Twenty-seven-year-old Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel, The Far Field, was awarded the JCB Prize for Literature 2019, signaling the arrival of a star on the literary firmament. A Tamilian raised in Bangalore, Madhuri was born at around the same time as the Kashmir conflict began in India.
She may not have been influenced directly as she was living in South India, but by her early twenties, she began mulling over the feelings of contemporaries from Kashmir who had not seen anything except violence and war in their lives. The topic seemed forbidden, with no light thrown on the atrocities, and the insensitivity puzzled and angered her.
The apathy towards the youth in Kashmir was the inspiration behind her debut novel, which internalises the turbulent politics of the state. Focusing on the protagonist, 30-year-old Shalini, the story traces her privilege-filled journey from Bengaluru to the mountains of Kashmir.
Why journey to Kashmir?
Madhuri believes one of the main reasons is the fact that she grew up in India's Silicon Valley and then spent a long time living and teaching in Kashmir. In an interview, she said the fact that these two places lie at the opposite ends of India also had a bearing on her decision, as she “wanted the novel to explore the effect that kind of distance might have on people”.
The author did a lot of research, but finally decided to write from a perspective of an average person living in the South, a person who, like most of us, is intelligent and educated, but not particularly in tune with the nuances of the “Kashmir issue”.
She succeeded, and how!
Brian Lampkin, the owner of Scuppernong Books in North Carolina, served on the Indies Introduce bookseller panel that chose this debut novel, then published by Grove Atlantic in January 2019.
In Lampkin’s words, “If I read a better novel in 2019, then 2019 will become my favorite year of the 21st Century.”
The author said she would never take the honour “for granted. It is very hard for me to believe that any of this is true and I don’t think it will sink in for a very long time”.
Madhuri, who is now based in Hawaii, has a bachelor of arts degree from Lawrence University and a master's in fine arts from Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and has been published in Best American Non-Required Reading 2013, Narrative Magazine, Elle India, and Salon. She also attended the Graduate School for Fiction, an extended apprenticeship.
Madhuri's affinity towards reading developed early on in childhood as her house was “perpetually stacked with books”. She grew up reading books of Tagore, including Kabuliwala, and then wrote her own stories or revamped versions of stories she had heard.
She “wrote and disowned” numerous scripts, and soon realised that the authentic and real purpose of writing would take shape only if she wrote a novel.
Speaking on inspirations, Madhuri names Anita Desai, Alice Munro, Charlotte Bronte, and Arundhati Roy. She says she likes to write in the morning and afternoons, and doing things that would take her mind off her writing for the rest of the day.
An outsider in Kashmir
She considers herself to be an outsider in Kashmir and appreciates strangers who empathise and open their doors to help the estranged citizens of Kashmir.
“My relationship is not so much with Kashmir as with the individual Kashmiris I’ve come to know, respect, and love. I was lucky enough to have lived in a tiny corner of Kashmir for a short while, and I love that corner with every bit of my heart, I’m very much aware that my love grants me no special relationship with Kashmir as a whole, nor any claim to insight or expertise when it comes to the state,” she says.
Her awareness has ensured that her debut novel was grounded in reality, as it presents emotional and psychological acuity in all its forms.
The Far Field, feels the author, has bestowed her with some solid traits: endurance, stamina, and the zeal to continue. Will it be on the same path? Or will her next work be something different? We’ll have to wait and watch.