‘The Wandering Falcon’: Understanding Balochistan, the literary way
Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon cruised into my bucket list when it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and Commonwealth Book Prize, but that was not the sole reason for it clicking with me. It was the debut work of the author at the age of 78 and was written long before we mired our stream of consciousness by replacing people with numbers and empathy with stock language for the tribal people of Pakistan.
Penned down some 34 years ago, the work of fiction has become extremely relevant to the current global situation rampant with discourse of convenience. The short stories shot to fame after landing space in the prestigious Granta, the literary magazine.
It could be termed as an unadulterated version of a world which has become marketable to a nauseating extent. Nowadays, the instant recipe to literary fame is taking up the post 9/11 theme, and twerk with personal style, especially if you are lucky enough to belong to the troubled areas (the only time you feel privileged for your motherland). The Wandering Falcon is immunised from this commercialism which makes it an effective cultural document.
The set of stories could be enjoyed individually, but they are also connected with the leitmotif of Tor Baz, a character which appears in every story and evolves in the process. The collection celebrates the tribal people as they are, without tinting them with post 9/11 clichés. It depicts people and their customs objectively, without being apologetic for them or demonising them. Ahmad served in tribal areas as a civil servant and developed enduring respect and understating for their culture. He said in an interview:
“I felt the tribes had far more grace, a far greater sense of honour, rectitude, truth — the qualities we associate with a decent human being — than you found in the cities”.
The narrative doesn’t delve much into the emotions of character and by this technique of symbolic exclusion and holding back, becomes aligned with the cultural norms of the characters. Characters don’t give away much through words and exude quintessential Baloch and tribal forbearance. The barren and unforgiving landscape of the desert and mountains become an important character and relay more information than the expression of characters. The culture and stories of Balochistan have never made it to the national literary scenario and whenever they do, they are trite and whitewashed to fit into the politically correct national narrative.
Ahmad, retired Chief Secretary of Balochistan, has beautifully presented the stories of the desert without botox-ing them for modern sensibilities. The Sardar’s daughter and her lover in The Sins of the Mother are aware of the fate awaiting them, yet they bear and raise their son with dignified stoicism. Pathos seeps into the story when the lover sees two small towers around the newly built gate and says,
“My love, take away the towers, there is something about them I do not like”.
The towers, as the reader comes to know later, are symbolic of the lovers’ grave.
I enjoyed Death of the Camels most, which celebrated the obliterating Nomad traditions. The fearless Gul Jana defies the laws under the illusion that the Quran on her head would save her. Ahmad triumphs as an artist, when he juxtaposed dying Nomad culture against modern society law; make them wither mercilessly.
However, A Point of Honour is most relatable of all. The reader might face a guilt-trip after reading an emphatic account of Baloch rebels and how their culture and traditions are deeply misunderstood. The tragedy deepens when a ‘rebel’ Sardar honours the word of authorities and ends up in a magistrate’s office accused of killing many people and says,
“If people in this room can be silent, thoughts shall come easier to me. We Baloch are used to the silence of the desert”.
Though branded as guilty, the seven tribesmen walk out with their head high, portraying the ultimate trait of Baloch culture: bravery and stoicism. This book is a treat for the reader looking for stories without agendas.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.