The Whispering Chinar
By Ali Rohila
Liberty Publishing
ISBN: 978-627-7626-068
168pp.

‘Chinar’ — when we read this word, we immediately think about romance or a serene stroll with golden leaves crunching underfoot. It is only fair to assume that a book titled The Whispering Chinar will carry some semblance of romance and mystery.

However, this compilation of interconnected stories by Ali Rohila defies such expectations. During the day, Rohila works as a successful banker, but his heart beats with the rhythms of ancient poetry and romance. His late father, the civil servant and litterateur Parto Rohila, continues to deeply influence him, shaping his love for tradition and artistry.

Essentially, chinar (the oriental plane tree) is a majestic tree known for its grandeur, long history, cool shade, and dignified appearance — a symbol of Kashmir’s cultural heritage. This tree has been a silent witness to many stories and events in Charbagh, a fictional place in the book. Every story, simple and unpretentious, has ties to Charbagh, whether directly or indirectly, and the town influences characters even when they’re far from it. This illustrates the lasting impact of one’s origins and surroundings.

Sometimes, even those we perceive as progressive and open-minded can be influenced by outdated beliefs that linger within them. With its profound themes focusing on love, grief, ethical dilemmas, authority, economic challenges, allegiance, familial obligations and systems of belief, the book invites readers to explore the stories’ emotional depths, transporting one to another universe.

A collection of interconnected stories transports one to a fictional place in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that bears witness to a changing society grappling with modernity in the face of long-embedded beliefs and social systems

The first tale, also the cover story, whisks readers away to the majestic scenery of Charbagh, a place ruled by the formidable yet respected Khan Mohammad Usman, also known as Khan Sahib. This setting is crucial to the story. It’s located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, just a short distance from the ancient Grand Trunk Road leading to Afghanistan.

The setting reminds us vividly of the area’s turbulent past and its ongoing power struggles. The first story focuses on the division of Khan Sahib’s land holdings and the disagreements between his children and grandchildren over their inheritance. With its colourful details and expert storytelling, this opening tale sets the scene for the following ones.

‘The Imam’ delves into themes of tradition, power dynamics and familial relationships in the village of Charbagh. Khan Sahib’s eldest son Saleem Khan’s adherence to tradition clashes with his business engagements, highlighting the tension between custom and convenience.

Khan Sahib’s brother-in-law Ashfaq Khan’s witty banter with the imam of Khan Sahib’s mosque Maulana Khushrang exposes underlying power struggles and societal norms, reflecting on the village’s dynamics. The dialogue also touches upon the importance of education and the clash between traditional religious education and modern pursuits like cricket and video games, revealing the complexities of life in rural Pakistan.

‘The Tears of Nazo’ delves into themes of tradition versus modernity, gender roles and cultural identity through its main characters, Nazo and Shuja. As they reunite after years during Eid celebrations, the story reveals their transformation from children to young adults. The dynamics of the joint family setting and arranged marriages reflect the societal norms and the struggles faced by the characters.

The clash between traditional values and Western influence is highlighted, as seen in the characters’ education and aspirations. Saleem Khan’s daughter Naheed or Nazo’s internal conflict between faith and personal expression adds depth to the narrative, illustrating the complexities of societal expectations.

‘The Sage’ revolves around the banyan tree at Khan Sahib’s hujra, symbolising both spirituality and life. Ashfaq Khan, now overseeing the hujra, embodies wisdom and selflessness, engaging with villagers in profound discussions.

Abdul Aziz, the village imam or prayer leader, recalls his father’s discomfort with Ashfaq Khan’s unconventional wisdom, leading to a clash of perspectives. Despite their differences, their interaction sheds light on complex human dynamics and the pursuit of understanding amidst contrasting societal expectations.

A simple and easy-to-follow writing style makes this book a fast-paced, breezy read, each story leaving a loud and clear message, yet leaving the readers with a lot to ponder. Ali Rohila hails from the same place he writes about. He understands its social rules, its way of showing respect, its politics mixing with religion, its freedoms, and differences in wealth, as well as its kindness, its narrow-mindedness, and its amazing beauty.

What’s impressive is that he doesn’t make it seem more romantic or special than it is. Instead, he ensures the stories seem real and authentic, telling stories about greed, envy, desire, love, competition, pride, power and weakness, with honesty and simplicity.

It is important for the readers to know that the stories are immensely sensitive and character-driven. The mostly male protagonists are depicted vividly, with clear and strong traits that you can easily believe. They rarely act unexpectedly, because they’re heavily influenced by their gender, social class, ethnicity and culture.

So, what you see is usually what you get, perhaps even slightly predictable at some points. However, amidst the challenges, we also encounter brave women who defy expectations, facing the consequences yet maintaining their dignity and resilience to continue their fight.

The instances of religious intolerance, male dominance, unfair treatment of women and extreme beliefs that show up in various unpleasant forms in the stories easily resonate, especially in the light of the recent incident in Ichhra, Lahore — where a mob accused a woman of blasphemy because of her clothes — and the murder of a young girl at the hands of her father and brother that took place in Toba Tek Singh.

However, the dominance of patriarchal structures in most narratives and the stories’ predictability does sometimes make them underwhelming and anti-climatic.

By and large though, The Whispering Chinar is a captivating book that takes one through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s eras of Pakistan. It’s a peek into local cultural and social tales, where one can discover how Pakistan grew, adapted and transformed during a time filled with political and social twists and turns.

Imagine Pakistan meandering through periods of democracy, constantly being challenged, while influences from the West blend in clumsily and social norms shift like sand dunes in a desert wind. It’s a fascinating world-building that paints a vivid picture of Pakistan’s evolution against a backdrop of complexity and change.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency.

She can be reached at sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 7th, 2024

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