“I heard a fly buzz—when I died.”
The aforementioned line rises to utmost significance once the novel reaches its end. It would be better to leave this explanation untouched in the review for the readers’ sake. For now, know that flies constitute a remarkable portion of the novel. They are one of the many bones that give this novel a riveting shape. They are neglectable angels who guide certain characters, welcome them to the world, and see them off as they take flight to another.
A lonely, abandoned baby—Tara— is discovered at a railway station by Bibi Saffiya and Amman Bhaggan, covered in flies. By then, she loses “a week’s worth of maternal love.” After the discovery, she grows up under the shadows of Saffiya and Bhaggan. Saffiya is an affluent woman revered by everyone in the village. Because of her wealth and power, she is considered the “sole owner of the village.” Amman Bhaggan is her maid, tied to her service for bygone reasons.
These are not the only significant characters that populate the novel, though. There are labourers, Bhaggan’s three sons, neighbours, teachers, all of whom are equally noteworthy.
As Tara grows up, she builds friendship with Maria, the daughter of a labourer, attends Qur’an lessons, tends to household chores, blooms an intimate, although brief, relationship with Sultan, one of Amman Bhaggan’s sons.
Bounded by the shackles of patriarchy and superstitions, Tara’s mind is hell bent on drifting away from a place that stifles her freedom while her male counterparts get no sanction imposed on them. They get to attend classes at the school while she, alongside other females, has to rock back and forth, to the hypnotic hum of religious lessons. During her periods, she is not allowed to enter the kitchen, touch the Holy Qur’an, and is given rags to use. She is advised not to let anyone know of the matter and cook up something else to hide something as basic as this biological commonality. Fed up of every sort of restriction hurled at her because of her gender, she seeks to explore what’s beyond this village and its people. In “a world designated for men,” Tara feels lost and drained of all energy. She makes make-believe homes with Maria, in which the world is as they want them and parallel to their reality.
Following a tragedy, Tara’s life soon turns turbulent in a sudden, unexpected manner, catching her off guard. Unwanted occurrences crowd her life, and she trudges along on an unprecedented path. The events that follow pulsate the novel with life.
As an element vital to the heart of the novel, the author presents the idea of ludicrous superstitions that are familiar throughout the narratives of South Asia. She presents them as shadows that constantly hover over the village and its residents. From trying heart and soul to cover up the aspects of menstrual health and curtailing women’s education to disdaining over the birth of a female child and pointing fingers at Black Magic whenever things go wrong, superstitions are rife in the novel and affect each character in both similar and different ways.
What is most crucial to the storyline is the existence of Wild Boars that are fierce enough to chase someone and tear off bits of their limbs. They ruin crops, forage into houses, and are inevitable threats if certain measures are not taken. To keep them at bay, the residents use castor oil, which has the charm to repel them as it “smells of their own fat.” Now, their existence is very crucial because they roam about the fields that sprawl for miles and shape the village’s geography, its people’s behaviour, and thinking. Because of the fields, there is a fear in every heart that everyone must be wary of wild boars or they could turn into history, folklores, and tales that echo everywhere. The fear of wild boars is a recurring feature of the novel that establishes that the boars indeed shape the people’s behaviour here.
Towards the end of the novel, when tragedies whirl about and are at their peak, the author brings in a stellar quality: magical realism. She shifts the narrative from the points of view of the people to that of flies. After all, flies are considered holy by a certain demographic of the unnamed village, and there are shrines dedicated to them, saints worshipping them. Even though the narrative of the flies is transient, this jarring yet beautiful shift adds a poetic charm to an already poetic account.
Although initially it seems like a calm story set in a rural, domestic and seemingly harmless setting, after the tragedies strike, the progression picks up a suspenseful pace, making the reader want to leap to the end in one sitting. The initial slow-place of the novel only helps to etch the atmosphere and complex mechanism (of relationships) in a reader’s mind.
In the grand scheme of things, Wild Boar in the Cane Field is a canvas displaying the modern vs the ancient, the complex emotions that make one do certain things despite the grave outcomes, the ties that gain firm footing in the past,and the fickle nature of destiny—all tinged by the rich yet simple language of an author who accomplishes to make a reader see that there is indeed a boar inside the bushy vegetation and a child is indeed sliding into this world from a dark world of the womb, not just blankly read the lines.
The characters here are the diverse means through which the concepts of love, loss, worldly peculiarities, mental health, longing, and identity are heartily navigated up-close.
Anniqua Rana’s debut novel seamlessly blends an actual universe with a parallel one, helping one perceive the shadowy presence of certain forces that mould every event. It makes one think out of the ordinary, human boundary, and peek into the borders of a magical, imaginative world which is alien yet familiar, far yet close.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a regular contributor for The Daily Star Literature & Reviews Pages.