The Whispering Chinar

Such is Life

By Sara Danial | March 2023

The proverb ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ fits like a proverbial glove for the banker-cum-author Ali Rohila’s debut, The Whispering Chinar. Imbued with a definite romantic and majestic aura, the book cover has a similar feeling with blue hues, depicting the constant state of pain, and a gold leaf in stark contrast, with frills of hope and love. The book is a stellar collection of 11 short stories that are brimmed with patriarchal chauvinism and male entitlement, intermittently laced with power and control. Rohila sketches deeply complex characters for male protagonists, while he traverses through the women mostly in relation to the men, although there are some female leads but their destiny is in control of the men surrounding them.

The first story, also the title story, introduces us to Charbagh wherein reigns the terror of the mighty and powerful Khan Mohammad Usman, respectfully known as Khan Sahib. While the first story only gives a glimpse of Charbagh, the author ensures that every story touches upon the locale, regardless of the physical backdrop of where they are nestled, portraying how deeply rooted the connection is with the local roots and origins, and stringently belonging to them when Charbagh is going through tumultuous times.

The first story of course is the most intricate, with an underlying romantic streak peppered by class divides. Traversing across diverse timelines, other stories beautifully illustrate myopic and distorted social norms. The two stories ‘The Imam’ and ‘The Blasphemer’ are intertwined, delving intensely into the themes around religion, persecution, and fanaticism. The story, ‘Rebound’, is about two modern romantic tales interconnected, leaving us frustrated but grounded in the reality of how ‘to be young and in love’ can bring doom to the family and peripheral relationships.

“The Revenge” features modern characters who have dared to shift away from their conventional roots to a more open-minded universe. Shazia, a go-getter with perfectly manicured nails, represents the new crop of deviant youth, intent on reaping the benefits of progress without compromising on freedom. Marriage doesn’t fall into her top-most priorities and she has intentionally become a part of an enviable group that led a life of emancipation. She looks forward to reaching somewhere in her banking career before contemplating if the planet still required her indomitable genes. Read along and the readers will be surprised at how women are treated, even in today’s day and age, when they don’t fall into the ambit of being a conquest.

Every story experiments thoroughly with its characters and dwells on their reactions and responses, with many implications cascading to the near and dear ones. For instance, in “The Office”, one can clearly relate to the cut-throat world and unseen turbulence of the giant corporates. And reading through, I realized c’est la vie (such is life). The corporate ecosystem has a unique quality: it lets you enter but doesn’t let you leave.

Rohila’s writing style is crisp and breezy, with a delightful potpourri of narratives, complex characters, and diabolical situations. Some qualms about the book: the class divides are blatant. The servants are dispensable on loyalty factors. They become part of the households, almost like family – almost. The generational bloodline and the progeny are pressing issues under the light of creating allies and alliances. I was also left questioning as to whether education dictates most of my morals and value system. But these are dilemmas that today’s generation is faced with. And hence, must be left open to debate. The conversations need to start. And this book endeavors to do precisely that.