Breaking with the theatre of the elite

January 17, 2021

Anniqua Rana’s Wild Boar in the Cane Field takes into account the wide-ranging and patently intriguing realities of village communities


ontemporary fiction from Pakistan has kept rural Pakistan at bay in most of its narratives. Often, rural folk are relegated to the periphery of plots where they are sketched hastily and are largely stereotypical representations, shown to be either plotting against their lordly employers or mere victims, buffeted by fate’s ill winds. What is sorely lacking in local literature is an inclusive perspective that takes into account the wide-ranging and patently intriguing reality of village communities. Anniqua Rana’s Wild Boar in the Cane Field is refreshing for its break with the theatre of the ‘elite’ stubbed and poured over to death, by indigenous wordsmiths.

Rana’s protagonist, Tara is an orphan, abandoned at a train station as an infant, and discovered by wealthy landowner Safiya Begum. She is raised by the latter’s helper Amman Bhagan and comes to be part of a composite family, part servant , part object of curiosity. Tara’s thoughts on her birth in the first few pages of the novel are particularly moving:

“My birth story was not one of hope and love. It was not one of family anticipation. It was of desertion. The woman who had held me inside her body, close to her heart, for nine months had chosen to abandon me in a grimy carriage.”

Tara’s unique situation ensures her considerable disjunction from the village coda, placing her in the vantage point of an observer or marginal onlooker. She is continually recording inferences and experiences that confirm her unconscious belief of being an irreconcilable element in the village community. She is shown to often be at odds with her playmates, her caretakers, her almost-mothers, if you will. Tara is acutely aware of the circumstances of her birth, and her desertion, throughout the text. Further on in the novel, she voices her acute sensitivity in being chided by Zakia, the maulvi’s wife, who is childless.

Tara’s distress at her perpetual sense of ‘otherness’ , is something she shares with other orphans in the canon of English literature – David Copperfield, of course, being the most conspicuous of them all. For Tara, as with all those who have had to endure lofty challenges in their tender lives, her ‘otherness’ is compounded by a notion that her perplexing misfortune has contributed to her being in some way special. There is a guileless charm about Tara, for all her doubts and existential puddles, she is also more sprightly and more questioning of the village’s ancient patriarchal exigencies. Later on in the novel, while she is besotted with Amman Bhagan’s son Sultan, she asks the village maulvi to teach her how to read the Quran like her paramour.

Tara’s independence of mind, commendable curiosity and will to learn, set her firmly apart from the regressive practices of the village. There is a pleasurable contrast developed between Tara’s freshness of perspective and the heavily superstitious beliefs propounded by those in her purlieus, especially Amman Bhagan.

There is much to admire in Rana’s restrained yet affecting prose. There is a light-handedness in her approach to the novel form and yet her themes are of the kind that pain the human heart. 

Whispered suspicions, and mutterings of dark magic seem to abound in this village, the panacea for which is found in quasi-supplication to the shrine of Sain Makhianwalla, or the ‘keeper of the flies’. An interesting metaphor is invoked by the presence of the flies, who in Greek mythology were sacred to the God, Zeus. The flies thrive in great numbers and for this characteristic represent omnipresence in the Greek tradition. The fly also connotes the divine presence for it is continually buzzing, with an energy that is all eyes and rife with tactile, uncontrollable energy.

The shrine and concomitantly Sain Makhianwala form two of the deep threads of the novel, through which Rana elicits the fatalism to which most rural communities are still perniciously prey. That she does so through the unseasoned eyes of Tara, brings into stark relief the dangers of the lack of education and the prehensile sense of belonging that villagers derive from the cults of their pirs.

Tara’s narrative voice meanders poetically and pensively through the length of the novel. She possesses a storyteller’s limpidity of perspective in that she always counters reality with an interior loop of how things should be; more fanciful and vision-like, and perhaps more stringently beautiful.

The tragic lack of not knowing the identity of her mother and father weighs heavily upon Tara. To counter this abyss she must spin a golden, grandiose tale. She must bear upon reality with the helping hand of visions which either bestow on her princess-like ornamentations or secure a love that is piquantly celestial, and perhaps congenitally saccharine. Rana’s novel reads seamlessly in Tara’s narrative voice, and maintains a sweet flow till its startling end. There is much to pique the interest of the reader in this text; there is bittersweet love victim to the vicissitudes of destiny, synergetic with local demi-gods and the gravity of ill fortune, there is also community and strife- all deftly comingled in Rana’s exposition.

To sum up, there is much to admire in Rana’s restrained yet affecting prose. There is a light-handedness in her approach to the novel form and yet her themes are of the kind that pain the human heart. Her characters are portrayed as part of a microcosm that is still achingly primitive, and brimming with stories yet to be told. In giving us this story of the contemplative orphan Tara, one hopes Rana has set a precedent for other local writers to broach the tales and lives of our rural denizens and flesh them in bold narratives with vividness and honesty.

Wild Boar in the Cane Field

Author: Anniqua Rana

Publisher: Folio Books

Pages: 256

Price: Rs 945

The writer is a senior contributing editor at The Aleph Review and a columnist at Libas Now

Breaking with the theatre of the elite