On Valentine’s Day, 2019, a nineteen-year-old Kashmiri drove an SUV packed with explosives into a convoy of Central Reserve Police Force vehicles on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway in South Kashmir, killing forty-four people. Hours after the explosion, a pre-recorded video was released in which the bomber spoke about the oppression of Kashmiri Muslims at the hands of the Indian State. News reports say that the teenager became radicalized after he and his friends were beaten up and harassed by Indian troops on their way home from school in 2016. This is the first ever suicide-bombing in Kashmir’s almost three-decade conflict, and it has further endangered the vulnerable population of Kashmiris and Muslims living in other parts of India, who’ve already been a target of nationalistic Hindutva rage.
The Pulwama bombing is just one of any number of chilling examples of the quotidian tragedies that suffuse daily life in Kashmir. The Far Field (Grove), an arresting debut novel by Bangalore-born Madhuri Vijay, captures Kashmir’s everyday horror with exhilarating, puissant prose. In the book, the sudden death of her troubled mother spurs Shalini, an intelligent, flawed, and feckless young woman from Bangalore, to travel to a remote village in northern Kashmir in search of Bashir Ahmed, a charming merchant who used to visit when Shalini was a child. Shalini believes that Ahmed, whose mild, good-humored presence was the one thing that soothed her mother’s savage moods, holds the key to why she died. After Ahmed’s family takes her in, Shalini witnesses the daily humiliations of the Kashmiris at the hands of the Indian Army, uncovers a tragic secret, and gets embroiled in the region’s complicated, ruthless politics. The choices she makes have unpredictable repercussions.
“I am thirty years old and that is nothing”—is the novel’s simple yet devastating first sentence. “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…” In this way, Vijay unceremoniously introduces India, a place where pogroms and dinner parties often happen at the same time, where “…even now, at this very moment, there are people huddled in a room somewhere, waiting to die.”
The novel draws on Kashmir’s violent politics starting from the late 1980s, when the region and its people became trapped in a proxy war between India and Pakistan, a war with deep roots in history. After Independence in 1947, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler decided, against popular will, to bring this idyllic, Sufi Muslim kingdom into post-partition India. As a result, the Kashmir valley, once called “heaven on earth” by the Mughal emperor Jehangir, is now a tinderbox at the heart of an endless and intimate conflict. After decades of human rights abuses, the Indian state, with its ever-burgeoning military presence at the line of control, conjures scant support from the local population.
So when Shalini describes the Kashmir valley, with its “dark rise of mountains, freckled with their hundreds of glittering homes,” as heaven, Bashir Ahmed’s son, Riyaz, is quick to remind her that “Heaven is not all what you think.” While other people in Bashir’s village seem to take Shalini’s sudden presence in their midst with unnuanced acquiescence, Riyaz’s character pushes back against any kind of romanticizing point of view. Attempting to reflect on Riyaz’s words, Shalini says:
I did not have time to consider it further, for a second later, the spaniel began barking furiously, and there was a deafening explosion of wings. I jumped. An enormous cloud of crows rose from the pine tree at the far end of the field, the one that Amina had told me marked the end of their property, and spread out in the air, cawing and screeching. I waited, expecting them to scatter off into the night, but they did not. They simply circled the pine for several minutes, before returning one by one and settling down in the branches, still and watchful.
Haunted by the death of her charismatic, vicious, and perceptive mother, whom she loved and resented in equal measure, Shalini yearns to reach out to the Kashmiris she meets, but ultimately lacks the courage to reveal herself in any real way.
All she has left at her disposal is her exquisite eye, with which she bears witness to the harsh beauty of life in this secluded Himalayan village. “The beauty of the novel is that it renders the life of an individual or a society comprehensively by recreating minute details, and the most beautiful moments are where by the eloquence of the voice the mundane is ruptured,” writes the author Feroz Rather. While her privilege inoculates Shalini against being implicated in the systemic complexity of Riyaz’s world—by fine-tuning her attention to themes of intimacy, friendship, family loyalty, identity and community, Vijay avoids the reductive aesthetic of the privileged gaze, which, like the white gaze or Western gaze, inevitably others that which it deigns to humanize. The most devastating outcome of the Kashmir conflict has been the systematic dehumanization of the Kashmiri people, who, although full citizens of India, have been treated like an occupied people—subject to stop and frisks, to being turned out from their homes, and even being used as human shields to protect the army during riots.
The Far Field stands as an important reminder that all privilege is, in the end, political. As her best intentions help destroy the lives of Kashmiris she’s come to care for, Shalini admits, “For people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence.” In his extraordinary memoir, Curfewed Night, Kashmir-born journalist Basharat Peer writes this about the line of control, the ceasefire border that cleaves Kashmir into its Indian and Pakistani parts: “The line of control did not run through 576 kilometers of militarized mountains. It ran through our souls, our hearts, and our minds … and it ran through our grief, our anger, our tears and our silence.” The border, Peer says, is a “failure of the subconscious”. In this liminal space, Vijay has created a world of stripped-down joys, forever suspended in a maelstrom of beauty and terror, with characters whose lives hinge on the whims of ancient, inexorable hatreds between two scarred nations. James Baldwin once said, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” Millions of persecuted Kashmiris would perhaps agree.