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BOOK REVIEW: The Wandering Falcon / Author: Jamil Ahmad

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, July 02, 2011

Republished by ChowkYadgar

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Jamil Ahmad’s debut novel is ostensibly about a boy and a stretch of land. At first glance, there is nothing special about Tor Baz. Is he the hero? He seems strangely absent from a major part of the narrative, so not a hero in the traditional sense of the word. If this is a coming of age story, the star billing must go to a land that has become a near permanent fixture on the western world’s radar.

Written sometime in the early 1970s and published in 2008, The Wandering Falcon is a fictional piece of work that charts a slow meandering course through the lawless frontiers. Undercurrents of danger have always coursed through its veins but recent events have bestowed a more menacing look and feel to the wild west of Pakistan.

Jamil Ahmad has a special insight into the ways of the tribes. As a Pakistani civil servant, he has served in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for several years. By converting his acquired wisdom into an anthology of short stories, he provides a window into the heart and soul of a primitive system where honour and respect are the buzzwords while honour killings/revenge remain the unfortunate by-products. But, as he is quick to point out, it is not all bad. The prose may be simple but the subject matter is anything but.

The writer manages to fit complex patterns into confined spaces. Using Tor Baz (the black falcon) sparingly allows a wider cast of characters to come forward and take centre-stage. Readers enter the perilous world of the Mehsuds, described as “wolves” in “The Kidnapping” for they hunt in packs, which makes lone hunters like the Wazirs “the leopard”. The matter of fact statement that winter signifies a time of “raids, robberies and kidnappings” and that “in neither community is any stigma attached to hired assassin, thief, a kidnapper or an informer” gives one pause. (P86) This is an interesting observation given Greg Mortenson’s (of Three Cups of Tea fame) now disputed claim of being abducted in Waziristan. According to this book, these people pride themselves on playing perfect hosts to abductees and guests alike.

But it is not just their famed hospitality or long-lasting blood feuds that are given prominence. The book keeps a tight focus on the human element in a way that is designed to trigger an empathetic reaction by a simple change of perspective. Tragedies like “A Death of Camels” resurrect forgotten ghosts going back in time to witness how the new demarcations along the Pak-Afghan border endangered the nomads’ way of life. “A Point of Honour” observes the grim fate that awaits a group of simpleminded Baloch and takes a swipe at the state machination responsible for exterminating “a little of the spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust” (P 34).

While the stories touch on constants like honour, revenge, loyalty, friendship, oppression and betrayal, they move steadily towards darker territory past the social stratification where marginalised sections of tribal society make their troubling debut. A woman is killed in the name of honour in the beginning and another is traded for opium and a hundred rupees in a later scene.

Both “A Pound of Opium” and “A Sale Completed” plunge headlong into the abyss where women are sold into marriage or worse. Their hardiness and courage is given due attention and the spectacular injustice somehow gets upstaged by something called tradition.

As for Tor Baz, he is present at the outset where a couple of elopers take refuge at an obscure military outpost and stays in sight as a young boy. Readers pick up his trail when he resurfaces as a young man in a bizarre world where informers advertise their business and settling disputes could mean going head to head in a battle of wits where wounded pride is the sole casualty.

Till the end, the protagonist remains on the periphery. He, like the land, is an enigma. And not being tethered to a single tribe means that he can weave his way in and out of no-go areas with ease. But he ties the seemingly disjointed portions of the book together, whether it is the story of a sardar who goes by the rank of a general (not a real general) with a son “the colonel”, again with no real claim to the title, or a mad mullah/clever conman/mentor who wanders the pages concocting an intricate plan involving German promises and British gold. Each story turns out to be a beautiful link forming an ancient chain carefully preserved in time.

The past ten years have wrought a radical change in the tribal makeup, rendering formerly inaccessible regions unrecognisable. Now viewed as militant sanctuaries, still inhospitable but inaccessible no more, for the words within these pages provide the most authentic portrait yet of these ungoverned places. The Wandering Falcon that had been waiting for 38 odd years to see the light of day has finally risen. At 78, Jamil Ahmad has written a tale that is both timeless and given the current state of affairs, timely.

Penguin Books;
Pp 181;
Rs 795.

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