The Wandering Falcon is a sparse and eerily beautiful book, the first novel by an eighty-one year old retired Pakistani Civil Service Officer. The age of the author is significant–not least because it shows it is never too late to start–because his huge first-hand wealth of knowledge of the regions he writes about–the Pakistani Frontier Provinces and Balochistan–adds an asuredness to his tone that may be difficult for a younger, less life-experienced author to achieve.
The Wandering Falcon is more a book about place than about characters. Though the back-cover blurb claims that it is “the unforgettable story of a boy known as Tor Baz–the black falcon–who wanders between tribes in the remote tribal areas where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet”, I didn’t feel that Tor Baz was a persistent presence throughout. What stood out for me was the descriptions of the tribal regions that the author, Ahmad, knew so well from having worked in them for many years. For example:
“The Kharot tribe numbered about a million men whose entire lives were spent in wandering with the seasons. In autumn, they would gather their flocks of sheep and herds of camels, fold up their woven wollen tents and start moving. They spent the winter in the plains, restlessly moving from place to place as each opportunity to wrok came to an end. Sometimes they merely let their animals take the decisions for them. When the grazing was exhausted in one area, the animals forced them to move on to another site.” (p. 37)
Ahmad’s style reminded me of two, quite different, South Asian writers–Afghani-French writer Atiq Rahimi (whose The Patience Stone I reviewed in May 2012) and Bengali Mahasweta Devi, who worked amongst tribal peoples in rural areas of eastern India for many years. Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes is more plot-driven than The Wandering Falcon, but still the eerie, quiet beauty and brutality of a similar landscape comes through. The Afghan-Pakistan location also naturally links these two writers, but my suggestion of Ahmad’s likeness to Mahasweta Devi may need more explaining. It comes from more than just the connection that both authors intimately knew the people and places they write about. One of Mahasweta Devi’s greatest strengths, in my opinion, is her ability to ruthlessly expose the daily atrocities that occur in the lives of peasants, the disenfranchised, and the rural poor. Sometimes these atrocities are perpetrated by outsiders, sometimes by the people themselves, to each other. Ahmad’s world is geographically and politically different to Mahasweta Devi’s, but there are similarities, too. I felt this particularly in the following passage, which recounts an event that takes place between the army and some nomadic people in a militarised border area:
“‘You cannot move forward. If you do, we fire. Understand that clearly,’ roared back the amplifier.
The women had been listening to this exchange between their men and the solidiers. Gul Jana called out 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.’ She separated about two scores of camels abd with Dawa Khan walking beside her, started herding the animals forward. They had hardly gone fifty yards when two machine guns opened up from either side and mowed down the camels. The firing was indiscriminate. Men, women and childrewn died. Gul Jana’s belief that the Koran would prevent tragedy died too. Dawa Khan fell dead in the raking fire.
The Pawindahs made two more attempts, and more camels died each time. After the third try, the Pawindah’s started their trudge back. By the time they reached Fort Sandeman, hundreds of dead camels and sheep had fallen by the wayside. Byt the time they reached Fort Sandeman, hundreds of dead camels and sheep had fallen by the wayside. By the time thye reached the border, most of the animals of the three kirris were dead.
They say that the soldiers from the forts had to move out two days after the Pawindahs departed. The stench from the dead animals was so terrible that it was driving the soliders mad. They also say that while the camel bones and skulls have been bleached white with time, the shale gorge still reeks of death.” (pp. 59-60)
This novel has been short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the winner of which will be announced on Friday evening at the Jaipur Literature Festival. It is very different from the other books that have been short-listed, and they all are different from each other, so I am looking forward to learning the result.
(The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad, New Delhi: Penguin, 2011. 181 pages. ISBN: 978-0-143-41912-9)