Moving images of tribal life

Updated on: May 05, 2011
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The first rude shock that Jamil Ahmad's Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton-Penguin Books) gives you is the realisation of your ignorance of people, cultures, customs and regions different from yours.

The tribal regions bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan have been dominated by the Taliban for two decades now, and their very mention strikes as much terror as disdain in our hearts… the violence and bloodshed, the total subjugation of women, and honour deaths immediately come to mind.

But Ahmad, who was born in Jalandhar and served as an officer in the Civil Service of Pakistan for long years, mainly in the Frontier and the Balochistan region, obviously looks at the place with different eyes. He also served as minister in Pakistan's embassy in Kabul.

This is a striking debut by the 78-year-old writer who lives in Islamabad; the different stories detailing the lives of various tribes in the region are strung together by the presence of Tor Baz or the black falcon, who grows from an infant to a young man on the pages of this immensely readable book.

With a rare empathy and pathos, understanding and insight, Ahmad's vivid strokes create a canvas of tribal traditions and customs, the tenderness and the cruelty that dominate it, the candour, honesty and, above all, the code of honour that defines the essence of tribal life. But the rapidly changing modern world, with its boundaries and travel documents, its bureaucratic norms and pompous methods of dispensing justice, has neither time nor sympathy for this code of honour.

Even though this book has been cast in the decades before the Taliban rule, the first story ‘The Sins of the Mother' deals with honour killing. It is about a camel herder who elopes with his sardar 's daughter and they can't get shelter anywhere for long, as they are bound to be caught and killed. But they do manage a few years of tenderness together before the inevitable happens. But the child born to them is spared, and changes patrons from one story to another.

Ahmad takes us to a world where the tribal chiefs are respected and adored; Roza Khan is an old man in ‘A Point of Honour'set in Baluchistan. “His big frame and height were all that remained of the strength and prowess of his youth; that and his memories.” Cataract in both eyes had made him almost blind and helpless and yet he knew his people “needed a symbol”, and their “sense of honour and grace were such that they would attribute all heroic deeds to him and all failures to themselves.” They'd never admit that in reality he was a man to be pitied.

Those of us with a flat or one-dimensional viewpoint on the tribal clans of Pakistan or Afghanistan need to thank the author for walking us through the value systems and immeasurable wisdom embedded in some of the tribal elders. Khan leads a team of “rebels” which is cornered and when opinion is expressed that only they, and none else, could decide on the leadership issue, as it was a matter of conscience, the old man, “sad and lonely behind his curtain of darkness”, retorts: “Never have I seen a man truly troubled by his conscience. Conscience is like a poor relation living in a rich man's house. It has to remain cheerful at all times for fear of being thrown out.”

Imposition of boundaries

One of the most poignant stories is about the Pawindahs of Afghanistan, who with their caravans regularly cross into Pakistan when the weather gets too harsh for them. But there comes an era when these nomads are asked to produce travel documents at the border. The leader's son responds thus: “How is it possible for us to be treated as belonging to Afghanistan? We stay for a few months there and for a few months in Pakistan. The rest of the time we spend moving. We are Pawindahs and belong to all countries or to none.”

But then there are no answers for such dilemmas in a world that is getting more and more paranoid about issues such as borders, immigration and security.

As the entourage, including camels, has no water to drink, it takes the risk of defying the border guards. A woman, Gul Jana, takes the lead saying: “I am going with a Koran on my head. Nothing can happen to me.” She does that, the rest follow; “the firing was indiscriminate. Men, women and children died. Gul Jana's belief that the Koran would prevent tragedy died too.”

The biggest appeal of the book lies in the understated nature of the narrative. Without too much breast-beating or drama, Ahmad unmasks the hypocrisies embedded in Pakistani civil society. After the sham of a courtroom trial of Baluchis, where everybody is ordered to be shot dead, there is total silence about the event. “No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. Typically, Pakistani journalists sought salve for their conscience by writing about the wrongs done to men in South Africa, Indonesia, Palestine and Philippines — not to their own people. No politician risked imprisonment; they would continue to talk of the rights of the individual, the dignity of man, the exploitation of the poor, but they would not expose the wrong being done outside their front door.”

Ahmad tells us that the dead Baluchi men would live in no songs or legends and would soon be forgotten even by their own kith and kin because “the terrible struggle for life makes it impossible for too much time to be wasted over thoughts for the dead.”

Evocative prose

In simple, yet evocative prose the author describes the harsh landscape with even harsher weather conditions… the sandstorms, the excessive heat and cold, the elusive waterholes, the importance of the camel — one lost camel meant one or two men would have to drop out. And yet their land had seen to it that “beauty and colour were not erased completely from their lives. It offered them a thousand shades of grey and brown with which it tinted hills, its sands and its earth. There were subtle changes of colour in the nights and the brightness of the days, and the vigorous colours of the tiny desert flowers hidden in the dusty bushes.”

A book written with such searing empathy and honesty stays with you for a long time. The line that will haunt me, while removing my ignorance and prejudice of tribal people and lifestyles, relates to the courtroom sham, where all the “accused” were ordered to be killed. Says Ahmad: “What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. That too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.”

Published on May 05, 2011

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