Title: The Wandering Falcon
Author: Jamil Ahmad
Price: Rs. 399
When a 78-year-old man writes his first book, one wonders what he has to say that took so long to articulate. Upon reading that he was a member of the Civil Service in Pakistan, one assumes the book is based on his experiences.
However, The Wandering Falcon is no memoir. It’s a charmingly insightful peep into the lives of the tribes that live in the arid areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The author avoids explaining the obvious – the book doesn’t say where the tribals got their machine guns or how they learnt to fire them – but shows us an aspect of their existence we have no way of knowing.
In nine short chapters, Jamil Ahmad subtly weaves together a patchwork of varied lives. Each story is almost a symbol, and the common thread is Tor Baz – a child born to a fugitive couple and raised by several lonely, loving characters.
Sometimes poignant and sometimes funny, the book makes the weathered tribals seem easy-going even in their barbarism. Remarkably understated both in terms of language and content, The Wandering Falcon traces the changes politics has inflicted on the lives of nomadic tribes in the 1960s and ’70s – a world where wanderers with no home need papers to cross the borders, and where tribal laws come into conflict with the judiciary.
And yet, there is no romanticising of the tribal life. The Sardar of a tribe plans a trip to the mission eye hospital – just as soon as he is done with avenging the killing of his tribesmen. The son of a tribesman, making his first trip to the land of his father, watches two old women firing guns at each other’s houses to keep up an old family feud while the men are away – a sight he is more likely to remember than the story of a firing squad being assembled to destroy an ungodly transistor.
Jamil Ahmad takes a couple of digs at the people of the hill tribes. Here’s one: “In these mountain areas, the poorer the family, the more high sounding names it gave its children.” But he allows them to use their lovely idioms, such as “Wailing in a man is like honey in a pot. As honey attracts flies, so does wailing attract trouble” and “Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man’s house. It has to remain cheerful all the time for fear of being thrown out.”
The story of government officials fooling tribals into thinking they’re going to sit down to a negotiation, only to sentence them to death, is offset by another about a chieftain snubbing a young police officer with an allegoric fable.
There is a hilarious interlude about two boys who are destined for a revenge killing. They stave off the prospective avenger by wearing children’s long shirts instead of shalwars well into their teens, exploiting the mandate that no man can kill a woman or child.
This book does not lament the intrusion of civilisation into the lives of the Noble Savage. The author observes that the tribes have their own hierarchy. Among the members, those who possess buffaloes look down upon those who have only goats. Those with patches of land won’t marry those that don’t have any. The ones who have no land or animals are pitiable beings that live on charity.
But Jamil Ahmad leaves one with a feeling that the marriage of modernisation and antiquity can be volatile. It makes tribes suspicious, and it makes the government wary. Somewhere along the way, one figures out why it is so important for politicians to strike deals with the people on the fringe, to allow them to follow their own laws.
The Wandering Falcon is not meant to be didactic or analytical. It is simple and evocative – certainly one for the bookshelf.