This first work of fiction comes with considerable advance praise and has both a promising start and an unusual back story. Set in the inhospitable terrain of Balochistan and North-West Frontier provinces of Pakistan that border Afghanistan and Iran, its author is a 78-year-old Pakistani civil servant who spent much of his career administering them; he was political agent in many of the tribal districts and later served as minister in Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul before the rise of the Taliban, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Officials filtering their remembered experiences of remote regions into chronicles of fiction or non-fiction are by no means uncommon, but Jamil Ahmad will not go down among the infamous bores who tend to dominate the genre. He has the natural storyteller’s gifts of restraint and brevity, and a fine sensibility for evoking landscape and character in the battleground occupied by feuding trans-frontier tribes, nomadic or settled.
Typically, here is how a chapter opens: “A thin trickle of water flowing down the Shaktu river demarcates the boundary between the Wazirs and the Mahsuds—the two predatory tribes of Waziristan.... For the greater part of the year, [they] glower at each other.... Mahsuds from their cluster of squat houses with narrow slit-like windows, and Wazirs from the tops of towers that protect each home. Every few months, their hate and tensions explode into violence and some men die, never the women, who continue caring for the land and fetching water from the river.”
But the women also die, are murdered, bartered for a pound of opium or sold into prostitution in the slave market in Malakand. Tribal codes of honour and the blight of poverty prevail everywhere. The novel begins with a dramatic elopement on camelback in the windswept Baloch desert: a sardar’s daughter-in-law and her lover find refuge at a military post and she gives birth to a son. The boy is five years old when the woman’s tribe tracks her down. Before his pursuers are upon them, the husband first shoots his wife, then the camel, and awaits his fate. He is stoned to death as the little boy watches. By a quirk of fate he survives and is miraculously rescued and passed from hand to hand; saved again from the clutches of an unhinged mullah by the Bhittani tribe, he is given the name Tor Baz—the black falcon.
Curiously, The Wandering Falcon is not the story of Tor Baz. He hazily weaves in and out—for this episodically structured work is neither a novel in the conventional sense nor a string of linked stories—in the guises of a police informer, mountain guide and, in his last avatar, a pimp parading as a potential groom ready with a bride price. It is not clear what purpose Jamil Ahmad intends for him—is he a literary device or merely a mystical metaphor in the style of Paulo Coelho’s mumbo jumbo ramblings? Whatever his objective, Ahmad’s central character is a failure. Tor Baz is scheming, heartless, ingratiating, changeable. If these are characteristics emblematic of the Frontier ethos, he is still imperfectly devised and unconvincing.
That does not make many of the sketches of tribal life any less compelling. The scenes of nomadic camel trains, moving across the stony landscape in seasonal migrations from mountains to plains and impervious to modern boundaries, of vicious bloodletting in the stark mud forts, of the hierarchies of Pawindahs or “foot people” and jirgas, judicial gathering of elders, are drawn with deep knowledge and sympathy. “Despite their differences,” he writes of two warring tribes, “they share more than merely their heritage of poverty and misery. Nature has bred in both an unusual abundance of anger, enormous resilience, and a total refusal to accept their fate.... To both tribes survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer.”
The stories are set in pre-Taliban times, but however anecdotal, they conjure a world of unremitting hardship and violence. The passing seasons, too, of icy winters and raging desert storms, are evoked in deft brushstrokes. Anything could happen here, in the legendary Wild West of the subcontinent. Jamil Ahmad’s contribution is to create a backdrop that explains why so much has.