Madhuri Vijay

Madhuri Vijay Winner, The JCB Prize 2019

Kashmir of the Eighties. A young Bangalorean of eighteen. There was no connection between the two, far south and far north. She knew nothing about war, and people her age up there, nothing but war. And that was rattling enough for Madhuri Vijay to finally find a purpose for her pen and write her debut novel—the story of a privileged, naive and restless young woman forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love in a remote Kashmiri village. Later, the story would bring her the Rs 25-lakh JCB Prize for Literature 2019. 

Her book, The Far Field, was just announced the winner of the literary honour by a panel of five judges: Pradip Krishen, filmmaker and environmentalist (Chair); Anjum Hasan, author and critic; K.R. Meera, author; Parvati Sharma, author; and Arvind Subramanian, economist and former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India.

In an interview from the time of the release of the book, she had told us why all writing that matters is political, how she was asked to "soften" parts of the book to align with the country's "current climate", and why endurance and stamina are as important for a writer as they are for an athlete. Excerpts.

Tell me a little about how you began your journey in writing.
Like most people who end up writers, I was a reader first. My parents filled our house with books, they took me to the library every weekend, but, most crucially, they never once tried to dictate, supervise or censor what I read. As you can imagine, this resulted in my reading many wildly unsuitable and terribly written things, but also, thankfully, in a lifelong respect for writers and books, whether it was the Rabindranath Tagore or R.L. Stine. As I grew older, I wrote my own stories or refashioned ones I’d heard, adding my own flourishes. In college, I took a writing class, my first exposure to the sting of criticism and the rigors of revision. I later attended Graduate School for Fiction, which I now see as an extended apprenticeship; all I did for two years was write pages, then immediately throw them away and start again. All of that was good practice, but I don’t think my education truly began until I sat down to write a novel, and it was an education in humility as much as anything else.

What inspired The Far Field?
I was born in Bangalore at the same time the Kashmir conflict began in the late ‘80s, and, in a strange way, I grew up alongside it. Of course, living in the South, it didn’t affect me physically, and not until my early twenties did I give it any real thought or consider the stunning fact that there were Kashmiris my age who had known nothing but war. We had ostensibly grown up in the same country, but I knew next to nothing about them. Kashmir simply wasn’t part of the discourse where I grew up, none of the adults around me talked about it except in the vaguest terms, my teachers never mentioned it, the news dealt with it in a cursory and unenlightening way, and, in retrospect, I found it utterly baffling. This bafflement, accompanied by an acute sense of anger, was the impetus for writing The Far Field.

“I don’t consider myself anything but an outsider.”

Can you give me a blurb on the book in your own words?
I’m sorry, I really can’t. The trouble is I can’t see the finished book clearly. It’s tangled up in so many other memories: the different places in which I was working, the people I was around at the time, the scenes and characters that never made it to the final version but still remain very real to me. The book I preserve in my head is completely different, I think, than the one that went to print. I could give you a description of the former but you wouldn’t recognise it in the latter. In my opinion, there’s something wonderful about that.

What is at its core?
The question of whether an individual has any right to love [or belong to] a place if she hasn’t suffered or lived through its history. The kindness of people who open their homes to strangers. The point at which wanting to abandon your life and enter another becomes dangerous.

What is the relationship that you share with 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, but 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 Kashmir. I don’t consider myself anything but an outsider.

“I often hear writers claim they are apolitical, and I wonder what on earth they’re talking about. The very act of writing is political; that’s why it’s so dangerous.”

Do politics affect your writing?
Absolutely. How could they not? I often hear writers claim they are apolitical, and I wonder what on earth they’re talking about. The very act of writing is political; that’s why it’s so dangerous. There is a scene in J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron where he describes a boy who dies in a riot. There was sand in his mouth, Coetzee writes. That tender and brutal detail is, to me, as political as it gets, because it entails, for that instant, jettisoning all other possible perspectives. By including it, by the very fact of his novelistic attention, Coetzee is plainly telling us whose side he’s on at that moment: the side of that dead boy. There is profound condemnation in that single line, as well as love, rage, sorrow, guilt and self-loathing. To my mind, those are emotional responses to political realities. Never believe a writer who says she is apolitical.

Tell me how you found and built your characters, such as Shalini and Bashir Ahmed.
Each character was the result of a long, steady accretion of detail, followed by a long, steady whittling away. What I mean is that in the first draft, I wrote with total abandon, letting characters say and do anything they wanted; as a result, their personalities were far more expansive, contradictory and wild. In subsequent drafts, I reined them in, trying to shape their dialogue and actions until they took on more stable, consistent contours. Most of it was deliberate, though there were certainly moments of happy accident, too.

How have your roots impacted this work?
I am Tamilian, South Indian, Bangalorean, privileged, an urban creature, bookish, the child of two independent-minded parents who discouraged me at every turn from making the safe or sensible choice. It would be impossible for me to separate those strands, either within the book or within myself.

“Endurance and stamina, it turns out, are as necessary for writers as they are for athletes.”

What was the toughest part of making this debut?
Being told by an Indian editor that I would need to soften the novel’s portrayal of the army in order to align with the “current climate” in the country. To hear such words from a representative of literary publishing was enraging, but, more than that, it was frightening. It indicates how far we’ve sunk as a country.

Can you take me behind your creative process?
I write in the morning and afternoons, and for the rest of the day, I do anything that will take my mind off how dissatisfied I’m going to be tomorrow with what I’ve written today.

One part of The Far Field that transformed you...
It all transformed me. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it trained me. Endurance and stamina, it turns out, are as necessary for writers as they are for athletes.

Who are your favourite authors?

With the obvious caveat that this is an incomplete and ever-changing list: Anita Desai, Alice Munro, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Charlotte Bronte, Perumal Murugan, Zadie Smith, Edward P. Jones, Philip Roth, Sam Selvon, Arundhati Roy, James Baldwin, Jose Saramago, Elsa Morante, Elena Ferrante.

What is next from here?

With any luck—rather, with lots of it—another novel.


Text Soumya Mukerji