How the similar histories of Kashmir and Hawaii inspired Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel
'The Far Field' follows a young South Indian woman, Shalini, on an ill-fated odyssey to J&K
Six years ago, I visited the Hawaiian Islands for the first time. The purpose of my trip was two-fold—I was going as a tourist, but I was also starting work on what would become my first novel, The Far Field (HarperCollins). Whenever I told people I was heading to Hawaii, they invariably responded in the same way: with sighs of envy. I was familiar with this response; I’d spent the past two years teaching at a remote school in the mountains of Jammu & Kashmir, and it was the same way people reacted when I told them about that. I could almost predict the moment a listener would shake her head and say, wistfully, “I’ve heard it’s paradise.”
Of all the places I’ve travelled, no two have been branded “paradise” quite so quickly as Kashmir and Hawaii, perhaps because they bear the twin crosses of being seductively beautiful yet eternally out of reach to those who would seek to possess them. In Kashmir, I found this paradox fascinating enough for it to become the core of The Far Field, which follows a young South Indian woman, Shalini, on an ill-fated odyssey to J&K. Having grown up in Bengaluru, I know the fraught position Kashmir occupies in our national psyche, suspended between crown jewel and black sheep. The last thing I expected, landing bleary-eyed at Maui’s plumeria-scented airport on a balmy November afternoon, was to find the same forces at work in the Pacific.
On Maui, my days were broken up evenly: mornings devoted to writing, evenings to exploration. I did what all tourists do: gawked at the beaches, tried my hand at surfing, hiked into a volcano, and sipped a mai tai at sunset. But my novel was taking shape at the same time, and I could not ignore the similarities between my own surroundings and the subject of my book. Both Kashmir and Hawaii are renowned for physical beauty—the black sand beaches of the latter are as magnificent as the ice-covered peaks of the former. Moviemakers evidently agree; I cannot count the number of films that have used Kashmir and Hawaii as their backdrops. And as for tourism, the survival of both places depends on a constant flow of vacationers clamouring for aloha or kashmiriyat, as the case may be. And this is to say nothing of their strategic military importance, which, I should add, often conveniently overlaps with the interests of film-makers. Pearl Harbor (2001) and Yahaan (2005), despite their varied locales, could come as a box set.
History, too, bears out the parallels. In 1893, the last native monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili‘uokalani, was imprisoned in her palace by a group of American businessmen and forced to sign a document of accession that handed her kingdom over to them. She spent the rest of her life seeking international recognition for her rule, but died without success. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th US state, just twelve years after Maharaja Hari Singh signed his own document of accession, which relinquished Kashmir to India and set off a wave of violence that, all these decades later, shows no signs of abating.
In The Far Field, Shalini falls in love with the beauty of Kashmir’s landscape, and it blinds her to certain ugly realities of the region. I’d always intended to write a novel criticising the casual traveller’s tendency to ignore what is inconvenient. But to my dismay, I discovered I was not above such seduction myself. All it took was one perfect Hawaiian sunset, or two palm trees against an empty blue sky for me to lose sight of the fact that this place, like all others, was built on the back of disaster and cruelty. Such is the insidious power of beauty. It is the anaesthetic that allows people who should know better to sigh, shake their heads, and speak yearningly of “paradise”.
But warning signs are everywhere for those who care to look. Drive along the coastline of Maui, past a charming plantation town, and you’ll come to a beach that boasts some of the most famous waves in the world. Here stands a dilapidated yellow sign painted in giant red letters: ‘This property is under the jurisdiction of the lawful Hawaiian government’. The first time I saw it, I stared down at those waves and remembered that, just as in Kashmir, there are still factions in Hawaii fighting for independence from what they consider an illegal occupying force. A week later, I wrote a scene in which Shalini sees a sign painted onto a rock: ‘From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is one’. She experiences a similar sensation of a set collapsing, a discomfiting reminder that this statement has come at a terrible cost. And then she does what so many wealthy, privileged travellers do: she focuses on the beauty and allows herself to forget the rest.
“A tourist is an ugly person,” Jamaica Kincaid writes in A Small Place (1988), and I cannot deny that I have felt ugly in Kashmir and Hawaii, just as I have in Malaysia, South Africa, the UAE, Australia, and Mauritius. So what is the right thing to do? Stop travelling? Turn away? Part of my attempt to answer that question has been to write The Far Field, a book I owe to Hawaii as much as Kashmir. I don’t claim that it is enough, but I do know it is better than sealing oneself into a hotel, blindly taking beauty for substance. Was travel ever innocent? If so, those days are done. To travel now in good conscience, it must be, like writing, an act of paying attention. A way, at the very least, of bringing a report back home, of countering those wistful sighs with the firm reminder that paradise has always been an illusion.
The Far Field, published by HarperCollins in India is now on stands.
Photographs: Alexander Maksik, Saffiyah Patel, Manvi Rao (Madhuri Vijay)