I love novels, biographies, fiction, non-fiction, history, politics – everything. It is rare that I am not carrying around my latest read wherever I go. Unfortunately, despite many positive reviews and glowing praise from friends and teachers, I’ve never been fond of literature written by Pakistani authors. I often find it stereotypical – talk of Pakistan’s colorful trucks, rickshaw culture, the inevitable mention of paan, dhotis, and the evils of the Hindus – and cliched. It’s this mournful picture of Pakistan painted again and again, with slightly different hues. What makes that work original? Almost nothing. How do those stories contribute to Pakistan, or to the world of fiction? They barely do. When is someone going to break the mold and write about Pakistan, but in a unique and interesting way?
The answer is now. Jamil Ahmad’s book, which I started reading with reluctance, soon won me over. The prose is subtle, straightforward. There is no over-use of adjectives as is found in many Pakistani novels – as if trying to prove that they have command over English – and there is a sense of serenity that prevails over the entire story. We are led, carefully, delicately, and honestly through the landscape of the Afghan-Baloch area, and introduced to the lives lived by tribesmen, their wives, daughters, and children.
The Wandering Falcon with its intertwining plot and near-to-home characters and settings proves to be a highly believable read. Staying away from the overly-commercialized page turner phenomena that books these days have become, Jameel Ahmad does a realistic job in depicting the life of tribes in Pakistan from Balochi nomads to the tribesmen and the customs of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwah.
The beauty of the text shines through its simplicity. It’s beautifully written, with a clear, plain-to-see acceptance. There is no harsh judgement in Ahmad’s book, as you often find in Pakistani literature. He is not apologizing for the way Pakistan is, for the way people are, for the way things happened in the past. The writer leads us through this journey with calm acceptance, if not fondness for the way of these people. He shows their difficulties and troubles in a similar way – not demonizing their enemies, but allowing the reader to judge. He is your tour guide, reserved in his judgement, but open with his heart, on a trip showing you the hidden beauty of Pakistan.
The part of the book that I loved was a young girl is married off to a man with a show bear. He had trained the bear to dance and earned his money from putting on shows. For the girl’s family, this was a fortuitous marriage – a man of independent means! A joy, a pleasure – they had done well by their daughter. The man takes his wife to a town, where they have only enough money to rent a single room, which the bear sleeps in at night. The woman can only use the room when the bear and man leave in the morning; husband and wife sleep outside. One day she asks her husband why the bear uses the room, and he says “I can get another wife, but not another bear.”
This section of the book woke me up. I stopped, re-read it. This is not the story of a man being cruel to his wife, or the story of ignorant parents selling their daughter to the highest bidder (common themes in many Pakistani novels), but it is the simple truth of their reality. Jamil Ahmad shows us how thankful we have to be in our own lives. The girl’s parents were overjoyed because in their simple world of limited means, this man represented financial stability and relative ease of life for their daughter. They had her best interests at heart, and did what they could for her. The husband was not being chauvinistic and rude to his wife – he was speaking a simple truth. That bear was their livelihood. It needed to be protected. If hurt or stolen, or if it ran away, neither of them would have any food, much less a room to use during the day.
Reading through, one anticipates all the meshwork of stories to develop into some tangible shade of character being evolved; perhaps a strong personality or a rudimentary dervish even, but nothing of the sort happens. It is unclear whether it was the intent of the author to display the events in a harsh light of reality (objective reporting), or whether it was failure on his part as a storyteller to arrive to an end derived from the plot elaborated. Having said that, the book does have some great moments (e.g. the character of the exceedingly unorthodox Mullah and the mixture of feelings he ignites is very genuine), and the depiction of events with just the right amount of background information to the extremely complex life of the Pakistani tribesman and his customs is commendable. Seeing Ahmed’s attempt, one is heartened to note that Pakistan’s contemporary literature is headed in the right direction.
The book was an eye-opener, and a splendid debut for someone entering the writing world in their seventies. There are no fancy turns of phrase, no verbal acoustics, no play upon words. Here is writing – the finest one has read in a very long time in English by a South Asian writer – that ebbs and flows with such effortless ease and conveys the essence of the story in such few words that it catches you unawares with its freshness.
Note: This post was written in collaboration with Shafa’at Gillani, a fellow bibliophile and respected colleague at the NUST Business School.