Derelict Children: A Review of The River, The Town by Farah Ali

Tayyba Maya Kanwal

Farah Ali’s novel, The River, The Town (Dzanc Books, 2023), set in an unnamed municipality in the south of Pakistan, reads like an eerie fictional mirror to an Amnesty International report released the same year. The report covers Pakistan’s dire outlook as one of the countries that unfairly bears the brunt of global climate injustice. It is a damning account of the inadequacy of the response by local authorities to protect the economic and social rights of marginalized groups in the country, with reliable access to cooling and safe drinking water increasingly limited to the wealthy.

The children of the novel’s severely drought-stricken eponymous Town, too, have been abandoned not only by Mother Nature, but also by the motherland. In a dramatic parallel to this environmental and political misadventure, our protagonist, a teenager named Baadal (ironically, “cloud” in Urdu) has been emotionally abandoned by his mother as well. Baadal’s only apparent escape from this barrenness is to find a path into the big city beyond the Town. But first he must battle a quagmire of suburban shantytowns that drag those who venture through into an oppressive muddle of precarious livelihoods so that few ever manage to claw their way to the promise of the city. Baadal finds a minor job at an electric company so that he and his wife, Meena, make their way from a shack under a bridge to a briefly hopeful life in a tiny apartment. He is let go without explanation, dispensable in a ruthless economy like so many others in his position, and falls into debt. A retreat to a single room in a dilapidated housing colony barely better than their shack, restaurant work, night shifts at hotels, a one-chair salon in their room—leaves no oxygen for Baadal and Meena’s dreams. The only safe harbor for the characters of this novel is the relief of human connection, whether in the form of romantic love or familial bonds or even, simply, transactional obligations.

But Baadal and the people of the Town have remained conveniently invisible to the residents of the city, except when the city folk need them. The opening section of the novel, told from Baadal’s point of view, is a satirical rendering of the political pandering de rigueur in Pakistan toward the destitute. As Baadal grows up in his exhausted mother’s resentful shadow, the Town is sent a Dickensian trickle of do-gooders, inept teachers and indifferent administrators with vaguely defined duties. They arrive in a flare of missionary enthusiasm and disappear just as quickly in a smoke of disillusionment. The townspeople are besieged by fashionable charity organizations with the media in tow and bright ideas for projects of “hope” that would be hilarious if they weren’t so abominably clueless. When all other efforts to bolster their morale fail, the media remains like a leech to interview the residents about their ingenuity in coping with their lack of water.

Thirst is everywhere in this story: in the parched townspeople, in the receding River, and even in the restraint of Ali’s prose reminiscent of the stark efficiency of Mohsin Hamid’s compact novels. Even the food that occasionally abates the townspeople’s hunger is devoid of moisture: a piece of dry bread saved by a mother for her son, crumbling packets of crackers shared between lovers. All that seems to endure in this place is dust. You feel it between the lines of the spare prose; you see it creeping over the lives of these characters like a languid but persistent desert border. The people of the Town are resilient but cursed, it seems, not only by the inequitable socioeconomic systems that trap them geographically, but also the unstoppable drought that is encroaching over their hometown and ancestral villages, drying up their eponymous River and emaciating their food supplies, rendering them incapable of self-sufficiency. When they cannot farm, cook, bathe, their only resort is to beg from those who can. But our characters’ survival is also jeopardized by human foibles that transcend the material: stubborn pride, inexplicable faith and inadvisable, inevitable love.

The River, The Town follows Baadal’s attempts to first evade the torment from his mother Raheela, and then break out of the ravaged Town for the city to which he elopes with his much older lover, Meena. He must run too because of a crime of desperation he commits in the climax of an ugly show by a party of philanthropists from the city, in which food is hurled to the hungry over the compound walls of the affluent Town administrator. Baadal and Meena, already ostracized by Raheela for their unorthodox relationship, flee the Town only to spend their days watching unattainable comforts from the underbelly of the prosperous spaces they swirl in proximity to, always one stumble away from avalanching poverty.

And yet Baadal perseveres. As his mother Raheela persevered before him, and even as his wife Meena did before meeting him. Baadal’s story is intertwined with threads from Raheela’s and Meena’s perspectives. We return to Raheela’s childhood in the once thriving Town when families still nurtured refreshingly quotidian hopes for the future. As her life barrels down a series of tragedies: a declining familial fortune, the loss of two siblings to the initial tremors of the natural and economic forces that come to haunt the present of the novel, an abandoned lover, and a bitter marriage of convenience, we feel the unkind cuts that shaped this numb and sometimes violent wife and mother.

In Meena’s story, we see the destitution that led a once resourceful young woman into desperate dependency on a string of abusive men. By the time she meets the young Baadal, she is a middle-aged divorcee in search of salvation by the dwindling River where she camps at the riverside to practice the rituals of a concocted faith along with other starving townspeople who are close to losing hope, and may have lost their senses. When Baadal offers her companionship, sometimes food, and finally the comfort of human touch, she caves. As the stories of Baadal, Meena and Raheela merge in the present, the three become embroiled in a tug-of-war of love, jealousy and dependency.

Despite their harrowing pasts, the two women boldly take control, making and breaking marriages that flout societal norms and taking on work they are told is beneath them. Their love for Baadal, and an ineradicable life force draws them on. Baadal is like a river that flows between the banks of these two women who shape his trajectory. We wonder if he will ever forge a life path from his own inner drive, but also anticipate his wretched fate, mirroring that of the shriveled River, because his desires are shaped not by a vision of possibilities, but rather by the convoluted emptiness he has experienced in his formative years. Who remains standing becomes a matter of who has the resilience to hold themselves together for the sake of the ones that have come to matter to them.

If one might quibble with the novel, it would be over the question, “Why so much bleakness?” However, by the end of this story, bleakness feels like an honest, raw artistic response to the reality of the socioeconomic circumstances and dire climate threat the novel’s characters must navigate. The novel dares the reader to look away from this Kafkaesque open-air prison of our collective creation, to harbor specious optimism, to mirror, in effect, the do-gooders that arrive in Town in chauffeured petrol-guzzling vehicles. Still, life throbs throughout Ali’s timely and moving novel, in its vivid Town and its intrepid people. Like the River, these lives might fade to a mere glimmer, but they persist because flesh will always love its own, imagine the possibility of revival, even trust another to care for it in the days and months and years that it falters.