Jamil Ahmad’s ‘The Wandering Falcon’
By Mosarrap H. Khan
In his essay, “Unpacking My Library”, Walter Benjamin writes, “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals.” I have certainly lost books, mostly borrowed by friends and never returned. Such acts have, however, never rendered me invalid. But becoming a ‘criminal’ trying to acquire books? Benjamin has touched a deep and dark chord…
There was a time when I had a sort of obsession with books. It’s not that I read all the books I collected but I did it with a sense of ‘anticipation’ (to quote Benjamin, again). The anticipation of leafing through the first few pages is always an exciting prospect. I have often wondered if my ‘gluttonous’ attitude to books had anything to do with my growing up in a house with hardly any books.
Of late, I have been reading Pakistani Anglophone writers as part of my research. I read Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon, a collection of interrelated short stories, for the first time in 2015. I was immediately taken in as much by the stories as by the somewhat bizarre literary life and fame of the writer.
Literary fame defies temporal logic. History is replete with examples of authors, who achieved recognition either very late in their life or posthumously. Raymond Chandler lost his job when he was 44 and published his first short story the next year. And then we have examples of writers achieving posthumous literary fame. Kafka’s literary greatness was, to a large extent, because his friend, Max Brod, ignored his wish to destroy his manuscripts and, instead, published them.
In the pantheon of late literary bloomers, Jamil Ahmad’s case is unique even by the standards of unpredictability of literary fame. As a career bureaucrat, Ahmad worked most of his life in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan. His first-hand experiences of tribal life helped him produce an enchanting collection of interrelated short stories, The Wandering Falcon, which he completed in 1973. Set in the remote border regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, the stories delineate the fluid everyday life of Baloch, Pashtun, Gujjar, and other tribal communities.
Encouraged by his German wife, Helga, Ahmad sent the collection to American and British publishers but failed to elicit a positive response from them. The manuscript lay in the drawer and was forgotten for almost forty long years. As the story goes, his brother sent out the collection to the Pakistani organizers of a short story contest in 2008. It arrived well after the deadline and was never considered for the competition. However, one of the organizers was impressed enough to forward the collection to Penguin India, which first published it in 2011.
Immediately after its publication, the collection was reviewed to acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2011, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize. It was a finalist for DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2013. For an 80-year-old, the attention and recognition were quite heady to contend with. However, Ahmad lived only for a year more to enjoy his literary success. He died in July 2014, making him one of the strangest inheritors of transient literary fame. He inhabits the contingent space between late and posthumous literary fame. We could only speculate how his literary career would have shaped had he found a publisher in the 1970s.
The very first story in the collection, “The Sins of the Mother” sets an ominous tone of harshness in a desert landscape where the agents of the modern state, the army men, keep a watch along Pakistan’s western border. Unhappy with her husband’s impotence, Gul Bibi runs away with her father’s servant. Adultery, a primal human urge, finds its protectors among the custodians of the law, the army men. The harsh landscape is punctuated with tender feelings of love between Gul Bibi and her paramour. She gives birth to their child, Tor Baz, or the metaphorical wandering falcon in the collection. While the couple is eventually killed by the tribes who hunt them down, the boy survives and becomes the roving figure, which traverses the fictional landscape of the stories, except in one.
In the last story, “Sale Completed”, Ahmad narrates the sale of Pashtun women in a market. Afzal Khan brings two women – Sherakai, the older one and Shah Zarina, the younger one, for sale. Sherakai is kidnapped. When she returns, she finds that her husband has taken another wife, who has borne him a son. Sherakai would eventually be sold into prostitution but as Afzal says, “…I think she prefers humiliation from total strangers than by those she knows.” Afzal puts up a stiff price for the supposedly ‘virgin’ younger, Shah Zarina. Shah Zarina is, in fact, not a virgin. She was married to a bear-trainer and was forced to run away from her husband unable to tolerate his torture. Tor Baz makes a return in this story and buys the younger woman in the guise of marrying her and settling down. Ahmad depicts a traditional tribal society where the moral values are fluid. People sell women into prostitution but pray ardently every day.
Between Tor Baz’s birth and his intended settling down in the last story, the collection presents a kaleidoscopic life of the tribes in which sometimes they fall prey to the cunning of the government, which doesn’t honor their spoken word, as is the practice with the tribes (“A Point of Honor”). At other times, the traditional tribal life is thwarted by the newly demarcated boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as their nomadic life with animals is cut short by the army. In their naivete, the nomads (“the Powindas”) think they can defy the diktats of the border guards with the miracle of the Quran, as Gul Jana says to her husband, “Dawa Khan, I am going forward. The camels must not die. I am going with a Koran on my head. Nothing can happen to me.”
