The interlinked short story cycle might just be my favourite literary form—it’s a kind of negotiated middle ground between a novel and a box-of-shorts. It helps that globally, over the last decade or so, we have had some particularly good ones: Olive Kitteridge (2008) and Olive, Again (2019) by Elizabeth Strout, Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi, and Loyal Stalkers (2016) by Chhimi Tenduf-La, among (many) others.
To this list, I would now add The Whispering Chinar, the debut work of fiction by Pakistani writer Ali Rohila, who has written the 2015 collection of essays Read No Evil.
The collection has 11 stories set in Charbagh village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Pakistani province close to the borders of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The titular chinar tree stands in the garden of Khan Mohammad Usman Khan, the de facto patriarch of Charbagh and head of its most prosperous and influential family. The stories are all connected to Khan and his descendants—and to the local legend that maintains the family will thrive as long as the tree does.
This supernatural or mystical element hovers above the book, imbuing these stories with a timeless quality that contrasts nicely with the contemporary issues they tackle.
In the titular gut-punch of a story which opens this collection, we meet a pair of star-crossed lovers: Usman Khan’s son Fahad Khan and the hazel-eyed Saad Bibi, who works in the mansion’s kitchen. Their forbidden romance soon catches the eye, and the nose, of Lala, the family’s oldest and most loyal servant, who has a dubious talent—to literally sniff out “the epicentre of tremors arising from lovemaking”.
“Lala would initiate his snooping ritual by raising his snout, smelling the air, and rubbing his columella with the palm of his hand before heading in the right direction,” writes Rohila. “His acute sense of hearing and smell led him to the exact spot of the muffled sounds of lovemaking. His duty was to let Khan know about it and then jointly decide the course of action.”
Lala’s character is a complex, fascinating portrayal of evil, especially because the worst of his wrath appears to be reserved for his fellow servants. On more than one occasion, I was reminded of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen, from the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained (2012). Stephen is the cruel, obsequious head slave of a 19th century (white) Texas plantation owner and he’s very fond of getting his fellow slaves whipped or otherwise punished. Both Lala and Stephen are a compelling mixture of social conditioning and a kind of primordial, irresistible malice.
The Imam introduces us to two very important characters. Across the rest of the book, we keep following their fortunes. The first is Ashfaq Khan, Usman Khan’s genteel, witty and compassionate brother-in-law, whose brothers have usurped his land. The old patriarch, Usman, asks Ashfaq to come and stay at the mansion but he chooses to stay at the hujra (a drawing room-like structure where guests are entertained in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan) instead. The other is Abdul Aziz, the young son of Khushrang, the orthodox, joyless imam of the local mosque. At age four, young Abdul wanders into the mosque and hugs his father while the latter is leading a prayer meeting. His father brutally thrashes Abdul in response and packs him off to an infamous pulpit-thumping maulana in Rawalpindi.
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Both Ashfaq and Abdul’s stories are tragedies, and Rohila isn’t coy about telegraphing this from the beginning. Ashfaq’s tragic flaw is not adapting, or not adapting quickly enough, to the shifting ground realities around him. His liberal ways and casual attitude towards religious and social edicts are bound to land him in trouble—he knows this and yet refuses to change or tone down his utterances. This is a kind of integrity that’s often indistinguishable from foolishness, and this is why his character is so compelling. Similarly, Abdul Aziz’s tragedy is his transformation from a sweet, naïve little boy to a hardliner cleric hell-bent on making Charbagh a constrictive, deeply orthodox place. It’s painful to witness but it’s also instructive in a way, like we are getting front-row tickets to Charbagh’s moral and spiritual decline, even as Abdul claims to be leading them on the exact opposite journey.
Perhaps the most dramatic and pathos-laden story in the collection is The Tears Of Nazo. It also amps up the mystical quotient with some well-executed atmospherics. This story is about how seemingly liberal families very often have a stone-hard kernel of conservatism at heart; their liberalism has well-defined limits and if you cross them, their wrath is every bit as horrific as that of the people they claim to oppose. The General’s Son and The Rebound are really just one long story split into two parts. They feature Ali, a well-meaning but naïve protagonist, whose big flaw is that he trusts his friends, and, later, his lover, implicitly and cannot conceive of a scenario where they are actively working against him. As one might imagine, this Panglossian outlook comes back to haunt him in increasingly cruel and unusual ways.
I loved the fact that after spending a lot of time with Abdul Aziz and his brand of severe, forbidding religious orthodoxy, the final story in this collection, Bacha Sahib, follows a charismatic, permissive and ultra-liberal spiritual leader. It rounds off The Whispering Chinar very nicely, and, moreover, suggests a sense of agreeable optimism—the idea that there’s always an antidote to whatever a particular society has been poisoned with. And it’s not a “lone wolf” story either. It does not paint its protagonist in a super-heroic light. What it does is highlight the role of community and one-on-one conversations in softening people’s polarising stances. It’s the kind of story that’s an instant shoo-in for middle-school syllabi everywhere.
The Whispering Chinar is, on the whole, a very impressive debut indeed, one that marks Rohila as a talent to watch out for in the years ahead.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.