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And to think the novel had been nearly consigned to that heap of unpublished manuscripts.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.