Beyond the Fields
By Aysha Baqir
Lightstone Fiction, Karachi
What a pleasure it was to pick up Beyond the Fields by Aysha Baqir, for it is a novel written by a young Pakistani and published in Pakistan!
Readers and writers alike would be aware that getting English-language fiction published in Pakistan has long been an almost insuperable problem. Many of our writers earlier resorted to Indian publishers, but when strained relations with our neighbour closed that route, our own industry started to germinate, meaning more books are seeing the light of day under the aegis of Pakistani imprints.
As one gets pulled into the story of Beyond the Fields, there is a distinct sense of unease. One’s comfort zone is clearly missing. Baqir tackles a subject that is as grim and sombre, even tragic, as it is true. The travails of the tenant farmer in the Seraiki belt is not a familiar theme for most of us, but the author expertly immerses us into village life in a microcosm, where the lot of the peasant is laid bare. Perhaps no village is exactly like the one depicted in Beyond the Fields, but it feels real and all that happens seems utterly possible.
Zara is the daughter of a landless peasant, living in South Punjab during Gen Ziaul Haq’s era with her elder brother Omar and twin sister Tara. They’re not well off, yet when the harvest is good, even with the lion’s share going to the landlord, the family can make do.
A debut novel by a young Pakistani author is an eminently readable book about uncomfortable topics and a very good addition to Pakistani English language fiction
The twins must work in the house, and even in the fields when necessary, but their lives include many simple pleasures too. Upon reaching adolescence, they’re told to curtail their activities outside the home and cover themselves with chadors.
Tara obeys the new rules without fuss, seeing other girls of her age do the same. But Zara has a rebellious streak. She not only dislikes household chores, but is indignant at not being allowed to run in the fields, meet her playmates, pinch fruit from the trees and generally have the sort of fun boys continue to have whatever their ages.
She’s also angry at not being allowed to go to school. The village initially has no school; only when a retired but dedicated teacher inadvertently makes the village his home does a one-room school of sorts open. Omar attends — Zara’s mother makes this possible against her husband’s wishes. He needs Omar’s help in the fields, but the mother, who comes from a more enlightened home, can see that Omar’s future can differ from his father’s only through education. But she doesn’t think the same is necessary for girls.
Omar, however, understands Zara’s desire to learn and imparts all that he learns to his younger sister. Zara soaks everything up like a sponge and soon she knows all that Omar knows. When he discovers Zara’s abilities, the old teacher also helps quietly by giving her English books to read.
When Omar is about to be sent to a high school in Lahore, and Zara is ready to take an admission test for the girls’ high school in the next village, Tara is raped by the landlord’s men. Zara’s father wants to report the crime, but is dissuaded by his friends and cousins because the recently promulgated Hudood Ordinances might criminalise Tara for committing zina [extra-marital sexual relations].
There is also an urgent need to hide the whole affair. Shame and loss of honour are recurring themes, as is the fear that not only Tara, but Zara as well will become unmarriageable should the news become public. Tara is kept sequestered for some days before being married off to a stranger in Lahore, but it soon becomes apparent that the family has been duped, the nikah is a sham and the girl has been forced into terrible circumstances.
Zara is beside herself. She realises her parents — especially her father — will not do anything. He has saved face in the village and for him, Tara is dead. At about this time, the crops fail, money is scarce and Zara hatches a plot to go to Lahore with her brother so she can find work as a housemaid.
The juxtaposition, of the opulent luxuries of the house in which Zara finds employment and her own background, is jarring. Yet the position of Sehr Madam, the lady of the house, is not too different from that of the women in the village. A sad commentary!
In a tightly woven sequence with suspense maintained at fever pitch, Zara rescues her twin and brings her back to their village. The wagging tongues continue to wag, but the girls fight back and get some semblance of education, because it is clear to them that marriage is not the only goal, nor the only road to redemption.
The cast of characters include the village gossip, the cruel mother-in-law, the matchmakers and the know-it-alls, and the women are all subservient to the men; even when a man makes a mistake, it is the wife who must apologise.
The moral code is vastly different for men and women. Poor Chiragh, a girl seduced by a village youth, is driven out of her home and eventually dies in abject poverty, while the male culprit, well known to all, is neither blamed nor punished. He gets married and lives a comfortable life.
Gender inequities are reflected in the inequalities of wealth. The landlord is above all. So are his henchmen. Other people’s property — such as the mango orchard owned by the villagers — can be appropriated by the landlord with impunity. The village women are fair game and, in a world where a poor man has no say, his wife and daughters being — even lower in the hierarchy — have no position at all.
The book does have its weaknesses. Zara is a well-defined character; the others not so much. Even Omar, a key player, is a mystery. How is he so liberal, given his environment? The author does not explain. Also, she occasionally tends to ram home a point where a lighter touch would have been more appropriate.
But she spins a tale that should make us all think. As Baqir points out, class differences and gender biases are against the teaching of our religion, yet heartless patriarchy continues to prevail. Beyond the Fields is an eminently readable book about uncomfortable topics and a very good addition to Pakistani English language fiction.
The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehlay: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2022