Grand Tamasha

Author Madhuri Vijay on Her Award-Winning Book, “The Far Field”

Episode Notes

In the wake of her mother's untimely death, a young woman from Bangalore--born into a life of privilege--drops everything and travels to the opposite end of India--to the state of Jammu and Kashmir--to search for a long-lost figure from her childhood--an enigmatic Kashmiri man named Bashir Ahmed.

What follows is a tale of romance, intrigue, conflict, politics, self-discovery, and tragedy. Readers will find this and much more in the best-selling novel, The Far Field, written by author Madhuri Vijay. The book won the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature, one of India’s most prestigious literary awards. The Washington Post book critic Ron Charles says that 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.”

This week, Milan speaks with Vijay from her home in Hawaii. They discuss Vijay’s journey as a writer, her decision to set her book in Kashmir, and the surprising connections between her idyllic adopted home of Hawaii and the conflicted state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Episode Transcription

Intro 0:00 

“Unabashed” “the most unpredictable” “becomes a headline” “the most volatile” “outrageous behavior” “unsubstantiated narratives” “a battle of personalities.”

Milan Vaishnav 0:11 

Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In the wake of her mother's untimely death, a young woman from Bangalore, born into a life of privilege drops everything and travels to the opposite end of India to the state of Jammu and Kashmir to search for a long lost figure from her childhood an enigmatic Kashmiri man named Bashir Ahmed. What follows is a tale of romance, intrigue, conflict, politics, self-discovery, and tragedy. Readers will find this and much, much more in the bestselling novel The Far Field written by the author Madhuri Vijay. Madhuri was born and raised in Bangalore and The Far Field is her first book, and it's been racking up awards and rave reviews left and right. The book won the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature, one of India's most prestigious literary awards. The Washington Post book critic Ron Charles says that The Far Field offers something essential, a chance to glimpse the lives of distant people captured and prose gorgeous enough to make them indelible and honest enough to make them real. Joining me today to talk about her book is Madhuri Vijay, who joins us on the phone from Hawaii. Madhuri, and thanks for coming on the show.

Madhuri Vijay 1:13 

Thank you. It's a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Milan Vaishnav 1:15 

So, congratulations on the book. You know, this is one of those things that your book has been on my reading list for many, many months. And I'm sort of embarrassed to admit, I only just read it about two weeks ago, but it was such a moving piece of work that I wrote to you on a whim because I had so many questions that I wanted to put to you. So, let me just start right in by asking you to tell us a bit about your background. You know, like the protagonist, Shalini in The Far Field, you also grew up in Bangalore, but you now reside in Hawaii where you work as a schoolteacher. So, tell us a little bit about how you got from point A to point B.

Madhuri Vijay 1:48 

Sure. I grew up in Bangalore. I went to school there, and I did my undergraduate and graduate work in the United States - on the mainland of the United States in Wisconsin and Iowa respectively - and I came to Hawaii first, as many people do, you know, as a tourist as a holiday maker, and my husband I would meet here. He wasn't my husband then. And we would come here for sort of longer and longer stretches and eventually we decided to move here. So, it was a place that I fell in love with and that's why we decided to make our home here.

Milan Vaishnav 2:37 

I want to ask you about your time in Iowa. So, the - you attended, you know, the Iowa Writers Workshop, which is one of the most celebrated graduate level creative writing programs in the world. A bunch of famous writers have studied there have taught there have spent time there. What was it like to train as a writer in a place where you're literally surrounded by people who represent the creme de la creme of the trade?

