The heart of the tree

August 29, 2021

The fifth volume of The Aleph Review strikes a note that is personal, yet deeply in sync with the realities of the world

The heart of the tree

Suffused with religious, philosophical and socio-cultural interpretations, the archetype of the Tree of Life has been perceived as a symbol of unity. The roots, trunk and branches of this symbolic tree reflect the intricate line of connections that bind us to nature and the cosmos. It is difficult to elicit a literary response to such a broad subject without compromising on originality.

In its much-awaited fifth volume, The Aleph Review has accomplished this feat by moving beyond the clichés and mining a new vein of truth. The exercise has yielded a vast outpouring of poems, fiction, memoir and reportage that are diverse, insightful and kaleidoscopic. The theme seems to align closely with the grim quietude of our lives under the pandemic, which has revived our lost connection with nature. Though the anthology was compiled during the initial months of the pandemic, it doesn’t dwell on the role of nature as our new lodestar. Using the Tree of Life as a springboard, the work featured in the fifth volume of The Aleph Review strikes a note that is more personal and yet deeply in sync with the realities of the world.

As with previous editions, the fifth volume of the anthology reflects a preoccupation with visual elements. It would be naive to assume that the artwork and photographs have only been included to break the monotony of printed text. Instead, they provide unique pictorial representations of the underlying theme.

The visual language, though silent, bears a distinct energy that cannot be replicated through the written word. On the front cover, artist Suleman Aqeel Khilji presents an image of a towering tree that appears, dissolves and reemerges on the canvas. The tree, however, doesn’t resemble a leafy oasis. What meets the eye is a near-skeletal image of a tree threatened by objects that hover around it and prey on its natural splendour. The cover, therefore, simultaneously defies the theme of the anthology and reasserts its relevance in the modern context.

Another one of Khilji’s creations has been featured on the back cover. The image, which appears within a smaller, oblong frame, is that of a jolly-looking man, who could be seen as both the perpetrator and victim of the destruction witnessed on the front cover.

As we flip through the pages of The Aleph Review, the images seem to coalesce – a nod to the team’s curatorial prowess. The artwork hasn’t been haphazardly strewn across the book. All images have been carefully selected to capture the moods and flavours of a piece. For instance, a faceless family portrait (Family Planning by Rabia Farooqui) has been placed next to Niilofur Farrukh’s lyrical poem that deconstructs the notion of happily-ever-afters. This adds a new and enriching dimension to the topic. A similar effect is produced through the artwork that accompanies Sadaf Halai’s poem, The Keeper of Bees and MN Shehryar’s Ma after Fajr.

The opening piece, titled Setting a Frame, also serves as welcome proof of an editorial commitment to highlight the power of the visual realm. This is a dialogue on the work of acclaimed artist Zahoorul Akhlaq by his wife Sheherezade Alam and daughter Nurjahan Akhlaq, and has considerable archival value. Upon a closer scrutiny, this is a suitable technique to gauge Akhlaq’s artistic contributions as his oeuvre also involves a dialogue between his strictly modernist training and the eastern influences that he was drawn towards. Sheherzade and Nurjahan’s conversation is interspersed with personal memories of Akhlaq as well as professional insights on his legacy. The piece is a useful guide of the circumstances under which art is created in both a public and private vein.

As with previous editions, the fifth volume of the anthology reflects a preoccupation with visual elements. It would be naive to assume that the artwork and photographs have only been included to break the monotony of printed text. Instead, they provide unique pictorial representations of the underlying theme.

The decision to include a piece about Akhlaq, who was gunned down along with his older daughter, shows how the theme of the anthology is also mysteriously handcuffed to notions of loss, remembrance and the retrieval of a legacy. In her editorial note, editor-in-chief Mehvash Amin describes Akhlaq as a “mighty oak struck down by all that is malevolent in Nature”. Even in death, the memory of that felled tree lives on through art.

