By Jamil Ahmad
October 2012 (trade paperback edition)
Most of what I know about the part of the world where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is through Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. So you know I don't know much.
But I do know that when Daniel Dravot and Peachy tried to use their guns and wits to conquer the tribes in this mountainous, inhospitable region, the tribal culture initially worked for them, then against them.
This view of tribal culture, in which the individual may endure but does not achieve dominance, is but one of the conclusions reached reading another book that takes part in that high corner of the world. Jamil Ahmad, at age 80, published his first work with The Wandering Falcon after spending years in the area.
It isn't quite accurate to call The Wandering Falcon a novel. It is part fable, part character study of a way of life rather than one singular character and part a setting down in writing tales that have probably been told there for years.
There is a man in the book who is a wandering falcon. His parents are unfortunate lovers; she's the daughter of a tribal leader and he's a nobody. They ran away together, finding refuge for several years near an army fort. When her father's people eventually find them, the outcome is not good. Their child, the falcon of the story, survives. He's passed from mentor to mentor over the years. What he learns and how he became what he did is not told, however. He disappears for pages and pages.
But in between those appearances, the various stories provide a few clues as to how the people of the region may view life.
In one of the early stories, a tribe comes to grips with the newly enforced border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not sure if everyone will be able to get across as they move their few animals to better grazing. The tribe's leader tries to negotiate safe passage with an army official, unsuccessfully. As he leaves, he adjusts his cloak. As he does so, his son realizes that the cloak is now an "ordinary covering for an old man". The "general" has lost his authority.
The general later reminds his son about a time they met another old man, who said the secret to his long life was eating raw onions:
What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.
As bitter as life is for the menfolk, it's worse for the women. They are property to be kidnapped, sold for a pound of opium, to be treated worse than a bear that does tricks. Malala Yousufzai would know the attitudes here well.
In all these stories within the book, the boy who is known as the falcon either does not appear or makes only a brief appearance. He could be likened to a bird that views the actions of these characters from a distance and without passion.
One character, a magistrate, in Ahmad's tales is disdainful of anything that is not a cold, hard fact. Telling rationales through fables, for example, serves no purpose in his world view. "Fables have no use here," he says. "Can a fable explain a death?"
Of course a fable can explain a death, a way of life and the dying of a way of life. Which is, perhaps, more to the point of The Wandering Falcon than anything else.
The Wandering Falcon is a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The winner will be named Jan. 25 in Jaipur. Also on the shortlist are The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission
Note: A version of this review first appeared on Daily Kos.