It is always refreshing to watch new writers take the plunge into the big, bad world of fiction. Even when their books are flawed, they can be imbued with a sense of sincerity and enthusiasm that is pleasantly contagious. Anniqua Rana’s Wild Boar in the Cane Field is one such endeavour.

At the commencement of her novel, she writes (in a personal note): “Stories whirled around me when I was growing up embellished by the teller’s imagination.” At the commencement of the story itself, we are told that flies whirled around and settled on a baby girl abandoned on a train by a mother who, sadly, was unable to take care of her. As the author’s imagination spins out the tale of this baby’s fate, one realises that the journey is as much Rana’s as it is that of her heroine.

The novel is written in the first-person and the diversity of female characters is rich and quite impressive, given that the book is only a couple of hundred pages long. The abandoned infant is adopted by Amman Bhaggan — mother of three sons and woman-in-waiting to her village’s rich female owner — and given the name Tara. Saffiya — Bhaggan’s mistress — owns considerable property in her own right, which is unusual for such villages that are generally very patriarchal. Although not despotically cruel, Saffiya can be hard and uncompromising, but as a woman she does right by Tara. Bhaggan extends genuine motherly tenderness towards Tara as she grows into teen womanhood, to which Tara responds in kind.

There is something undeniably charming about the way Rana captures village life as recounted partially in flashback (that is, through Tara’s childhood) and mostly via the lens of her youth. One of the most well-done scenes in my opinion involves the wedding of a gudda [male doll] and gurriya [female doll] who make for a happy couple in spite of being rather shabby. The fact that they are later placed in a somewhat compromising position causes one to raise an eyebrow, but the novelistic move is perfectly logical. Equally simple and logical are the plot lines Rana follows: Tara grows up, gradually becomes aware of her sexuality and realises that her inevitable destiny is marriage.

Despite some flaws, a debut novel charmingly depicts village life and growing up within it as a free spirit

In depicting traditional village challenges, Rana sensitively portrays how a free spirit such as Tara feels trapped and hemmed in by both her lowly social status as well as the fact that there is no suitable educational outlet for her lively mental energy. It is natural that she falls for the most promising of Bhaggan’s sons — Sultan — as he moves towards manhood. Tragically, death cuts Sultan’s life short at a juncture when less tragically, but poignantly nonetheless, Tara realises that his romantic interests might lie elsewhere.

But like all good fairytales, Bhaggan has three sons, and though her son Taaj is messed up enough to use and abuse Tara, his far finer brother Maalik salvages the situation. Sadly, there are no fairytale endings for Tara; I will protect the suspense of the plot here, but suffice to say that she meets a fate that is as realistically opposed to fairytales as chalk is to cheese. Be that as it may, perhaps tying things up with a neat bow is not a high priority on Rana’s agenda. Instead, what she appears to be doing is creating a central character for whose humanity and predicament her readers are compelled to develop sympathy. In this the author succeeds, for while Tara is hardly a paragon of virtue, the heroine remains consistently likeable — at times, even truly noble — over the course of the novel.

Bhaggan is arguably the most tragic character in the book. Worn out by drudgery over the years, her ailments take her to the shrine of a holy man covered by flies, wonderfully and obviously named Sain Makhianwala [makhian: flies]. Descriptions such as this episode are as effectively handled by Rana as are more fleeting things, such as Tara’s braiding a paranda [traditional hair decoration] in her hair or weaving garlands of chameli [jasmine].

I mentioned diversity of characters earlier. The novel manages to include within its short scope impassioned girls (of different religious faiths), good-hearted maulvis, good and bad sons, rich and poor women, unwelcome and welcome suitors, and even a pair of female twins attempting Quranic hifz [committing to memory]! Before a critical voice mutters that Rana appears to be doing too much on this front, let us remind ourselves that village life is, realistically and accurately speaking, a microcosmic social panorama. This is the backdrop of Tara’s life — alternately exhausting yet inspiring, joyful yet anguished, pleasant yet painful. Teeming with people, none of whom are superfluous.

Perhaps the more jaded amongst us will groan about not wanting to swim through yet another 21st century novel that deals with ‘women’s issues’ — especially since no aspect of a typical village woman’s physical life is neglected by Rana. It’s all there: childcare, sexual abuse, positive sexuality, menstruation, childbirth, infanticide, post-partum depression and lust. My only complaint is that Rana gets neither the time nor the space to do justice to romantic love, which is a real shame because I suspect she would be rather good at it, given her instinctive grasp of the poetic. Scenes between Tara and the man who eventually ends up being her husband are glossed over too rapidly; indeed, one can add (tongue-in-cheek) that the author devotes more time to flies than she does to romantic love!

But the flies are a brilliant touch. They cover and ‘protect’ the young when their mothers are snatched from them by the grim machinations of fate; they cover Sain Makhianwala whose power may be dubious, but nevertheless seductive. In some ways, they act as a strange polar opposite to a destructive plague of locusts, by constructively reminding one that, at heart, we are all advanced animals, with primal instincts that have metamorphosed (like insects) over time in order to become what we euphemistically term human emotions. Such instincts lie at the core of Tara’s own beautiful inner core, and it is a credit to Rana that she manages to convey those to us with a certain amount of skill and no small amount of effort.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Wild Boar in the Cane Field
By Anniqua Rana
Folio, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834099
238pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 8th, 2020