Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel was published at a time of great political turmoil in Kashmir. Barely a few months after Article 370 was revoked, the book was awarded the JCB Prize for Literature, India’s richest and most prestigious literary award. Delivering her acceptance speech at the Jaipur Literature Festival last year – online from her Hawaii home – the author lamented the palpable sense of hostility towards fiction. Vijay said: “There is still a communication blackout in place (in Kashmir), yet here I’m speaking to you across the world with no problem at all. How does one reconcile such a thing? Should it be reconciled at all? The best way I know, the only way I know to grapple with such questions is through fiction. It is a strange and imperfect medium, but it is one of the few we have left that allows for the full range of nuanced complexity that our world deserves,”. How aptly put!
Salman Rushdie finds fiction as ‘’part social enquiry, part fantasy, part confessional’’. To him, the novel ‘’crosses frontiers of knowledge as well as topographical boundaries’’. If that be true, Madhuri Vijay comes out a gifted practitioner of novel as an art form; her debut novel one outstanding example.
“I’m thirty years old and that is nothing”, says Shalini, the novel’s first person narrator at the very beginning. It’s some kind of an acknowledgment that she’s neither young enough to be naive nor old enough to be wise. She delivers this searching story as if in a trance of sadness after her mother’s suicide.
The protagonist is a Bengaluru girl from an affluent family. She has been emotionally torn apart since childhood between her parents who have had an incompatible marriage. Shalini has been quite attached to her mother, though. She’s brazen, mercurial and unsophisticated, yet oftentimes she’s sensible and loving too. Her father is a successful entrepreneur, someone who’s fun-and-rum loving and whose evenings are marked by boozing and listening to LPs of Simon & Garfunkel, John Coltrane, et al.
Her mother was quite often a dissatisfied soul. Yet, the few times Shalini saw her truly happy were during the visits of an itinerant Kashmiri salesman named Bashir Ahmed. Bashir charmed both mother and, like Tagore’s Kabuliwala, the daughter by recounting fantastical Kashmiri tales. Shalini gradually developed the impression – gained from her mother’s gay body language in Bashir Ahmed’s presence – that the duo have fallen in love. Bashir Ahmed had, however, stopped visiting them a few years prior to her mother’s death.
Perhaps as a tribute to her deceased mother, Shalini leaves her sheltered life in Bengaluru and embarks on a journey to the mountainous Kishtwar area in Kashmir, in search for Bashir Ahmed. But on arriving in Kashmir, she’s confronted with the political upheavals of the region. And from here the novel’s storyline meanders through the issues of army excesses, difficulties faced by the people living in remote mountain villages, and the growing trust deficit between the two major communities of Kashmir. The boundaries between fact and fiction appear to get blurred in the process. So what at first seems like a ruminative story of a young
woman’s grief, later turns into an engaging tale that dwells upon the sensitive issues of religious conflicts, political battles and so forth.
The author switches mode one last time at the end of the novel. She turns confessional. Six years after Shalini went looking for Bashir Ahmed and six years since returning to her home city of Bengaluru, she confesses not to have tried anything to ameliorate the pitiable conditions of people she met in Kashmir.
“Even two summers ago, when a fifteen-year-old boy was shot by the army in Srinagar while coming home from school, I managed to say nothing. But it is enough now. I’m aware that I’m taking no risks by recounting any of this, that, for people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence.
I’m aware of the likely futility of all that I have told here, and, I’m aware, too, of the thousand ways I have tried to excuse myself in the telling of it. All the same, whatever the flaws of the story or confession or whatever it has turned out to be, let it stand”.
One fascinating structural feature of the story is the way it goes back and forth in time. The protagonist’s reminiscences about the unease of growing up with her parents in Bengaluru, alternates remarkably well with the unfolding of her Kashmir odyssey. Madhuri Vijay writes with exceptional felicity and her future books, I’m sure, would be eagerly looked forward to.