The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books Ltd, Pp 181
Set in the decades before the rise of the Taliban, Jamil Ahmad writes his debut novel based on what he has seen during his tenure as member of the civil service of Pakistan and as political agent in Quetta, Chaghi, Khyber and Malakand and as minister of Pakistan in Kabul before and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The story takes us to the essence of human life in the forbidden areas where the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet. Today the ‘tribal areas’ are often spoken about as a remote region which is a hotbed of conspiracies, drone attacks and conflicts in a highly traditional and honour-bound culture.
The story begins with a couple, covered with alkali-laden dust and dirt so thick that only the brave among the humans can survive, reaching a military outpost on the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The man asks for water and refuge from the subedar, revealing that they are Siahpads from Killa Kurd on the run from his wife’s people. The subedar refuses to give refuge fearing the tribal laws but offers shelter. Thus the couple starts living together, hardly venturing out except to collect rations that the soldiers would leave behind on being posted elsewhere and with new faces taking their place. Days turn to weeks and weeks to months. Winter gives way to summer and the couple has a son. One day the subedar informs the man that a Siahpad had arrived, asking about the couple. The couple now realise the danger, pack their meagre necessities and leave the fort.
On travelling a long distance for five days, the man tells his woman that the woman’s husband and her father were pursuing them on their camels. He then promises the woman called Gul Bibi that he would follow her soon and soon shoots down his camel and then her. But he spares the son as this had been the desire of the woman, who had presumed that he would not be killed by her father or husband.
The Siahpads arrive and Gul Bibi’s father and husband stone the man to death but when the husband wants to kill the boy too, the father intervenes, telling him that his daughter could not be blamed because the son-in-law was incapable of fulfilling any woman’s needs. The son-in-law, that is, the woman’s first husband shoots his father-in-law down in cold blood and then leaves with his party of men who are too stunned to raise their voice. The five-year old boy is left all alone in the night to face the sandstorm.
It is this boy who is taken in by a group of Baluchis to accompany them to a town where the Baluchis are killed and the subedar asks the boy, “What are you going to do now? Your companions, they are all dead?” He, named Ghunch Gul, then tells the boy, “I am leaving this town and you will come with me.”
The boy comes to be known as Tor Baz, the black falcon and he wanders between different tribes. He meets men who fight under different flags and women who risk everything if they break their society’s code of honour. Now begin his adventures and as promised to his parents as a five-year old, he becomes the chief and has horses and camels at his disposal.
This is a racy and interesting tale, giving an insight into the tribal life of Pakistan.
(Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017; www.penguin.com)