“All finite things reveal infinitude,” wrote Theodore Roethke in “The Far Field.” That poem, published in Roethke’s final collection in 1964, concludes with the image of “a ripple widening from a single stone / Winding around the waters of the world.”
That’s exactly the expanding effect of Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel, which is also titled “The Far Field.” It begins with the finite, private grief of a young woman in Bangalore, India, but by the end, her actions have rippled out to disrupt worlds she had never imagined.
The novel is narrated by Shalini, who tells us at the opening, “I am thirty years old and that is nothing” — an acknowledgment that she is neither young enough to be innocent nor old enough to be wise. She delivers this searching story in a trance of sorrow, still stunned by the cruelty she witnessed and the disaster she precipitated.
Like Anuradha Roy’s recent novel, “All the Lives We Never Lived,” “The Far Field” is about the search for a missing mother in India, though it takes a wholly different approach. Vijay’s narrator is the child in a wealthy but miserable family. Her mother is a mercurial, sarcastic woman whose “tenderness was as devastating as her viciousness.” Throughout her life, the only time Shalini saw her mother truly happy was during a few visits from a traveling salesman named Bashir. Strangely unintimidated, Bashir charmed both mother and daughter with fantastical stories of his home in Kashmir. Shalini gradually developed the impression — intense but unarticulated, as a child’s impressions often are — that her mother and Bashir had fallen in love during those pleasant afternoons in their living room.
We learn of these encounters intermittently and only after they’ve been polished by reflection and examined under the microscope of regret. Shalini might not have remembered Bashir at all, but a decade later when her mother dies, she falls into a persistent depressive state. Although she doesn’t need to work, her industrious father grows worried about her lethargy. “Without action, there is only waiting for death,” he counsels her. “You must do something. You must act.”
And so she does. Clutching at a few half-remembered details from Bashir’s old stories, she heads off to Kashmir to find him and by extension her dead mother.
It’s a ludicrous plan — comic if it weren’t propelled by mourning. Passing into Kashmir, Shalini presumes that she will simply ask around. She’s equipped only with a handful of details about a man she believes had an affair with her mother years ago — hardly the best material for social introductions. “What on earth had I imagined would happen?” she asks, shocked at her own naivete. “Now I was here, in a foreign town, in a foreign house, without any idea of how to proceed.”
As the novel moves back and forth in time, Shalini wanders deeper into the villages of Kashmir. Vijay, who was born in Bangalore and now lives in Hawaii, captures Shalini’s wary curiosity about the mountainous realm far to the north of her hometown. “The shops were sharply divided,” she says, “between Hindu and Muslim owners; their customers too sorted themselves accordingly. I could not escape noticing, either, the number of Indian soldiers and policemen in the town. They were everywhere, dressed in khaki or olive, congregating in tight groups on street corners or in tea stalls.”
This passage hints at the subtle complexity of “The Far Field.” What seems at first like a quiet, ruminative story of one woman’s grief slowly begins to spark with the energy of religious conflicts and political battles. Vijay draws us into the bloody history of this contested region and the cruel conundrum of ordinary lives trapped between outside agitators and foreign conquerors. Although Shalini feels nervous around these soldiers, she fails to realize how a life of privilege insulates her from the threat they pose to the Kashmiri people. As she continues on her quest through this occupied land, she’s met again and again with extraordinary kindness, but she can’t fully comprehend the infuriating powerlessness felt by her hosts.
“The Far Field” is most poignant when it exposes the unintentional havoc of good intentions. Lonely and depressed, Shalini, who has never in her life been required “to consider the contours of poverty,” gives in to that common temptation to romanticize foreign surroundings. “Heaven is not at all what you think,” one of her hosts tells her sharply, but Shalini will not understand the terrible import of that rebuke until it’s too late. She insists on fantasizing about a new life here, where clearly none is possible for her. “Within a week, it all felt familiar,” she thinks, “the salmon-colored sink, the tiny TV in the corner, the few leather-bound Urdu or Arabic books with gold-edged pages, the dense bolster at my back. I felt at ease there amongst the objects of their life, and sometimes, in the silence, I pretended they were mine.”
But the objects of their life are not hers, nor are the dangers of their life. A series of disturbing revelations and scarring tragedies forces her finally to admit, “For people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence.”
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.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Madhuri Vijay
Grove. 448 pp. $27