Madhuri Vijay 3:01 

Well, it's very intimidating, certainly. And I think everybody who arrives there experiences, you know, to some degree or another, a kind of feeling of fraudulence, that there's been some mistake and they really shouldn't be there. But Iowa, for me, was very useful in that it was a it was really the first time in my life when I had to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and actually write. I had been given the time, I had been given the freedom and I actually had to produce work. And that, even more than being surrounded by all these other people, was the real test and the real gift in the real training. It was simply being forced to sit down every day and devote yourself to this thing you said for so long you wanted to do. And luckily for me, I found that I was able to sit down every day and do the same thing over and over again. And in addition to that, of course, one of the great things about these sorts of writing programs is that they provide you with companionship in that you find one or two people whose work you respect and admire and feel some kind of sympathy with, some kind of compatibility with and they in turn find the same with yours, and then they go on to become your lifelong readers and, and vice versa. So, for those reasons, I found Iowa very, very, very useful and a very fruitful place.

Milan Vaishnav 4:54 

So, I've listened to many of your interviews. And I know that the book that you ultimately wrote was not the one that you originally set out to write. I think it was sort of after about a year or so you scrapped that first book and started writing what eventually became the book that you produce The Far Field. But how did you pivot from scrapping, you know, twelve months of hard work to essentially starting over from scratch?

Madhuri Vijay 5:21 

First of all, I happen to believe that the book that most writers end up writing is never the book that they intended to write. So, in retrospect, it actually seems like a very good sign and a perfectly normal flag post along the way. But at the time, it felt like the end of the world obviously.

It was - the book that I began writing was, I see now a book that I didn't really believe in, and I didn't believe in it, because it wasn't real. And by that, I mean I was writing a book that I thought I was supposed to write. The kind of book that I knew was sort of fashionable at the time, you know, a book that was told from the perspective of multiple narrators and where their fates would intertwine in devastating ways, and so on and so forth. I had sort of decided in advance what the book would be before I even began writing it and as a result, it was dead in the water. And I didn't realize that for a year. And once I did realize that, there was really no choice. I had to give it up. And there were - there was a few months of other flailing, I had no idea what I was doing and then it began - as it often does, and I've heard other writers say this with a voice and the voice was Shalini's voice and Shalini ended up being my narrator. And once I had her voice then the rest of the novel, it became far more easy and it was far more exciting because I truly didn't know what this novel was going to be. And that I think is a much more say, honest way to write - at least for me, I think other writers might be different where they were, they know exactly what they're going to write and they achieve it. And that's an enviable skill, but sadly, it's not one I possess.

Milan Vaishnav 7:37 

Much like protagonists of The Far Field, you spent some time in Jammu and Kashmir before writing this book. You know, I don't want to draw too many parallels between your own journey and that of Shalini’s. You know, this is obviously a work of fiction, but I'd love to hear about your own kind of evolution and thought process what drove you to travel, to pick up all your things to go from Bangalore to the opposite end of India, to reside in Jammu and Kashmir, and what did you end up doing when you were there?

Madhuri Vijay 8:03 

Yeah, I made - I went to Kashmir under vastly different circumstances. I was. I went to volunteer at a school that many people I'm sure have heard of. It's quite well known. It's called Haji Public School, and it's been operating for about 10 years now and does wonderful work in a very remote part of the Doda District of Jammu and Kashmir. I worked there as a volunteer for varying periods between 2012 and 2016 and my experience, there could not have been more wonderful. I was, you know, teaching kids from kindergarten through sixth, seventh, eighth grade, and teaching them everything from history, to mathematics, to science, to music to whatever sports and that was - it was really one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. And, you know, really has nothing at all to do with the book.

Milan Vaishnav 9:09 

You know, in some ways, when I was reading the book, I felt that the setting of Kashmir was very much its own character. You know, I wondered, as someone who grew up in southern India, how much awareness of the Kashmir conflict did you have during your childhood? You know, did you know that at some point down the line, you'd like to spend time there?

Madhuri Vijay 9:27 

Very little awareness to answer your first question, and I didn't know the decision to go there was not one that I had been thinking about in advance. While I was growing up, you know, I was born towards the end of the 80s. And, you know, grew up in the 90s. And of course, the 90s were the time in Kashmir when the conflict was at its most violent, because that was when, you know, the sort of armed insurgency was at its peak. And I can honestly say, speaking for myself and my peers, that we didn't really hear much about it. It didn't figure very largely in our consciousness. And this at some point came to seem to me like a sort of an amazing, you know, in the real sense of the word amazing, an amazing thing because it was it is such a catastrophic event.

