Sunday, April 17, 2011

Speaking for the tribes: Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon

The General and his son looked steadily at the official. At last, the son spoke. “How is it possible for us to be treated as belonging to Afghanistan? We stay for a few months and a few months in Pakistan. The rest of the time we spend moving. We are Pawindahs and belong to all countries, or to none.”

It isn’t often that someone has a debut novel published at the age of seventy-eight**, and the sheen of Jamil Ahmad’s achievement is barely dimmed when you learn that he wrote the first draft of The Wandering Falcon in the 1970s and returned to it recently at the prompting of his family. We should be glad that he did. If it’s true that every author has one book in him that he alone can – and should – write, this is a clear case. Ahmad used to work for the Civil Service in Pakistan and served as chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation, which gave him an insider’s view of the struggles of itinerant people living near the borders of nation-states. More importantly, he has the good writer’s empathy and talent for observation – The Wandering Falcon is extraordinary for its intimate chronicling of lives that are all but invisible to most urban, English-language readers.

Most outsiders think of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran mainly in terms of the political conflicts that they have recently been at the centre of – events that hinge on their identities as countries with manmade boundaries and modern systems of governance. But for the tribes who lived in and around these regions for centuries, codes of honour and discipline had nothing to do with such concepts as statehood and citizenship. In the past few decades, the lives of these people have seen wholesale changes, and Ahmad’s book is about the passing of an old world, its gradual replacement by a world of documents and stamps (not to mention greed and betrayal), and the many dreams that are crushed along the way. (“The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life, had to die. In this clash the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual. The new way of life triumphed over the old.”)

This isn’t to say that Ahmad excessively romanticizes the ways of tribal people, who can be brutal in dealing with those who break their internal laws. In fact, the haunting first chapter (excerpted in Granta Pakistan) is about forbidden lovers who flee their tribe and seek shelter at a lonesome military outpost, where they live with their little son for a few years. Ahmad’s description of the hostile land, the brief period of grace available to the family – and the inevitability of their eventual fate – is both restrained and vivid, and the chapters that follow tell other gripping stories: about a group of people forbidden from crossing a border with their thirsty herds; a first-person account by a man returning from Germany to his tribal homeland of Tirah; the plight of a Gujjar girl married off to a cold-hearted bear-trainer. These tenuously linked tales cover the shift from a truly communal existence – where a family could easily pick out its own animals from a joint herd after a large-scale migration – to personal circumstances so dire that people might lose all contact with children and siblings for decades.

The jacket description of The Wandering Falcon gives the impression that the book’s protagonist – indeed, its rootless falcon – is an orphaned boy named Tor Baz, but this is true only to an extent. The doomed lovers in the first chapter are the boy’s parents and he stays in the reader’s view as he grows older, his path intersecting briefly with those of the other characters; we come to see him as an anchoring figure. But around a third of the way through the book, he recedes so far in the distance that he no longer seems particularly important to the narrative. (His role in one of the most fascinating chapters “The Guide” seems like an afterthought.) And thus, the ending – with this eternal wanderer musing that perhaps it is time for him to settle down – has the feel of a forced attempt at a summing up.

But while the unevenness of Tor Baz’s part in the narrative is a minor weakness, it doesn’t take away from the quiet, unshowy beauty of Ahmad’s writing and the wisdom of his insights. I think The Wandering Falcon works best if it’s read in the same way that one would read Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a collection of separate stories about the many faces of modern Pakistan, with occasionally recurring characters. Ahmad's book is a fine addition to the growing body of English-language writing set in the region.

** Perhaps Ahmad could get a blurb by the 95-year-old Khushwant Singh, proclaiming “this author is a young talent to watch”.

[Did a shorter version of this for The Sunday Guardian. Some earlier posts about contemporary Pakistani writers: The Reluctant Fundamentalist and a long conversation with Mohsin Hamid; outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English; Mohammad Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes; Musharraf Ali Farooqi's translation of the Hamzanama; Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows; Bapsi Sidhwa's Lahore anthology]


  1. Sounds lovely. Hahahah! The Khushwant Singh closure was #WIN. :)

  2. hah. (the kh joke)