Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Wandering Falcon - Jamil Ahmad

Off late, I seem to mostly pick up books with a feminist tone. Or maybe it's just that I'm finding feminist overtones in whichever book I read.

The latest is 'The Wandering Falcon'. Many reviews have described it as a novel, but it's not. It's a collection of stories, tied together by a common character named Tor Baz or Black Falcon. In most of the stories, Tor Baz is a character on the sidelines. But the stories help us track his life, from his birth to his adulthood.

The book takes us to the harsh mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This is the land of the tribes. Where honour is more important than anything else. Where women are bought and sold by men - whether in marriage or otherwise. Where daily life is a rough struggle against the elements. Where less than half of a woman's children survive to adulthood.

The most important part of the stories we usually read is the plot. But somehow, in this collection, the stories are not as important as the background they play out on. And not because the plots are not engrossing, mind you. A woman and her lover stoned for eloping, nomad tribes getting caught between two countries, women being sold into slavery - these are some of the subjects of the stories. 

But one gets the feeling that the author is just using these plots to tell us about the area - the culture and way of life of the tribes, the harshness of the terrain, the sufferings of the women there. Reading this book, it is easier to understand why the region is so unstable - each man's loyalty is to his tribe, and it takes very little to set the tribes off against each other.

Though finally published this year, these stories were actually written almost forty years ago, during Jamil Ahmad's career as a civil servant. But he has somehow managed to rise above the cold officialdom of his daily life to write stories that sensitively portray the struggles of the mountain people. His writing is both evocative and simple - poignant without romanticizing. No wonder the novel has won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize this year.
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