Jamil Ahmad, the author of the book in question, was a discovery of ‘Life’s Too Short Literary Review’, a short story competition by and for Pakistani writers. This is Ahmad’s debut novel and revolves around the lives of people in the tribal areas of Northern Pakistan before the Taliban.
The book was tipped by Guardian as ‘one of the hottest debut of 2011’. Though I enjoyed the book, it was far from being hot. A little warm maybe, but definitely not hot (even though it is sizzling in Karachi). Maybe my feelings have to do with the last book I read, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was fast paced, fascinating and quite hot.
The Wandering Falcon actually shares some similarities with A Visit from the Goon Squad; it is a collection of short stories, which are linked yet separate. It is the story of a young boy,Tor Baz (Wandering Falcon), who is almost the protagonist. His parents are stoned to death in the very first story on charges of adultery. As we witness his growth from a frightened child to a confident man, we get a glimpse of different facets of tribal life. Ahmad has littered the entire book with tribal anecdotes and stories which both lend authenticity and give an insight into the customs and traditions of the people who, to most of us, are merely victims of drone attacks.
This book made me realize how easily we put people into boxes and label them; ‘people living in the tribal areas are terrorists who live their lives according to barbaric customs’. The author tries to change our perspective with each story. There is the story of Tor Baz’s mother who runs away with her lover, because her husband is impotent, and remains in hiding for six years only to be hunted down by her father and husband. Or that of the gypsy tribe consisting of women, children and cattle, who are shunted between the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, only to be mercilessly shot down in the name of law. Or the young woman who fears her husband might bring in another wife on the insistence of his mother because she has not borne him a son. Or the woman who is married off to a man who cares more for his dancing bear than his wife.
Jamil Ahmad has told, through his work, that there is more to the people living in the Northern areas of Pakistan than Taliban. It is the tale of honesty and bravery, of hardships and trials, of loyalty and treachery. Most of these stories depict the misery and poverty which hangs over them, day after day and their struggles to make ends meet. Some of the very moving and disturbing stories are those of the women, who always end up paying the price for mistakes men make. No matter where a woman lives; in the city or in the mountains, much of her suffering is common.
The timing of the book is perfect and I’m sure it will gain attention in the West. Each story is linked to the other through various characters and yet can be read separately also. Tor Baz features in most of the stories and through him we meet the subedar Ghuncha Gul, the two faced Mullah Barrerai, the mountain guide Sher Beg and his daughter Sherakai, and Shah Zarina among others.
Even though The Wandering Falcon did not leave me in awe, but unlike other books which have come out in the recent past by Pakistani writers, this collection of stories is both fantastical and yet, very real at the same time which made it an enjoyable read.
“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”. [Excerpt from the book]