Famous people, it can be said, come in two distinct types. There are those who would consciously, even diligently, scheme their way to stand, and preen, on the proscenium, baking their ego in the spotlight’s warm glow. Then there are a few who serve faithfully a relentless passion that urges them to labour in anonymity, even to serve a long apprenticeship, not in the hope of reward or recognition, but in the service of beauty and truth.
One such person is Jamil Ahmad, the former Pakistani civil servant who has written his first novel at the ripe age of 78, when most people believe the meaning of their existence can only be distilled from the deeds of children and grandchildren. His debut in fiction has been a veritable sensation, sending a frisson in literary circles worldwide, winning him rave reviews and accolades for the richly imagined and profoundly insightful ‘The Wandering Falcon’.
All this had woken sleepy Islamabad to the literary phenomenon called Jamil Ahmad, even though the book is to arrive in bookshops here only next week. No wonder, to all those who want to interview him, Ahmad has only this to say: “Please read the book first”.
And to think the novel had been nearly consigned to that heap of unpublished manuscripts. This isn’t to say Ahmad had received rejection slips from publishers; he completed writing ‘The Wandering Falcon’ in 1973-74 and kept it in a cupboard drawer where it mouldered for nearly 34 years, through his many postings and shifting of residences. Last year, Ahmad’s younger brother, Javed Masud, chanced upon it and realised it was worth a literary appraisal. Says the bureaucrat, who retired as chief secretary of Balochistan, “Javed gave it to Faiza S Khan, the daughter of former foreign secretary Shahryar Khan. She carried the manuscript to London and gave it to Penguin, who decided to acquire global rights for it”.
Then began a new bout of hard work on Ahmad’s three-decade-old manuscript – the editing and the meticulous detailing. “I am very lazy,” says Ahmad, flashing a smile as he, his German wife Helga, and I sit chatting in the drawing room of his Islamabad apartment. Considering the hype around the book, he sure must be planning on spending the lavish royalty his book is expected to earn. “Well, I don’t need much. I have enough to buy my cigarettes,” says Ahmad, before stepping out to the balcony for a smoke, proscribed as he is by Helga to light cigarettes inside.
As the late afternoon light fades away and the muezzin’s call to prayer resonates in the air, Ahmad, tall, lean and dressed in casual trousers and a Lacoste T-shirt, switches on a table lamp, illuminating the paintings on the walls. I am particularly captivated by the one depicting a young tribal whose haunting eyes and prideful expression are so typical of those hailing from the tribal areas. Ahmad observes: “Actually, I had wanted this painting to adorn the cover of ‘The Wandering Falcon’, but in the end the publishers chose the one with the barefoot little boy. You can see that on the other wall. Your cousin Gen Nasirullah Babar wanted to add this painting to his collection but I could not part with it”. The familial link perhaps explains why Ahmad didn’t turn down my request for a meeting, as he has most others, declaring, as he did to me: “I am an extremely private person”.
His narration, like his novel, is bare, often requiring Helga’s interpolation to make it vivid. As I scribble in my notebook, the new author says he belongs to Lahore, but served his entire career in the tribal areas and Balochistan, traversing its inhospitable, desolate terrain. Unlike the families of most bureaucrats serving here, Helga and the children accompanied Ahmad wherever they set up their temporary abode – in Swat, Malakand, Parachinar, Dir, Khyber, Dera Ismail Khan, etc.
“The changes as I wrote the different chapters came so naturally, as the boy in the desert took me along the narrative. Many of the people I had met were full of narratives themselves as they had fought in both the World Wars,” says Jamil.
Since work was light and social life negligible, Ahmad would return home early evening and began, in 1971, keeping a diary, noting down all he saw and heard and felt. “I’d write between 4 and 8 pm, and Helga would then type it out on her typewriter.” It’s the same typewriter that sits on the dining table, which I now walk up to for a closer look: a German Triumph. “It’s she who encouraged me to write. I tried my hand at poetry but she dismissed it,” says Ahmad. “His writing was not always very clear, and after taking to scribbling in his diary, he began writing on plain sheets of paper,” says Helga. It was the contents of these that Helga typed, turning out the manuscript that has taken 34 years for the world to read.
