Mention the word “chinar” and one thinks romance or a quiet introspective walk with golden hued leaves rustling beneath one’s feet. It goes without saying that a book with the title The Whispering Chinar almost certainly invokes a certain romantic aura and mystique.

But this collection of interlinked stories by debut author Ali Rohila is anything but romantic. It comes laced with bristling male privilege and machismo, going full tilt into the domain of overbearing power and entitlement. There are several intriguing women characters, but their fate in terms of what they do in life and whom they marry is very much decided by the men around them.

The Charbagh connection

The first story introduces readers to Charbagh, where the might and reputation of the patriarch Khan Mohammad Usman, reverentially referred as Khan Sahab, reigns over everyone and everything. The physical setting of Charbagh is important to the scheme of things – it is located in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, a short detour from the Grand Trunk Road that leads towards Afghanistan.

Each of the stories has a Charbagh connection, even when the setting moves beyond the physicality of the location, thereby indicating the push and pull of one’s roots and influences. Or in some cases, the way rotten old ideologies cling to the innards of those we assume to be liberal and secular because they appear to have moved ahead.

The title story is the most tender of the lot (unfortunately, only in parts), with a quiet love track that develops slowly, traversing class divides. The reference to a small village, Kiyara, in the region which has been submerged by the Tarbela dam and has become a picnic spot is the first indicator of how things are going to unfold. Just like the village and its people are sacrificed under the pretext of development and progress, becoming a tourist spot, so also does the woman in the love story (and others like her) become collateral damage in the pursuit of family honour and tradition.

Moving across time, the rest of the stories depict stringent socio-cultural and patriarchal norms at work beneath the individual theme of each. The stories titled “The Imam” and “The Blasphemer” are interconnected, offering deep dives into the gradual build-up of religious fanaticism. Here, lines of morality are blurred by whoever can boast of more followers. Both stories make a case of how liberal and secular voices are being steamrolled under the weight of extremist positions on right and wrong. The silence of the sane in the face of the rabid noise of the few, whose strength flows from screaming out their views, transcends fiction to feel real.

Modernity versus tradition

“The Rebound” is a story that, true to its name, presents two contemporary love stories intertwined together, making for a frustrating but true-to-life account of how couples in love and out of it can mess up the lives of people around them when they are on the rebound. The story presents a collision between the traditional paths followed by old-fashioned families and the fervour of young people in love.

Another story, “The Revenge”, has modern characters who appear to have moved from their orthodox roots to more liberal spaces. But follow it to its bitter end, and you will be left aghast at the way women are mere markers to be conquered and broken apart if the conquest fails. It is a story that speaks volumes about male toxicity and the bro code of pulling down a woman who says no.

Each of the stories throws the main characters into specific situations and examines how they respond or change, in the process affecting those around them. This is in particular evidence in “The Office”, where an employee in a corporate set-up, whose existence boils down to spreadsheets and presentations at the cost of social or family life, is in pursuit of a word of appreciation and a promotion. The only way he can experience masculinity is by owning a gun, something that gives him a semblance of control and meaning.

Some common strains across the stories: the clear class divides, the demarcation of servants in the households, and how their loyalty makes them almost like family but of a different breed; the careful scrutiny of who is whose progeny in terms of marriage alliances; and whether education amounts to anything at all if people remain headstrong about their belief systems.

Ali Rohila writes with just the right serving of narrative spells punctuated by terse, even tingling moments, where the story and the protagonists look set to veer off in a reckless direction. Some do skid off the rails, but you know the author is in charge and that it was all for effect. There is a familiarity that settles on as you read, almost as though you know the people and what they are going through, so that you find yourself on the verge of taking sides and sitting in judgment. And then you realise you have been had by the writing!

The Whispering Chinar

The Whispering Chinar, Ali Rohila, Vintage.