The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
Her mother was a complex character: unconventional, aloof, playful and cruel. Shalini thought she understood her, keep her stable, but she was only a child. When she forged an unlikely friendship with a door-to-door salesman, Shalini knew not to tell her father about Bashir.
Eleven years after their final excruciating meeting, he’s the reason Shalini makes the long journey to Kashmir. Thanks to the stories he told her, she knows the name of his wife’s village and, once she gets there, she can ask around. Initially, people assume she’s after information about a relative arrested by the military, but she eventually finds her way to the home of his family in a remote Himalayan village, where she’s warmly welcomed by his daughter-in-law and grudgingly tolerated by his son.
Helping the sarpanch’s (village headman) daughter improve her English and learning to milk a cow, for a while the only tension seems to be the sexual spark with the man of the house. But Kashmiri politics are extremely volatile, with growing suspicion between Hindu and Muslim communities and heavy-handed policing by the Indian army fuelling resentment on both sides. Shalini understands enough to think she can help, but not enough to realise she’ll only make things worse.
I don’t recall reading any fiction about Kashmir that didn’t focus on European tourists on a houseboat, and the situation depicted here was more reminiscent of Northern Ireland, with sectarian violence exacerbated by the military meant to contain it. Although I have never visited either, I have trekked through the Himalayas and stayed in remote areas where outsiders are novelty. So I felt I’d been Shalini, or at least a paler version with fewer language skills.
Beautiful prose and an endearingly flawed narrator makes this an undemanding read, but there’s nothing simple or superficial about the topics explored. Grief, minority politics, mother-daughter relationships, social class and social inequalities: Madhuri Vijay brings a sharp intelligence to them all. There may be no easy answers, but the questions are engagingly explored. Published by Grove Atlantic, who provided my review copy, this wonderful debut is one of my favourite reads of the year.
You’ll find short stories about grief, social justice and mothers and daughters in my collection on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone. Here I’m reading “I Want Doesn’t Get”, about a woman whose identity has fused with her mother’s:
A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo
A student at the University of Lagos, Desire has her tuition fees and expenses paid by her former employer, in exchange for getting her daughter through her exams. When she learns that Prof is living in the same neighbourhood, she’s determined to find the man who has always been her hero, because he campaigned against her community’s forced eviction when she was a child.
Soon she’s visiting him every evening, but she still can’t see him: he’ll talk, but he won’t turn on the lights. In the meantime, a strike is planned at the university and Desire finds herself drawn to a student leader, who calls himself Gandhi Reloaded, because physically and emotionally he reminds her of Prof.
Published by Nigerian small press Cassava Republic, poet Jumoke Verissimo’s fiction debut explores multiple small silences, not least what became of Desire’s parents and whether Prof ever had a child. Although I’d have preferred a stronger narrative arc, I admired the examination of the difficulties returning to ordinary life after trauma.
The latter was the theme of one of the stories in my collection on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone. Let me read you the opening of “Habeas Corpus”:
Good to be back in the saddle with the weekly flash fiction challenges after last month’s rodeo. The prompt for this week’s 99-word story is the day of the dead. Being inspired by A Small Silence, mine is somewhat grisly:
He’d been at peace till his granddaughter died; it wasn’t his fault but he was the one at the wheel. Soon after, the others came calling, their deaths accidental too. They came without teeth, ears, noses or fingernails; scorched genitals, soles of their feet.
He’d been good at his job, no question: give him a month and they’d beg to confess. Though some thought they could beat him, return to their Maker without ratting on friends. He termed such foolishness suicide: thankfully the General agreed. Now they haunt him with unfinished business; it’s an infinite day of the dead.