Even the German typewriter has a back-story. Ahmad met Helga – she says she hails from the tribal area of Germany! – at the British Council in London and the two married in 1956. Since she had made her choice of living in a country about which friends and family knew very little, she brought the typewriter along. “I thought I’d write letters back home,” she recalls. It’s now Ahmad’s turn to interject, to supplement the story of their love and times together in the rugged terrain of Balochistan. “My wife was very brave and travelled with me to all those remote areas. She never asked for fancy clothes and jewellery during our life together in that harsh terrain.”
What terrain, and what desolation! In Kachao, Balochistan, theirs was the only house on the crest of a mountain facing Iran, making it very difficult for the couple to communicate with each other during the day when Ahmad was away on work. “One day, Helga sent me an urgent message about one of the children. But what I was told was that the tap was leaking! Actually, someone had read the other side of the paper on which Helga had scribbled the message,” recalls Ahmad. Did Helga wear the veil in the land of orthodoxy? She didn’t have to, as she either stayed at home or travelled around in a vehicle. “In fact in 1965 our driver in Malakand wondered why my husband was so strict about observing purdah since I was a foreigner,” says Helga.
Ahmad, who retired in 1980, hasn’t revisited the areas where he had once served. But he says the turmoil in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Balochistan – the reign of terror, the drone attacks, the relentless blood-letting deeply saddens him. “The anger in Balochistan has been building up for 60 years.” He isn’t willing to indulge in a blame game, confining himself to saying the mayhem there is the handiwork of ‘actors’. “Traditionally, there was a mullah uprising in every generation. Remember the Fakir of Ipi (who fought a guerrilla war in the NWFP against the British)? The tribes have always handled everything themselves, according to their culture and tradition,” Ahmad explains. Perhaps there’s a novel there? To a man as intensely private as Ahmad, you don’t ask such questions.
“The Sins of the Mother,” about an eloping Baluch couple who risk everything by fleeing from their tribe – will be showcased in the upcoming Pakistan issue of Granta magazine.
Penguin Group will publish a debut novel by Pakistani author Jamil Ahmad in the United States, United Kingdom and India. Mr. Ahmad is a 79-year-old retired official who served for many years as part of the Civil Service of Pakistan in the tribal areas on the troubled border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Wandering Falcon is a haunting and unforgettable collection of interlinked stories that provide a rare human insight into life in these forbidding tribal regions. The book will be published in 2011 by Penguin India, Penguin UK imprint Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Group (USA) imprint Riverhead Books.
World English-language rights to The Wandering Falcon were acquired by London-based Penguin India Senior Editor Meru Gokhale, who subsequently sold North American rights to Geoffrey Kloske, Vice President and Publisher of Riverhead Books, and UK rights to Hamish Hamilton Publisher Simon Prosser.
Meru Gokhale commented, “I had a tip-off from a friend in Pakistan that a remarkable book had been written. Jamil Ahmad is an extraordinarily talented writer. The Wandering Falcon is stark, compelling, wise, emotional yet unsentimental all at once.”
Geoffrey Kloske said, “We’re thrilled to be publishing The Wandering Falcon. Jamil Ahmad’s powerful stories offer a perspective that is increasingly of interest and importance to American readers.”
Simon Prosser said, “I was immediately interested when Meru mentioned in the office one day that she had just received a rather remarkable manuscript, carried back from Islamabad by a friend — and would I like to read it? When I did, I was instantly struck by the clarity and power of the writing, and the way it brings to life a place and a world which has remained hitherto largely unrecorded. As only the best fiction can, the book brings us news — but, more than that, it brings us stories which lodge in the mind with force and emotion.”
Mr. Ahmad said, “About three decades ago, I felt an urge to write. I attempted to write pieces of poetry. It was my wife who recommended I focus instead on my two decades of association with the tribal areas, rather than try to venture into a field with which I was not too familiar. It was she who painstakingly typed the first draft of the handwritten manuscript of The Wandering Falcon on an old typewriter with a German keyboard. To her I owe an enormous debt.”
In the tradition of books such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, this literary debut offers a vivid personal portrayal of what life is like in a remote and impenetrable culture.
A story from The Wandering Falcon – “The Sins of the Mother,” about an eloping Baluch couple who risk everything by fleeing from their tribe – will be showcased in the upcoming Pakistan issue of Granta magazine.
Mr. Ahmad was born in Jallundhar, Undivided India in 1931 and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law and Master’s degree in History, both from the University of the Punjab.