You know, I remember being shocked by 911 and thinking about 911 far more than I ever thought about Kashmir. And I could say that, you know, this led me to want to write the book about - the book, but I think that is, that would be a fairly simplistic line to draw and not true because no novel is written, you know, for just one reason. It's not, you know, I was inspired to write this novel because ABC. the factors that led me to want to write the novel, or to write the novel, were myriad and sort of, and muddled and very, very private. But certainly, somewhere in this mix was this notion that somehow, I had managed to grow up in the same country as one of the most violent, bloody, intractable conflicts in the world, and yet have been entirely untouched. And people that I grew up with in the same period, agree. I have asked them about it, you know, I asked them what did you know growing up? And they said very little, we never thought about it. I asked adults - people who are adults when I was a child - and they didn't think about it too, so you know, it is the same. It is it's a pretty simple fact and distance breeds not indifference, but a kind of unreality. The closer something is to your doorstep, the more you think about it, and Kashmir was very, very, very far away from our doorstep.

Milan Vaishnav 12:30 

The protagonist of the book is a young woman named Shalini. She is somewhat naive, you know, she comes from a privileged background. She's also you know; I think you could say rudderless or directionless in her professional life. Sometime in her 20s, after college, she decides to go north in search of this man from her childhood named Bashir Ahmed. He was a Kashmiri salesman who used to come to their home, he developed this kind of odd relationship with both Shalini and her mother. Tell us a bit about their connection. You know, why is she moved after all of these years to go try to track him down in Kashmir?

Madhuri Vijay 13:03 

Shalini and her mother had a very odd relationship and that was largely due to the woman that Shalini's mother was. She was a very depressed, lonely person who - like so many people - whose mind and capabilities far exceeded the life that she had been doled out. And so, you have this middle-class housewife who really should have been doing wild and extraordinary things. And she allows Shalini to become a kind of de facto witness to her disintegration. And Shalini believes for a long time that she is really the only one who can keep her mother together who can sort of sense her mother's different moods.

But then in comes this man, Bashir Ahmed who is about as different from her father as can be imagined. And he arrives first as just a salesman, but immediately there is a kind of rapport between Shalini's mother and this man and Shalini can sense it. And she is drawn to this man because he shares with her this ability to understand her mother, which is not an ability that she thinks anybody else has, including her father. And so, he prevents her - Bashir Ahmed prevents her - from being entirely alone. And I think that is the impulse that sends her off after her mother dies - is that she finally remember who she remembers because Bashir Ahmed has been gone for a long time from their home, that there was one other person who used to feel what she felt. And I don't think it's a very smart impulse. I don't think it was a very logical impulse. But I also don't think she was thinking logically at the time. I certainly don't think that the trip that she decides to make to Kashmir in search of him is a very rational one. But it is propelled by this sense that he alone will be able to understand. He alone will be able to make sense of it for her.

Milan Vaishnav 15:44 

I want to ask you specifically about the character of Shalini. You know, you said in an interview with Mint Lounge that the importance of Shalini you know, being a solo female traveler across India cannot be overstated. So, I'm wondering you know, in your mind, what is the significance of writing a novel about a young Indian woman who goes on this epic journey on her own?