The fifth edition of The Aleph Review spotlights a rich array of new English poems. This is undoubtedly a noble endeavour as English poetry stands the danger of existing on the peripheries of Pakistan’s literary and intellectual life. Sidra F Sheikh’s No One Like You is a clever, chilling evocation of the plight of women in a patriarchal society – a theme that recurs in various poems, including Basudhara Roy’s Woman-to-Woman. Most of the poems have an experimental quality about them that allows the theme of the anthology to courageously venture out of safe parameters and conquer fresh terrain. Momina Mela’s Be Careful of the Transparent Animal Living In Your Drinking Water! uses the fill-in-the-blank technique to create four ‘lives’ for the same poem. Each birth and rebirth raises haunting insights about love, fear and the past. The title of Neha Maqsood’s poem, Would I Be a Real Pakistani Poet If I Didn’t Write an Ode to Mangoes? has a sardonic ring that mocks popular literary trends. However, the poem also offers a more literal focus on mangoes as a symbol of our culture that is has no political overtones.

The two sections on fiction, though shorter than the one allocated to poetry, open up exciting worlds where characters negotiate the challenges of life in their own ways. Bruce McDougall’s Adventure in Eating shows how a couple’s efforts to “bring the world to their kitchen table” culminates in catastrophe. Ali Shahbaz’s Clorox is a realistic portrait of how racism can exist within a thin veneer of political correctness. Naveed Ashraf’s Impasse explores the centrality of need to the relationships we form. Lucy Beresford’s The Imaginary Friend shows how some connections can surmount life, death and the realm of reality. In Alizah Pervaiz Hashmi’s The People That Didn’t Die, Bahawalpur appears as the setting of a story that contrasts the inflexibility of old age with the malleability of youth. Much like the branches of a tree, the stories in these sections have their own strengths. Each story will attract its own audience, which makes these sections on fiction all the more valuable.

The essays in the fifth volume of The Aleph Review include Claire Chambers’ Shock Absorbers, which revisits the bumps and hurdles that characterised 2020 after the pandemic became the order of the day. In a separate section on translations, Amitabha Bagchi successfully “find[s] a new idiom in English” for three of Muneer Niazi’s ghazals.

Many pieces in the literary anthology build upon the magnetic pull of the soil that anchors the roots of our own metaphorical trees. A Sense of Place seamlessly stitches together three interviews with authors that examine the geographical dimensions of a literary work. What emerges is a moving mosaic that explores how an intimate connection to physical locations is established through creative endeavours. Each conversation delves into the complex role of setting in a novel. In the first interview, Mehrunnisa Yusuf spins the discussion with Pakistani-British novelist Kamila Shamsie about the setting in her novel Home Fire into a meditation on identity and belonging. Arsalan Ali Faheem’s conversation with HM Naqvi depicts cities as “a wider canvas for storytelling”. The final interview with novelist Saleem Haddad provides a deeper understanding of the notion of ‘place’ through insights on how fictionalised settings are created by borrowing strands from reality.

The latest edition of The Aleph Review also reveals our complex equation with the past. The anthology contains a powerful memoir of litterateur and jurist par excellence Ijaz Batalvi by the indefatigable Zia Mohyeddin. The piece was originally published under a different title in a newspaper several decades ago. With his characteristically humorous style, Mohyeddin affords a unique insight into the life of a man most controversially known as one of the lawyers who prosecuted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Shueyb Gandapur’s It Took You So Long to Come Back is a compelling travelogue that documents a Pakistani man’s attempts to disregard the tensions between India and Pakistan in order to restore his family’s lost connection with India. Steered by a spirit of homecoming, Gandapur’s travel piece is a suitable segue to Partition in Three Memories. In these heartrending accounts, the co-founders of Project Dastaan – an initiative that uses virtual reality to allow Partition survivors to reconnect with the ancestral home – reveal the power of the everlasting bonds we establish with places.

In Pakistan, literary and artistic ventures are often elbowed away as insignificant or unprofitable. Initiatives such as The Aleph Review act as a counter to these flawed perceptions. With its fifth volume, the anthology has reasserted its commitment to creative endeavours.

The reviewer is the author of Typically Tanya

The heart of the tree