A quiet witness

March 26, 2023

An unflinching look at the complexities of gender dynamics

A quiet witness


hinar is a captivating name for women, evoking the image of a stately tree admired for its magnificence, ancient lineage, refreshing shade and regal appearance. A living symbol of Kashmir’s rich heritage, the tree has stood sentinel over the Charbagh, silently bearing witness to countless stories and events.

As soon as I laid my eyes on Ali Rohila’s debut, The Whispering Chinar, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. It was as if I were taking a peaceful, reflective stroll amidst golden leaves rustling underfoot. The book’s cover exudes a captivating mix of romance and grandeur, with deep blue hues capturing the constant pain and a striking gold leaf representing the frills of hope and love that permeate the pages. It’s a visual representation of the emotional journey within, beckoning readers to delve deeper into the story’s intricate layers. With its alluring combination of beauty and depth, the book is a true treasure. It transports you to another world.

The stories in the book are far from the romantic tales I had initially imagined. There is wisdom in the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Most of these stories explore themes of patriarchal chauvinism and male entitlement, with occasional hints of power and control. Rohila masterfully crafts complex characters for his male protagonists. In contrast, the female characters are presented mainly in relation to the men in their lives, though there are a few female leads as well. The destinies of these women remain largely in the hands of the men surrounding them. The Whispering Chinar is a bold and unflinching look at the complexities of gender dynamics, leaving readers with much to ponder and reflect upon long after the final page has been turned.

The opening story transports readers to the imposing landscape of Charbagh, a place dominated by the feared and revered Khan Mohammad Usman, or Khan Sahib, as he is respectfully known. The locale plays a pivotal role in the story. It is situated in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a few miles away from the historic Grand Trunk Road that winds its way towards Afghanistan. The setting serves as a stark reminder of the region’s tumultuous history and the power dynamics that have long been at play in this part of the world. With its vivid descriptions and masterful storytelling, the opening story sets the stage for a captivating journey through the pages of this remarkable collection.

Although the first story provides only a glimpse of Charbagh, the author skillfully weaves the locale into subsequent tales. Using characters residing in the heart of Charbagh or on its outskirts, the author vividly portrays their deep connection with the place and its origins, particularly during times of upheaval. Through subtle nuances, the stories shed light on the pervasive social issues ingrained in society.

Traversing diverse timelines, the other stories in the anthology poignantly illustrate myopic and distorted social norms. In particular, The Imam and The Blasphemer explore themes of religion, religious persecution and fanaticism, with overlapping elements of morals and virtues subsumed by the authority of the group with the largest following. The two stories build a case for liberalism in the face of a black-and-white, right-and-wrong, moral-and-immoral universe. They remind us of the importance of speaking out against injustice, of not sitting on the fence.

Rohila’s writing style is crisp and breezy, creating a delightful potpourri of narratives, complex characters and diabolical situations.

Two interconnected modern romantic tales leave us both frustrated and grounded in how being young and in love can wreak havoc on family and peripheral relationships. The story depicts an explosive collision between the traditional methods of generations past and the youth trying to push beyond established boundaries. Ultimately, it offers an epic portrayal of today’s complex and rebellious youth.

In The Revenge, modern characters break away from conventional roots to embrace a more open-minded universe. Shazia, a go-getter with perfectly manicured nails, represents the new wave of rebellious youth determined to reap the benefits of progress without sacrificing their freedom. Marriage doesn’t feature prominently in her list of priorities; instead, she has joined an emancipated group. Shazia is set on making strides in her banking career before deciding on settling down and starting a family. However, the story ends in a bitter surprise.

Every story in the collection has highly developed characters. Each explored their reactions and responses to their circumstances and the implications for those closest to them. In The Office, Imran’s life revolves around the cut-throat world and the unseen turbulence of giant corporations. He is consumed by tedious banking work, demanding deadlines and a lack of social or personal life – all in pursuit of a promotion and a nod of approval from his superiors. Imran is a representative of a new generation, aware of life’s demands and trying to make sense of its misfortunes. As he delves deeper into his spreadsheets, he loses himself and is unable to find his way out. Reading through, I realised that such is life; c’est la vie in the corporate ecosystem. It lets you enter but doesn’t let you leave. The story also highlights toxic masculinity in the corporate environment.

Rohila’s writing style is crisp and breezy. He creates a delightful potpourri of narratives, complex characters and diabolical situations. Some of the characters may seem unrealistically reckless, but others maintain real-world poise, making it easy for readers to have favourites and empathise with them. Rohila’s writing allows readers to fully engage with the book and experience a range of emotions.

The book does a remarkable job of highlighting some of the social and moral issues that continue to plague our society. The portrayal of the class divide is quite stark. Some of the characters seem to view their servants as dispensable and replaceable, even if, at times, they are treated like family members. The themes of bloodlines and alliances highlight the importance of maintaining social status and privilege, often at the expense of others.

Another thought-provoking aspect of the book is its exploration of whether education determines one’s morals and values. The subject is worth further debate and discussion. The book is a great conversation starter that encourages readers to confront some complex issues and engage in meaningful discourse.

The Whispering Chinar

Author: Ali Rohila

Publisher: Vintage Books, 2022

Pages: 224, Paperback

The reviewer is a journalist based in Karachi. She can be reached at Sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

A quiet witness