While the stories feature local tribal people, there is a rare entry of a foreigner in one of the stories (“The Guide”). A half-German and half-Afridi son returns to the land of the Afridis in search of his roots. And he dies in the local shrine, reiterating the local tribal wisdom: “…Tirah was a land forbidden to anybody other than true Afridis, and anyone who violated this unwritten injunction would be in serious danger” (“The Guide”).
A strong affective sense permeates the stories. The senses of touch, smell, and other instincts seem to rule, which the ‘civilized’ world has managed to curb with its sophisticated technology and cerebral thinking, the hallmarks of modernity. This sense of instinctive existence is compared to animals as Ghuncha Gul describes their nomadic life between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the movement of “migrating birds or the locusts” (“The Death of Camels”). Ahmad’s deployment of instinctual tropes serves as nostalgia for a bygone era, an older way of life, which is now undermined by the presence of metallic weapons and border guards. The nomadic way of life and traditional honor-codes of the tribal society are under threat with the advent of the institutional apparatus of modernity.
The tribal land is skeptical of changes. The first man who bought a radio was censored by the village mullah: “The poor man who brought the first radio to Tirah was hauled up before the mullahs. His transistor was condemned, and a firing squad shot it to bits” (“The Guide”). Further, the trope of storytelling acts as a subversive weapon against modernity. The old communal tales work to resist the onset of modern forms of authority of the state. An old man from the Bhittani tribe offers a story when a young assistant commissioner charges them for allowing other tribes to pass through their land after kidnapping. The young officer doesn’t have a counter story, “Only the young officer stood crestfallen, realizing that he had performed poorly in his first battle of wits with the tribesmen. He could offer no story to counter the old man’s logic…” (“A Kidnapping”).
This dialectic between tradition and modernity animates the stories. Despite holding off the new forces, the tribespeople know that change is inevitable. As a writer and bureaucrat working in the region, Ahmad is empathetic to the people and draws on older civilizational values, which can’t be limited to modern boundaries of the nation-state. In an interview with the NPR, he echoes this sentiment: “Each one us has the tribal gene inside us.”
Ahmad’s fiction employs old-fashioned realism, a narrative technique common among most postcolonial writers. (In Pakistani Anglophone writing, however, such realism has been superseded by the literary inventiveness of writers like Mohsin Hamid.) The stories are so detailed in the description of everyday life that they almost read like ethnography, instead of fiction. Its publication and subsequent fame in the post-9/11 world foreground the vagaries of the Anglophone publishing world. With the American ‘War on Terror’ in the region, journalistic and fictional writings on the region are now celebrated in the West. But in the 1970s, a book rich with details of mundane life was thought to be unsellable. This only confirms the fact that violence is an undeniable currency for non-western literature.
Ahmad’s unadorned language complements his penchant for acute observation. Consider these lines from “Sale Completed”: “Afzal Khan unslung his rifle, untied his baggy trousers, and, facing the other way, urinated while squatting. He then took a few pebbles and dried the last drops of urine before retying his voluminous trousers.” Perhaps this is how the mind of a civil servant actually works with its obsession for details.
This collection of stories hinges on the roving figure of Tor Baz, who moves in and out of the stories, leaving a spectral trace, a light footprint. While we learn of his birth and his adventurous life, we hardly get a measure of his psychological complexity or ‘interiority’. This seems to be Ahmad’s deliberate ploy because in a communal tribal society, the ‘individual’ could at best be a fleeting presence. That’s why Tor Baz, the wandering falcon, is more of an interloper than a stable presence. Individualism on which much of fiction thrives is relegated to the margins.
What particularly resonated with me about this collection is a tone of clairvoyance, almost prophetic, about the modern nation-states. As Tor Baz walks away with Shah Zarina at the end of the collection, he thinks of settling down, “…I could settle down with this one. Who but God knows what the future holds for me and for this land? Maybe it is time now to end my wanderings.” The life of Ahmad’s protagonist is intertwined with the changing ways of tribal life, imposed to a large degree by the drawing of definite borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tor Baz’s desire to ‘settle down’ is reflective of the border region settling down to the demands of the modern nation-states.
Afghanistan and the tribal region have always been a playground for competing imperial powers, starting with the ‘Great Game’ between the imperial Russians and the British, segueing into America’s ‘War on Terror’. This has produced an array of war lords, compradors, assassins, and informers, rendering survival as the ultimate virtue. However, in this ongoing struggle between the individual and the state, the state proves stronger. Instead of older civilizational ideas of fluidity of human movement, newer concepts such as statehood, citizenship, and undivided loyalty to the state have been deployed for the disciplining of human beings, which stand contrary to tribal codes of honor.
With the unfolding of events in India over debates about nationalism, Jamil Ahmad’s book, The Wandering Falcon, made me think all over again about our uncritical veneration of nationalism. As the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan hardens, the older fluid tribal way of life comes to an end and Tor Baz yearns to “settle down”. However, as we have been discovering in our contemporary times, the modern nation-state unsettles us more than it allows us to settle.
Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University. He is an editor of Café Dissensus.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.