Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel balances the personal and the political with assurance
Sun 30 Jun 2019
his impressive debut from the Indian writer Madhuri Vijay is about the crashing together of internal and external grief, as a woman mourning the death of her mother embarks on what will prove a life-changing journey into the troubled region of Kashmir.
Shalini, a 30-year-old from a well-to-do family in Bangalore, is drifting from job to job, increasingly bankrolled by her emotionally distant and physically absent father. She finds herself daydreaming about her childhood, in particular a memory of her mother’s flirtation with a clothes salesman, Bashir. Was he, Shalini wonders, her mother’s only real friend? Certainly, he seemed to be the only person who really understood her mother, her restlessness, her sarcasm, her combativeness.
Shalini decides to track him down, following a half-remembered clue that leads her to a mountain village in Kashmir. Boarding with a kind family amid the political tension and remnants of conflict, she discovers the importance of kinship and community. But her background of wealth and privilege is of little use to her here. She misunderstands the threat of soldiers. She struggles to reconcile the push and pull between living “an ordinary life” and the realities of violence. However, with each new experience, Shalini feels the pull of a true calling. Maybe, she thinks, she can give something to these people and their lives.
Her efforts prove catastrophic, however, and the novel becomes a powerful meditation on the chaos of good intentions – how well-meaning philanthropy can be undone by the naivety of privilege. Shalini is reminded that she is an outsider. At one point, she realises: “For people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence.” It’s the classic do-gooder syndrome – being a saviour doesn’t mean you get what’s going on.
There are quiet moments of reflection as the present and past start to mirror each other, secrets are revealed and memories are interrogated until they take on new meaning. Shalini’s quest – to find meaning, to discover her true self away from the everyday, away from her absent father, away from the shadow of her larger-than-life mother, away from everything that privilege can insulate from – is a masterful piece of fiction.