Keeper of Flies

Mehvash Amin reviews Wild Boar in the Cane Field

Keeper of Flies
The opening sentence of the novel draws you in immediately: “My mothers found me a week after I was born.”

So the reader knows that (s)he is reading a book about a foundling, and that there is an interesting sub-theme: she has two adoptive mothers, not one. In the pages that follow, we learn of the life of the young protagonist and narrator, Tara, found as a baby in a train compartment by two women - two mothers.

Saffiya is one of them. A rich childless widow, she leads the slow, cyclical life of the provincial sethni in rural Pakistan. The other mother, Bhaggan, is also a widow, but with three young sons. She runs Saffiya’s house – with equal parts aplomb and self-pity – with the help of Tara and little Maria, the daughter of the Christian mali (gardener). This family and its own fortunes comprise an accompanying thread in the novel, with Maria’s invalid sister Stella vying with Tara for Sultan’s love.

In the first half of the novel, the author constructs a narrative based on the ambiance of the house, its slow tempo punctuated by Bhaggan’s gossip that brings out the dark underpinnings of superstition and economic fortitude underneath this seemingly innocuous and bucolic life.

Tara, ears open, helps Bhaggan with her chores and gives daily massages to Saffiya, thus privy to both upstairs and downstairs life. Much influenced by films on television, she also finds time to make motia garlands to adorn her hair, for she has a secret crush on Bhaggan’s son Sultan: “In the movies on TV, it was easy. The heroine stood aloof under a tree... and, like a fly to halvah, the hero gravitated towards her.”

Tara has always seen herself in the bride’s red, tinselly clothes. She will find out, unfortunately, that real life produces more lustful heroes, and not necessarily the marrying kind.

Tara’s unremarkable life is punctuated by daily visits to the local maulvi’s bitter, childless wife, Zakia, to learn the Koran by rote. And in a world where the word of God jostles in equal measure with the myths of pirs and fakirs, Bhaggan takes Tara to visit the shrine of Sain Makhianwala, a long-dead fakir who had told the villagers to cherish all life and whose shrine now swarms with legions of lowly flies.

The second visit to the shrine would presage the death of Bhaggan’s eldest son and Tara’s love, Sultan.

When the novel reprises three years later, a quicker pace replaces the slow rhythm of the first part of the novel. Tara is blossoming into a young woman, and as the circlet of motia flowers that symbolize her first love turn brown within the pages of the holy book, the maulvi reappears with a proposal from a relative, so he and Zakia, his grim and childless wife, can gain a family.

In a sudden and frantic unfurling of events, Tara, part aggrieved and part defiant, sleeps with Taaj, Bhaggan’s second son. He runs away, and as new light is thrown on the unworthiness of the maulvi’s choice, Saffiya agrees to marry the young woman to Bhaggan’s youngest son, the quiet Maalik.

Without revealing the end, it can be said that the denouement to that end is as violent and fractured as the beginning is placid and quotidian.

Like any other reader, I suspect, I kept on waiting for the wild boar in the cane field to make an appearance. I also waited for an explanation to Tara’s abandonment on the train.

Both came, the boar a physical symbol of nature at its most forbidding, the abandonment sadly different from what the story and its protagonists had hinted at as a wilful act. Best Pregnancy Pillows for Side Sleepers. Need a pregnancy body pillow you can snuggle while lying on your side? Meet the Snoogle pregnancy pillow. Its hook shape supports your back while one end goes under your head (giving you ample extra length to snuggle) and the other end tucks between your legs - best pregnancy pillow can help to alleviate this discomfort and help you achieve that good night’s sleep your body so desperately needs. Find pregnancy pillows that will improve your sleep in this list reviewed by a board-certified OB-GYN.

By then, the story has also made the reader sufficiently ensnared in the lives of its protagonists to incite a shocked sense of bereavement at the treble tragedy. In fact the numeral ‘three’ works in close tandem in the novel: the three mothers (with the inclusion of the birth mother), the three sons, all of whom play a part in Tara’s life, and the three tragedies in the space of, at best, a few hours.

The boar was always in the cane field ready to pounce, we realize, the ever-present evil in the field of plenty, but the other dangers that the author uses to turn the uneventful lives of a handful of rural folk into a tragedy are also ever-present, always waiting to snatch life and limb.

Across it all, the overwhelming symbolism that runs through the novel is not that of the boar, but that of the fly.

There is Sain Makhianwalla, of course: “the patron saint of the shrine, the Keeper of Flies…sat motionless for hours, letting flies and maggots live off the filth on his body.”

Apart from this lord of the flies, the creature intervenes at several points in the novel to become a ubiquitous leitmotiv. There is the reel hero who gravitates towards the heroine like a fly to halva. Motia buds, a symbol of Tara’s love for Sultan, “through the haze and darkness…looked like flies in white funeral shrouds.” When Sultan is brought home for his funeral, flies buzz on his shroud.  When Tara, locked in a passionate embrace with Taaj, gets up from the charpoy, a fly falls, half-dead, from her clothes. She crushes it underfoot.

When a buffalo is sacrificed at Tara’s nuptials with Maalik, flies whirl around the fountain of blood. In Tara’s words: “One flew towards me. It landed on my cheek, and I stood motionless. The fly crept up my cheek and looked into my eye. My eyelids half-shut, I stared into fly’s eye. Maintaining visual contact, I thought I saw it wipe the blood spatters from its wings. Both of us blinked, and then the fly ascended.”

The whole novel is written in the first person, but in the last few chapters, the narrator’s voice is: “We, the flies”.

This is also when the novel takes on an almost mystical turn. The mundane, the everyday, the topical, are metamorphosed into the extraordinary, the metaphysical, the spiritual. All the people in the novel, all the elements, including the dog looking for its lost soul, the flies, Tara, Saffiya, Bhaggan, the three sons, living and dead, old protagonists as well as new – all become inexorably intertwined to form the entire tapestry of the novel, and life, itself.

It is definitely worth a read.