A remarkable work of fiction published in 2011 offers arresting views into the worldview and lifeways of the varied peoples inhabiting the mountainous region of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan – the peoples from whom so much of today’s news is emanating.
When I say it is not easy reading I mean not that it is appallingly gruesome, nor that the prose is any way difficult. Jamil Ahmad’s prose is, instead, simple and descriptive, depending not on lyricism or richly evocative language, but on sheer and simple description of landscapes and the actions of people within them – a kind of Pakistani Hemingway.
There is violence, but it is described in spare facticity. At one point I had to stop mid-chapter when it became clear to me that a particular character supposedly helping two abandoned women was actually taking them to a market where a weekly sale of women is held, whether to be wives, slaves or prostitutes – or some combination of the three. That’s how it’s not easy reading.
Jamil does not delve into the psyches of his characters but lets their conversation and action speak to who they are, and from that stance of distance we nevertheless become deeply engaged with them, so that their tragedies connect with the anguish of so much of the human condition.
Honor killings, kidnappings, oppression of women, jirgas, the perennial conflicts between the tribal peoples and the Pakistani government, the legacies of British military adventures along the border – it’s all here, described with a simplicity and authenticity that provides a window for those in the outside world who gaze at this region with appalled puzzlement.
The Wandering Falcon is not a novel, but a collection of short stores, a number of which feature a marginal itinerant figure, Tor Baz, who plays various roles in the particular plots of various stories. So you can take the book in small bits. One of the stories actually takes the point of view of an outsider – a man from the region who grew up in Germany and is returning to the home territory of his late father.
Jamil Ahmad is not a professional writer but rather a retired Pakistani civil servant who held posts in places in Khyber Paktunkhwa, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies: Quetta, Chagi, Khyber, Malakand, Dera Ismail Khan, and Swat, where Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl shot by the Taliban, is from. Evidently he wrote these stories over a number of years, with little thought of publishing them until friends and editors prevailed on him to let them go into print. He wrote from what he saw, and it speaks.
The Wandering Falcon, published by Penguin and available on Kindle, was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. If you’re interested in this region – which presumably you are, since you’re reading this – I recommend it highly.
Postscript on Oct. 18: I’m delighted to see that The Wandering Falcon appears on on the list of 16 nominees for the $50,000 worldwide prize for the best South Asian fiction in English that has has just been announced in Jaipur, India.