Madhuri Vijay 16:06 

I think it's incredibly important. I think if Shalini had been a man - to do a pretty simple thought experiment - people wouldn't have they wouldn't have noticed her in the way that they noticed her because she's a woman. They wouldn't have directed her to the people in the to whom they direct her. She wouldn't have ended up with living with this particular family. She wouldn't have been sort of taken under the wing of you know, the man who eventually sends her up to the village. There are so many, there are so many things that happen to you, as a young woman traveling alone in a place like India, and I know this because I have traveled alone. The other thing that I was quite recently thinking about, you know, once I knew we were going to talk about this, is that what happens when you're a young woman traveling alone is that people, when they look at you, they tend to make you into whatever they think they want, if that makes sense. I think when people look at Shalini, they sort of cast their own desires onto her, they make her into whatever they want. They make her into a surrogate daughter. They make her into a friend. They make her into a sort of symbol of progress and modernity. For example, Muhammad Deen, who is the who is the sort of the sarpanch of the village. He decides that she is going to be she's going to stay and she's going to teach and she's going to be us. symbol of development. And he strongarms her essentially into doing this of course she wants to do it and she's got very sort of private longings about the whole thing. But certainly, he molds her into whatever he thinks she is, as does Riaz, as does Amina, as does Mohammed - I mean Abdul Latif, as does Zoya. Everybody sees in her what they want to see. And I think there is something very, very strong about a young woman alone that invites such molding, and I don't know what it is. I don't I really don't know what it is, but I know that it exists.

Milan Vaishnav 18:46 

So eventually Shalini you know, she succeeds in tracking down the family of Bashir Ahmed, I'm not going to reveal what happens next. I want listeners to actually read the book, but you know, she moves in with Ahmed's family and she briefly even entertains this kind of crazy idea of settling down and working as a school teacher in a small village and she also develops a strange attraction to Riaz. Riaz is the son of Bashir Ahmed, tell us a bit more about this character, Riaz and what draws Shalini to him because you know, at first Riaz doesn't really seem to like her very much and is not, from the readers perspective, a very likeable character in his own right. What's the attraction for Shalini?

Madhuri Vijay 19:23 

Yeah, I think Riaz is not nice to Shalini for exactly the same reason that Shalini is drawn to him. And I think he's not very nice to her, but he's also drawn to her and the reason is that they both have this idea - and they're not wrong - that they, they have had sort of the each of them has experienced the other half of the other one's childhood. Like they have had the shadow of each other's childhoods because every time Bashir Ahmed was gone from his home, He was with Shalini's mother in Bangalore. And every time he was gone from Bangalore, he was with Riaz at home. And so Shalini realizes that her best memories of childhood were, in all likelihood, the times that were least wonderful for Riaz because his father was wasn't with him and vice versa. And so, these two have - they're sort of their siblings in a way, in an odd way. And strangers and she knows that and, on some level, and I think that is the basis of her of her attraction to him.

Milan Vaishnav 20:51 

So, the book came out well before the events of August 5, 2019. Most of our listeners will know that date. It's when the Union Government led by permitted Minister Narendra Modi formally nullified Article 370 of the Constitution, this has granted Kashmir a semblance of constitutional autonomy for, you know, seven decades. This book takes on a new meaning for you in light of the events of last August?

Madhuri Vijay 21:15 

You know, I'm very wary about equating the book, any book, any novel, in direct tangible ways with such massive political events because that would seem to suggest that the novel is a sort of political document and it changes with the political times. To me, a novel is something far more private and that its core is an emotional core. So, from perspective, I don't actually think of the book, as in any way. It's odd to say, but I don't think of the book and as connected to what, what has happened in Kashmir. The second reason is that what has happened in Kashmir is so monumental, that it seems vulgar, in certain ways to equate it at all with something like a novel. And so, I think the two things exist in different planes that are connected, that are connected in somewhat incomprehensible ways. But to simply answer your question, no, I don't think of the novel as different in any way, simply because I never thought of the novel as merely to do with Kashmir.

Milan Vaishnav 22:58 

So, you know, I think that's fair enough. But you know, one of the characters of the book, in a sense, is the Indian Army. Its presence is there throughout in many places, not just the army as an institution, but also individual soldiers, officers in the army. When you decided to incorporate the army as a character, you know, even if you're a novelist, surely that's a sensitive subject. It's a contested role the army plays from many sides. I'm wondering if you could tell us a bit about your approach to writing about the army. How did you tackle that subject?

