An Abundance of Wild Roses
By Feryal Ali-Gauhar
Canongate Books
ISBN: 978-1838858179
320pp.

Feryal Ali-Gauhar’s new novel is set in Saudukh Das, nestled amongst the black mountains of Pakistan. As the name suggests, Saudukh [Hundred Sorrows] Das is a village where hardships and despair are often constant companions of the villagers. They exist under the baleful eye of the Spirit-Beings who watch with great trepidation how the inhabitants of “Zameen Par” are often the vehicles of their own destruction.

The Spirit-Beings watch insidiously as their land is pillaged, encroached upon by the “creatures of Zameen Par” who would “cut down forests so that the eagle-owl and snow-cock had no place left for them, so that the songs of the warbler and wagtail were silenced.”

They bide their time, aware of the shortcomings of human nature that will eventually lead to calamity. It is the arrival of a wounded man brought to the doorstep of the village head, Moosa Madad, that will expose the fault lines existing amongst the people of Saudukh Das.

Ali-Gauhar sets the stage with perfection. Her writing is meticulous and the reader experiences every turn of the bitter, cold wind, the scramble of the villagers to prepare for a long arduous winter, and the disdain of the Spirit-Beings as they watch the machinations of these base creatures who inhabit the land of Zameen Par.

Feryal Ali-Gauhar’s new novel, set in a remote mountain village, combines commentary on tradition and patriarchy with a magical realist take on the ruination of the environment

Moosa Madad takes in the wounded man out of a deep sense of responsibility and obligation. After all, as the head of the village, husband to three wives, father to two martyred sons and father to a wayward golden-haired daughter, it is he who the village looks up to.

That said, there is a deep dichotomy that rests within his heart, just as it does in the hearts of most men of this village — their resistance at anything that questions tradition, their elusive and oftentimes violent search for ‘honour’, the burden of which is almost always carried by the woman.

Ali-Gauhar is adept at illustrating the conflict that arises when these men are shown a pathway towards progress. The Spirit-Beings are the reader’s window into the selfish hearts of these men, who hold back their women only so they can assert their perception of power. As for the women, they pursue their own secret rebellions.

Zarina, the healthcare worker, witnesses this silent revolt. Through Zarina’s eyes, Ali-Gauhar shows her reader the complexity of a woman’s emotions, her internal struggle as she tries to fight back against the trappings of abject poverty and suffocating traditions.

Zarina observes the hypocritical nature of the men from her village — for example, the magnanimity of Moosa as he takes in the wounded man, all the while crushing dissent by the women in his house. Another example is Naushad, the village drunk who derives his sense of superiority from the mere fact that he is a man, and has thus ‘earned’ the right to beat his wife into submission.

Ali-Gauhar transports her reader into a parallel world, one where Spirit-Beings are silent observers of men spelling their own demise. This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of her writing. She is lyrical in her use of language, as the reader is removed from the situations faced by the villagers and watches it all play out like a grotesque tableau. The reader confronts the ugliness prevalent in human nature through the eyes of the Spirit-Beings, those that lived in complete harmony with nature.

“There was nothing in this world, our world which was not connected to everything that existed, that had ever been created…How was it then that those who hunted us did not see their own image in our eyes when they slashed our throats and pierced our hearts with the arrows they fashioned from the branches of the trees that gave them shade in the summer and firewood in the winter?” Ali-Gauhar is sharp, incisive and does not spare her readers, compelling them to look inwards at the darkness of the soul.

The Spirit-Beings are appalled but not surprised by the innate selfishness of humans. They watch Naushad pine for a male ‘heir’. They watch Moosa mourn the loss of his two sons in battle and, in his house of three wives and a daughter, it is his martyred sons that seem to be more alive than the women. In Saudukh Das, as the Spirit-Beings observe, being alive means only that your heart pumps blood to help run bodily functions, as humans sabotage their happiness to fuel a warped sense of respect.

Ali-Gauhar writes with pain and compassion. Even as she highlights the utter inequality that exists between the men and women of Saudukh Das, she does not condemn them to their faults. She knows that they are a product of their environment. Living at the edge of the world, where moving forward is akin to abandoning years-long traditions and inviting uncertainty into their lives.

For these people, community is everything, no matter how fractured it may be, and so they view any change that modernity might bring as a threat to their way of life. They are not blameless, of course, but they are, to some extent, prisoners of their own making.

Ali-Gauhar has empathy for her characters and, even as the Spirit-Beings watch in silent scorn, they too recognise signs of nobility among these base creatures. The brave soldier Ibrahim guarding the last frontier, silently acknowledging that he is at the mercy of the elements here, so far removed from any vestiges of human life, befriends a pack of wolf-dogs, who show how it is often the animals who are far more dignified and loyal than humans.

There is also Noor who rises to the occasion and sheds the trappings of tradition to save lives, and the lame boy Lansik who, in his innocence, will do all he can to help.

An Abundance of Wild Roses will leave you breathless as Ali-Gauhar perfectly captures the essence of life in remote mountain villages. She is quite aware that the setting of her story is as, if not more, important as the characters she has created. She demonstrates her love and sympathy for nature whilst highlighting the plight of the human condition, the constant search for love and relevance, only to be faced with greater isolation.

There is a deep and poetic sadness in Feryal Ali-Gauhar’s writing. She creates a profound connection with her readers, making them realise that humans are on a collision course against themselves and the nature that sustains them.

If there really were Spirit-Beings, they too would look down on us and, instead of anger for what we inflict upon this Earth, they would feel sorry as they see us rushing towards our own destruction. Perhaps this is how God sees us, His greatest creation and deepest disappointment.

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature.
X: @ShehryarSahar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 26th, 2024

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