As a member of the Civil Service of Pakistan beginning in 1954, he served mainly in the Frontier Province and in Baluchistan. He was Political Agent in Quetta, Chaghi, Khyber and Malakand. Later, he was Commissioner in Dera Ismail Khan and in Swat. He was also Development Commissioner for the Frontier and Chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation. He was posted as Minister in Pakistan’s Embassy in Kabul at a critical time before and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. His last assignment in Government was Chief Secretary, Baluchistan. At the time of his posting in the Frontier Province, he acquired a working knowledge of Pushto and the fluency continued to improve with increased usage. This facility allowed him to interact freely with the local people.
Mr. Ahmad, with the help of some friends from the Afridi tribe, walked into the Tirah Valley, the heartland of the Afridis. This initiative created quite a stir, as it was the first-ever venture into this territory by a Government representative.
He currently lives in Islamabad with his wife Helga Ahmad, a nationally recognized environmentalist and social worker who was awarded the Fatima Jinnah Gold Medal in 2007.
The Wandering Falcon is available at Liberty Books
After a lifetime of service as a bureaucrat in the wild terrains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, 78-year-old Jamil Ahmad has the perfect understanding and insight into a place that vexes many a strategist around the world today. The Wandering Falcon, his debut novel, is a product gleaned from that experience, a record of individual tales of honour and desire among the tribes inhabiting Balochistan, Waziristan or the Swat Valley, people for whom “the terrible struggle for life makes it impossible for too much time to be wasted over thoughts for the dead”.
Tor Baz is the eponymous falcon, who is born and grows into adulthood during the course of the novel. In a region of fierce tribal identities, his origins remain amorphous. Nor is he useful in lending narrative cohesion but ends up loosely linking the stories of his parents who defied the tribal code of honour and eloped, the nomadic Kharot tribe trying to come to terms with the limitations of political boundaries or the way of life of the Wazirs, Mahsuds or Afridis.
Set in the mid-20th century, it is the changing life and mores of the nomadic tribes that Ahmad captures in clear, haunting prose: “One set of values, one way of life had to die … The new way of life triumphed over the old.” His keen observation is not lacking in humour either: a peek inside the Mahsud jirga reveals not just a dour assembly of bearded men but also intense discussions about “the safest smuggling routes, the most profitable items of contraband …and all the current social gossip and scandals in the area.” For the sheer humanising of a much-misunderstood people, the book is worth a read.
There are boundaries between countries and maybe the boundaries exist for a reason, or do they? This question haunted me long after reading the book. There are very few books like these that leave you with lingering thoughts. Thoughts that do not seem to stop. I am often disturbed when I read about territorial issues and added to that communal violence topped with “whose land is this”? kind of sentiment. And somehow you cannot be a judge of anything that is happening in places that you are not a part of. That you have witnessed or felt. We in all probability have no right to.
So back to the book. What is it about?
It is about a boy, known as Tor Baz, the black falcon, and to put it the way I read it, he is a wanderer. The story is set before the Taliban regime, in the forbidden areas where the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet. Tor Baz wanders between tribes and meets different men and women. Men who have only battles and wars on their minds and women who are shunted away in the name of honour. And in these encounters, he tries to make sense of everything else in between.
The tribes and the tribal race are almost extinct now. I do not know if anyone ever mentions them as well these days – even in our own country, where they exist only probably as a heritage symbol. What I loved most about the book was of course the writing and that goes without saying, however the vast canvas on which it was written – the territories unexplored, you can almost feel the heat on your back as you read the book.
The Wandering Falcon is one of those books that take you by surprise. It isn’t about the age of the author; after all writing has no age limit, isn’t it? It is the simplicity of the storyline that will keep you glued to the book. He charts the lives of the tribals who live in inhospitable conditions and often misunderstood. Jamil Ahmad also lived with the tribes and their people to understand them better and that is what struck me the most while reading the book – as all the vividness and clarity in the writing made perfect sense.
The Wandering Falcon is a book that touches on various emotions – loyalty, camaraderie, family, clan togetherness, graciousness, forgiveness and the feeling of being in a tribe. Through Tor Baz, the reader sees and experiences it all – I would highly recommend this short and fine piece of fiction. It is definitely worth a read and a re-read.