Madhuri Vijay 23:29 

You're going to think I'm being evasive here. But I think writing about any human being is a sensitive subject. And I don't mean to sound pat and I don't mean to be dismissive. I understand your question. But to me, the problem is always an artistic problem and not a political problem. And so, these, the people that I write about are not just representatives of an institution, they're people. And I tend to think of their behavior In terms of very human impulses, such as masculinity, and humiliation, and loneliness, and longing, and embarrassment, and those are the kinds of impulses and motivators that propel all the characters in the novel. So, whether or not a particular character, you know, belongs to some larger group, to me, is relevant only in that it affects that person's thinking and psychology. And so, the sensitive nature of it, to me, comes in trying to tease out how these larger forces might affect a single human being the particular people that I write about. And but that is a challenge with any of the characters, not just with the ones that wear a uniform.

Milan Vaishnav 25:12 

I want to cut to the present day in your life in Hawaii, you wrote a short piece for ELLE India in which you talk about the similarities between Jammu and Kashmir on the one hand and Hawaii on the other. You know, obviously, these are two far flung beautiful locales, but these are two things that people rarely put in the same sentence. So, I'm wondering, in your mind, what brings these two places together?

Madhuri Vijay 25:33 

I absolutely think so. And I think that there are places like this all over the world that fill, this sort of, this same kind of function as these two and I didn't see it for a long time. But well, to begin with, they're both absurdly beautiful places, physically beautiful. I mean, and their physical beauty is kind of the stuff of myth. They're both, too tourist locations. They depend on tourism. They're both very militarily important. They're both the locales for multiple films. And they're both contested. And people realize this less about Hawaii than they do about Kashmir, because there hasn't been an insurgency here. But the legality of possession of Kashmir is still very much an open question in in the minds of many people. And it's interesting that the, the constitutional rights granted to Kashmir were abrogated last year because the one difference that I knew existed between Hawaii and Kashmir up until that time was that outsiders in Kashmir are not allowed to buy land. Outsiders in Hawaii are. And it seems very much that in Kashmir, you know those remaining few differences are being eradicated. And it will be interesting to see what happens and terrifying to see what happens in that case.

Milan Vaishnav 27:22 

Let me ask you one last question about being a teacher What is life like, you know, being a novelist, being a writer, being a teacher, how do these things feed into one another? Or do they kind of exist in their own separate silos in your mind, you know, take us inside the life of Madhuri Vijay.

Madhuri Vijay 27:39 

Mostly not pleasant. The nice thing about writing and the worst thing about writing is that everything feeds into it. And that is what I've come to realize. The writer is the sort of quintessential magpie, which is a nice way of putting it or a vampire if you want to be a little less charitable, but everything is relevant. Everything feeds into it. And so, I don't think of being of the three things you named I don't think of them as being separate but nor do I think of being, you know, a sister or a daughter or a mother as irrelevant either. They all seem to be constellations in this solar system. And they all seem to exert a pull of some kind on, on this, this thing that I want to do so badly, which is to write and I don't - and that's and it’s difficult because you can't ever box off a part of your life and say that's off limits, or maybe other people can but I can't. Everything seems to bleed into everything else. And it's an unsettling way. It's an unsettling way to live, but also quite exciting most of the time.

Milan Vaishnav 29:21 

My guest on the show today is Madhuri Vijay. She is the author of the award-winning book The Far Field. The New Yorker says of the book that Vijay probes grand themes tribalism, despotism, betrayal, death, resurrection, in exquisite but unflowery prose, and with sincere sentiment, but little sentimentality, Madhuri, thanks so much for coming on the show. Congrats again on the book. It was such a joy to read. It was great to have the chance to talk to you talk about the book, talk about some of the characters in the book, and please be in touch.

Madhuri Vijay 29:48 

Thank you, Milan. It was really fun talking to you, thank you so much.

Milan Vaishnav 29:52 

Grand Tamasha is a coproduction of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website, Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

Transcribed by