Jamil Ahmad centrestages tribal lives in Pakistan with storytelling that is haunting but never judgemental, says Urvashi Butalia
AN AUTHOR who’s touching 80, a manuscript that has lain with him for 30 years, its ‘discovery’ by a young editor, its journey into the heart of mainstream publishing… excitement about all of this and more has accompanied Jamil Ahmad’s debut.
A series of tales strung together about the tribes from the inhospitable regions at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Kharot, the Afridi, the Bhattani, the Baluch and others, The Wandering Falcon describes, with an insider’s knowledge, their lives, the protocols of their behaviour, the importance of their animals, their codes of honour and revenge, their women, their rough humour, and their fierce clan loyalties — a debt can be carried for years, a promise to kill, even when the anger has died down, must be fulfilled, the sardar is supreme as clan head, and the jirga must decide major and minor problems.
The wandering falcon — Tor Baz — is a lost boy, the product of a runaway and forbidden love affair whose origins are unknown. This blank in his past gives him easy access between tribes and he wanders in and out of the stories, helping people, performing his allotted tasks.
In some ways, the terrain of these stories is so rough, their subject matter so remote for middle-class readerships that in a different historical moment, they may have gone unnoticed. Today the region the stories describe is the focus of world attention and curiosity, and has often been labelled the “most dangerous place in the world”.
Ahmad’s tribal chiefs, though, are anything but dangerous. Often just ageing men trying to keep their clans together, or dealing with modernisation, or worrying about their young, they are human, full of humour, honourable and love telling stories. This isn’t really a novel, nor is it quite a collection of short stories. Tor Baz moves in and out of some of the stories, and there isn’t a plotline or a continuous narrative. We have a different form altogether, a sort of storytelling that centrestages a region, a people, and a way of life threatened by the creation of administrative borders and colonial powers. Ahmad’s style is bare, spartan, shorn of description and adjective, sometimes as inhospitable as the terrain, his narrative is moving, sometimes haunting, often funny and never judgmental. For this, the book is worth reading.