a lot to ask of a novel, but Vijay knows exactly what she’s doing. Precise, restrained and possessing a lightness of touch that eludes most writers, The Far Field is most thrilling in its heralding of a voice that is completely assured, and conveys a rare emotional wisdom while sidestepping any hints of the mawkish.” – INDIAN EXPRESS

“Loss can make a detective out of anyone . . . It can also, as Madhuri Vijay so thornily illustrates in her debut novel, The Far Field, blind us from all that’s around us . . . The Far Field becomes a layered examination of pressing Indian political conflicts . . . Here is a singular story of mother and daughter — a loving, broken bond so strong it touches, changes, and hurts countless lives beyond theirs.” – ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“Arresting . . . captures Kashmir’s everyday horror with exhilarating, puissant prose . . . The Far Field stands as an important reminder that all privilege is, in the end, political.” – BOMB MAGAZINE

“Vijay's descriptive powers and eloquent prose work brilliantly . . . Vijay's writing is socially astute, exploring taboos of mental illness, female sexuality and religious indifference . . . remarkably vivid.” – SHELF AWARENESS

“Vijay is an astute chronicler of the everyday emotions that roil seemingly calm lives, whether in Bengaluru or in Kashmir. She is also a sharp observer of the myriad ways in which the Indian aspirational classes gloss over the state violence in Kashmir.” INDIA TODAY

“History, class prejudice, Indian politics, grief, guilt and the limits of compassion intertwine in this enthralling debut.” NEWSWEEK

“Hauntingly beautiful . . . The Far Field is rich in poignancy, in story and characters.” HINDUSTAN TIMES

“In Madhuri Vijay’s exquisite debut novel, The Far Field, grief propels a young woman to northern India, where she seeks answers about her mother’s past. She meets people and communities constantly on the brink of political violence, upending her assumptions about herself and her country.” – ELLE

“The book’s first and final chapters end with the same direct phrase: “I am thirty years old and that is nothing.” Between the first and second time the reader sees these words, a story exploring the passage of time and the repercussions of one’s actions sets out to ask the charged question of what it is that we spend our lives searching for.” – VANITY FAIR

“An impressive debut.” – COSMOPOLITAN

“Vijay provides that alchemical mix of political examination with personal journey that deepens all great novels . . . At times brutal, but always tuned to the desperately sweet longing for human connection, Vijay has created a necessary and lovely work that transcends 2018!” – SOUTHERN LIVING

“Deals with big questions—Indian politics, class, history and sexuality—through beautiful prose.” – HUFFINGTON POST INDIA

“Vijay is brilliant in capturing the anomie born of deep loneliness and repressed, raw emotions . . . The Far Field, while tracing a difficult narrative of vast political, cultural, and humanitarian import, does not offer easy, totalising, and predictable resolutions.” – SCROLL INDIA

“Go read this absorbing and remarkable first book. And look out for future writing from Madhuri Vijay.” – DECCAN HERALD

“Vijay intertwines her story's threads with dazzling skill. Dense, layered, impossible to pin—or put—down, her first novel is an engrossing tale of love and grief, politics and morality. Combining up-close character studies with finely plotted drama, this is a triumphant, transporting debut.” – BOOKLIST (starred)

“[R]emarkable . . . an engrossing narrative of individual angst played out against political turmoil . . . Shalini’s misguided attempts at love, fulfillment, and friendship are poignant. Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.” – PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred)

“Dazzling . . . Vijay’s prose is exquisite, florid and descriptive at times, spare and pared back at others. The story keeps twisting unexpectedly until the end, keeping emotions fraught, questions percolating. [The Far Field is] a scintillating novel from a truly gifted writer.” – BOOKPAGE (starred)

“Narrating Shalini's journey in chapters that alternate between past and present and utilizing strong characterizations throughout, Vijay has crafted an engaging, suspenseful, and impressive debut.” – LIBRARY JOURNAL

“Vivid . . . [E]legant, calm prose and intense evocations of people and places . . . A striking debut.” – KIRKUS REVIEWS

"The Far Field stands out as a debut novel because it displays two acts of courage: one, at just about 450 pages, it has heft . . . Vijay is not afraid to tell a long and complex story on a large canvas . . Her second act of courage is presenting her reader people that are not easy to like — almost every one of her characters is deeply flawed, motivated by a constellation of impulses that are not always noble. This is a mature book, even when it wears its political heart on its sleeve.” – Arshia Sattar, EXPLOCITY BANGALORE

The Far Field is an irresistible blend of moral subtlety and intellectual precision. Ingeniously conceived and elegantly written, it is a first novel of startling accomplishment.” – PANKAJ MISHRA, author of Age of Anger

“A strikingly unusual book full of beauty and surprise.” – SONIA FALEIRO, author of Beautiful Thing

“Vijay’s characters are compelling and beguiling, and she superbly balances the complexity of her narrator against the conflict in Kashmir without allowing the latter to be reduced to a mere backdrop. The Far Field is incisive and utterly enthralling.” – SIDDHARTHA DEB, author of The Beautiful and the Damned

The Far Field is remarkable, a novel at once politically timely and morally timeless. Madhuri Vijay traces the fault lines of history, love, and obligation running through a fractured family and country. Few novels generate enough power to transform their characters, fewer still their readers. The Far Field does both.” – ANTHONY MARRA, author of The Tsar of Love and Techno

“I loved this novel. Shalini is an utterly convincing narrator, particularly in her naïveté, which might very well serve as a metaphor for her country's refusal to see what it has wrought in Kashmir. Madhuri Vijay has written a brilliant and important book.” – LIAQUAT AHAMED, author of Lords of Finance

“I am in awe of Madhuri Vijay. With poised and measured grace, The Far Field tells a story as immediate and urgent as life beyond the page. I will think of these characters – tender and complex, mysterious and flawed, remarkably real to me – for years to come, as though I have lived alongside them.”  ANNA NOYES, author of Goodnight, Beautiful Women

“I had to remind myself while reading The Far Field that this is the work of a debut novelist, and not a mid-career book by a master writer at the height of her powers . . .  Only the very best novels are experienced, as opposed to merely read, and this is one of those rare and brilliant novels.” – BEN FOUNTAIN, author of Beautiful Country, Burn Again

“This riveting and utterly unique book faces the most troubling and insoluble questions with a bold, keen clarity that has no patience for anything less than the most complete truth . . . The fierce and wonderful undertow of Vijay’s flawless prose masterfully propels this story about loyalty, about how we create and sustain and protect and inevitably break down our bonds with other people.” MERRITT TIERCE, author of Love Me Back

“Utterly immersive and vividly realized, The Far Field is that rare gem of a novel which effortlessly transports the reader into distant, unfamiliar terrain through the force of a story deeply anchored in the humanity of its characters. Madhuri Vijay’s debut marks the arrival of an astonishing new talent.” – ELLIOT ACKERMAN, author of Waiting for Eden

“Stunning in its artistry, in its engagement with the world and the personal, this is a profound and monumental achievement composed with rage, vulnerability, humor, grief, and mystery. How dangerous this novel is, in the very best of ways, and how grateful I am for this writer and for her creation.” – PAUL YOON, author of The Mountain

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