Fiction – print. Grove Press, 2019. 448 pgs. Purchased.
Following her mother’s unexpected death, Shalini finds herself set adrift amid a life of privilege in Bangalore, India. She is unstimulated and unfulfilled by her job as an accountant for a nonprofit – a fact her boss has started to notice and comment on – and is no longer interested in the cycle of working and partying that her friends are engaged in.
As she searches for meaning, Shalini remembers a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home and coaxed rare smiles from Shalini’s mother. Bashir Ahmed disappeared only a few years before the death of Shalini’s mother, and Shalini makes a tenuous connection between the two events.
Determined to find out what happened to Bashir Ahmed (and confront him for his perceived role in her mother’s death), Shalini sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the region of Kashmir, a territory whose ownership is disputed by India and Pakistan and by the Muslim and Hindu residents.
Vijay’s debut novel envelopes the reader in sadness. The story explores the impact of lost opportunities and squashed dreams, of rejection and judgement based on faith and identity, and of cowardice and hopelessness on Shalini and the people around her.
If it weren’t for the occasional moment where Shalini stops to take in the beauty of the landscape or to interact with Bashir Ahmed’s grandson, it would have been easy to be bogged down by these darker feelings. It also would have been easy had the story not been so compelling, so multifaceted in its view of the complex situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
Shalini was raised in southern Indian by a father who believes the Hindus in Kashmir are blameless victims of Muslim extremists. He is hesitant to let her go to the region and keeps insisting that she reach out to military official he knows in the region.
When Shalini arrives in Jammu, she immediately realizes she is just another person looking for a lost loved one in the area. The hostel where she stays is filled with men looking for brothers, uncles, fathers, and cousins who have disappeared amid the violence, and her hosts have their own sad story to tell about how the conflict has touched them. Her experiences at the hostel lead Shalini to realize the black and white view Hindus hold of Kashmir is unjust and encourages the Indian military to react with force rather than compassion.
As she gets to know Bashir Ahmed’s family and village, Shalini is introduced to further shades of gray. The Muslim family is shunned by their neighbors for their (perceived) actions in the conflict, and Shalini learns that most in the predominantly Muslim community blame the violence on outsiders rather than Kashmiri Hindus.
All these nuances force Shalini to confront her biases and her feelings towards her mother’s death, a story that slowly unfolds as the novel alternates between the past and the present. Vijay’s handling of these nuances and the complex feelings they evoke demonstrate the promise she has as a writer. This was a standout novel for me – debut or not.