January 2019

Madhuri Vijay

Journey into an eye-opening India with an absorbing debut novel
Interview by

Bangalore-born author Madhuri Vijay covers a lot of ground in The Far Field: politics, corruption, mental illness and coming of age, not to mention India’s vast landscape. The story is narrated by Shalini, a young woman who hopes to find closure after her mother’s death by tracking down a charismatic figure from her youth, Bashir Ahmed‚ a traveling salesman and one of the few people with whom her erratic mother seemed to connect. 

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Bangalore-born author Madhuri Vijay covers a lot of ground in The Far Field: politics, corruption, mental illness and coming of age, not to mention India’s vast landscape. The story is narrated by Shalini, a young woman who hopes to find closure after her mother’s death by tracking down a charismatic figure from her youth, Bashir Ahmed‚ a traveling salesman and one of the few people with whom her erratic mother seemed to connect. 

I found The Far Field fascinating. What was the novel’s journey?
Thank you for saying that. I suspect most novelists think of their first novels as a culmination, in one way or another, of their entire lives up to that point, and I certainly agree. The Far Field feels to me like the inevitable result of all the books I read as a child, all the places I traveled, the influence of teachers and mentors and friends, my social and family circumstances, the news I watched and, of course, a substantial portion of luck. But I know that is an unhelpfully vague answer, so I’ll try to be specific: In 2010, I wrote a short story about a mother and a daughter and a Kashmiri man. It was a maudlin story—abysmal, really—but I grew interested in writing a novel about Kashmir. It took a few years of false starts before I arrived at anything resembling a draft, and several subsequent years of work with my extraordinary (and extraordinarily patient) editors at Grove to bring the novel to its current form. 

The novel tackles many different themes: mental illness, the Kashmir conflict, army corruption, sexism. Did you have these things in mind when you first came up with the plot, or did they evolve in the writing?
All I told myself when I began the novel was that I wouldn’t try to control any part of it, so those themes emerged naturally as part of the writing. I didn’t come up with the plot beforehand either. I just put Shalini on the train to Jammu. The rest of it . . . was a surprise to me. Insofar as there was a plot, I vaguely knew Shalini would return to Bangalore at the end of the novel, so I kept writing until she did.

Where did the character of Bashir Ahmed come from?
All through my childhood, a succession of different Kashmiri salesmen visited our neighborhood to sell clothes and carpets. Some visited several times, others only once. None of them was remotely like Bashir Ahmed in terms of personality, but the pattern of their visits was certainly the model for his.

Shalini seems very conflicted. Her intentions are good, but she makes bad choices along the way. How did you craft her personality?
Shalini’s voice and character were, without question, my biggest challenges in writing the book. She seemed so closed-off and remote, even to me, which often made her frustrating to write. What helped in the end was understanding that the novel could function in some way as a criticism of Shalini and of people like her: intelligent, educated people with the means to travel, who nonetheless remain willfully oblivious to the injustices around them, as well as their part in those injustices. This is not to say that I think of her as some cold tool of social instruction. I have a lot of affection for Shalini, actually, and a lot of sympathy. She is the way she is because of a number of factors, her mother being the most influential. Shalini’s mother casts a long, dubious shadow over her life, and realizing that—and more importantly, allowing her to realize it—was an important turning point in the novel.

I felt bad for Amina, Bashir Ahmed’s daughter-in-law. It seemed like she couldn’t catch a break. What inspired her character?
I truly had no idea that Amina would walk around the corner until she did. The second she was on the page, though, she breathed life and fun into everything around her, and I knew she would be a vital character. Amina is a funny, capable, generous, gregarious person who manages to surround herself with selfish, bitter recluses, and that doesn’t turn out well for her. But she freely offers to Shalini what nobody else in the novel does: genuine, uncomplicated friendship. It was important to me that someone offer her that, even if she proves in the end unable to reciprocate.

The novel is particularly unflinching in its depiction of the Indian army and its corruption. Do you fear a backlash?
I started writing the novel roughly six years ago, and India, as a country, has changed since then. There’s no way to escape noticing the proliferation of chest-beating, nationalist politicians; the lynchings of Muslims and Dalits; the attacks (sometimes fatal) on writers who challenge the status quo. If there is any backlash to my book, it would be foolish of me to be totally surprised. 

As Ben Fountain has said, it’s hard to believe you’re a first-time novelist. The prose is really strong, and the plot keeps turning until the last page. Not an easy feat. How did you develop as a writer?
Thank you. I wish I had a more original answer, but like so many writers, I spent the major part of my childhood inside books. I read everything I could get my hands on, from P.G. Wodehouse to R.L. Stine to Jane Austen to a very steamy biography of Marilyn Monroe that was lying about our house for some reason. My two years in graduate school were also invaluable, because there I was forced, for the first time, to articulate to other people what I valued and admired in fiction and what disgusted me. Above all, I’m lucky to have found friends and readers far smarter than I am. If there is any fluidity or economy to my prose, it’s the direct result of their refusal to be satisfied with bullshit.

You attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop after attending Lawrence University. Was it always your intention to study fiction in the U.S.?
It couldn’t have been further from my intention, actually. At Lawrence, I majored in Psychology as well as in English, and I was all set to be an academic; I even had an acceptance in hand to a graduate program in social psychology at Northwestern. How I ended up in Iowa will, I think, be forever a matter of some astonishment to me, but I’m very glad I did.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Far Field.

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

The Far Field

The Far Field

By Madhuri Vijay
Grove
ISBN 9780802128409

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