This post is part of The Sociological Review’s exploration of what it means for something to be ‘sociological literature’. In this strand of the work, practice-researchers and sociologists reflect on sociological encounters with contemporary poetry and prose.
“I am thirty years old and that is nothing”, writes Shalini, the protagonist of Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel The Far Field. This sentence bookends the narrative, highlighting the nothingness that plagues Shalini – whether in the form of the loneliness of modernity afflicting India’s urban elite, the harmful effects of actions meant to heal, or the regret of things left unsaid. Set between India and Kashmir, we move between Shalini’s memories of her mother and family life growing up in Bangalore, to her fateful journey to Kashmir in search of a man named Bashir Ahmed, considered to be the only real friend her mother had.
Vijay’s writing unravels slowly, delivering devastation in ways that I have rarely encountered in literature. Refreshingly, she has given voice to a generation of young South Asian women grappling with the darker aspects of selfhood and a world slowly crumbling under political upheaval. Shalini is withdrawn and depressed and she knows it, describing her life outside of work and visits to her father as “all the empty hours that fall inbetween”. Shalini is the only child of a successful factory owner; her complex relationship with the death of her mother acts as precursor to her reluctance to form meaningful bonds as an adult. Her mother, a stoic statue of secrecy, commands power of her family through her reserves of silence that she allows her daughter into at will. Shalini’s mother’s ability to lock out her family is paradoxically the very thing that keeps them close. Shalini spends her life wondering what kind of person her mother actually is. We are told that her mother is “the only daughter. Her two brothers went to college. She did not”, thus contextualising the dissatisfaction she feels of occupying the role of housewife; perhaps she considers her secrets and her silence her only form of power. Her father, it seems, is the complete opposite, a man “at ease with the world and his position in it”; India as exotic throwback of empire, poverty-stricken nation or magical realist playground is instead shown as a country like any other in the West, with Shalini and her family a product of global middle-class aspiration and the strictures it creates: her father a doting but occupied business man, her mother an unfulfilled housewife. The emergence of the Indian urban middle-class, revised in the context of globalisation, champions that bastion of Western capitalist aspiration (or ‘ideology’ as Silvia Federici writes) of the nuclear family in their sprawling suburban house.
The novel makes a point of writing out bustling family members such as nosey aunties and overbearing grandparents – representations often used in South Asian literature that do not fully reflect the nuanced experiences of younger South Asian women both in Asia and the diaspora but are often used to paint a familiar picture of the immigrant or South Asian experience. Aside from playing into Orientalist tropes that reproduce problematic characterisations and plots (abusive male character, submissive female character, arranged marriages, etc.), they come to represent the only truth about South Asian communities, despite condemnation from said communities. After the success of Monica Ali’s novel, Brick Lane in 2004, criticisms from the East End Bengali community of the negative portrayal of Muslim men within the book were largely drowned out by praise from the predominantly white middle-class publishing world, who admired Ali’s work for lifting the lid on this closed Bengali community in London. The discomfort of witnessing outsiders keen to see this community unwillingly unveiled reflects the process of othering that these narratives are in danger of perpetuating. To a lesser degree, these tropes also reproduce South Asian experience as narrow and predictable, discouraging writers to explore new territory in favour of stories that will garner attention from publishers.
A recent trend in diaspora writing favoured by publishing houses is the mythologizing of collective womanhood, as seen in the work of Punjabi- Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. Whilst some champion her for bringing visibility to the work of young South Asian female writers, others cite her work as problematic owing to the generalisation and lack of autonomy given to the female South Asian experience; Kaur is accused of being vague enough in her writing so as to have broad mainstream appeal, leading some to question the emotional authenticity of her poetic reflections. Her work explores love, abuse and womanhood in a way that some maintain, blurs the line between individual and collective trauma.
Rather than lay blame at Kaur’s door, who as a writer has every right to relay her experience to the world in whatever way she sees fit, it is the publishing world, whose cultural gatekeeping compromises the work of marginalised writers. In solely marketing such representations of South Asian-ness, these articulations can end up fomenting dominant ethnic and religious identities and histories (Punjabi and Sikh/Hindu) that silence those that are marginalised both within the diaspora and subcontinent, as well as presenting us with an easily packaged collective identity that (we’re told) should serve us well as female consumers of colour within the cultural industries.
Vijay disrupts the vague mythologizing-of-women-of-colour trope by taking us through the aspirations and pitfalls of modernity (sex, loneliness, self-esteem, class) as seen through the eyes of Shalini, offering up a narrative that allows this young South Asian woman to build up and break down in response to traumas that are particular to her in that part of the world. The specificity of Vijay’s narrative does not detract from her overall message, contrary to what publishers might say – e.g.: ‘it’s not relatable enough’ or ‘it’s too Indian’. Shalini leaves the comfort of Bangalore to meet Bashir Ahmed’s family in a Kashmiri village caught in the middle of a conflict between the Indian army and militants. After a series of violent events which eventually result in her leaving, she concludes that “for people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence”, pointing to her cowardice as the reasons for why certain things happened. Whether cowardice determined these events is left to the reader to decide, but Vijay makes a point of exploring the recesses of our own actions that we rarely confront. In an age of call-out culture (where the role of victim or accuser is assumed), we must also be critically reflective of ourselves in order to genuinely construct the future we keep telling others we are striving for. To feel regret at our own actions is devastating but also a reality many of us live with. How we get through this devastation is something that is not neatly answered through Shalini’s story, but it definitely made me care more about reflecting on personal truths after reading Vijay’s novel. Confronting my own privileges as a British Punjabi middle-class woman puts into perspective those things that I too, in the past could have dealt with better.
There is an interview with the writer at the back of the book that was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In it, Vijay talks about her scepticism of rich people like Shalini leaving ‘their empty, bourgeois lives behind’ to travel to ‘some poor picturesque country’ in order to learn life-changing truths about themselves – this is not the sole terrain of rich white kids, it applies to the monied class the world over. Class and religious identifications play a central role within the novel; Shalini is a rich young Hindu woman travelling alone from Bangalore to Kashmir, Riyaz (Bashir Ahmed’s son) is a working-class young Muslim man in a territory patrolled by the Indian military. Shalini, despite putting herself in danger, comes out of the situation largely unscathed owing to her class and religious privilege; she is a rich woman whose wealth translates across the world, regardless of her South Asian heritage. Such privileges are often overlooked in favour of uniting the diaspora under the South Asian banner, but in denying these other intersections, identity becomes essentialised and two-dimensional. The injustices experienced by those who come from working-class South Asian communities are also ignored. The Far Field brings these privileges into sharp focus, never letting us forget that they will ultimately shape our lives.
The weight of modernity bears heavily on the characters – Vijay has captured a feeling experienced by many of a certain generation, who may not necessarily identify along class or religious lines with Shalini, but will understand her torment in trying to work through a complicated life with all of the afflictions many of us deal with on a daily basis. Her worries about her aging father, her dislike for her unfulfilling job, her muted response to those seeking her friendship and her complicated sexual trysts, all of which Vijay relays with an honesty that isn’t dressed up in vague sentiments – a stark honesty that is nevertheless replete with emotion. It is a truth conveyed by a young South Asian female writer where I for once see myself in its sharp reflections.
Priya Sharma is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London in the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department. Her research explores articulations of feminist and queer British South Asian identity on social media platforms. Her research interests include digital labour and the social impact of new media technologies. You can find her on Twitter @pshar1312