The mark of a good book is that you can’t get it out of your head for at least two days after putting it down. Penguin’s latest release The Wandering Falcon (Rs 399) is one such literary treat. This debut novel by retired Pakistani diplomat Jamil Ahmad is a series of linked short stories, set around the border where Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan meet, before the rise of the Taliban. These are the ‘forbidden areas’ not many have access to, infamous for being hotbeds of terrorism and conflict today.
To an extent, one can see why. Ahmad uncovers a world of harsh physical conditions, cruel traditions and patriarchal social codes that leave you flinching. On the other hand, there are also love, compassion and heartwarming acts of humanity. The very customs that exact fatal penalties for non-conformists also ensure a strange sense of fairness, a certain honourable code of conduct that modern diplomacy and democracy would fail miserably at.
The stories weave in and around Tor Baz, the ‘wandering falcon’ whose parents are killed because they dared to fall in love. The orphan is brought up by fate, parented by various men he meets at serendipitous moments. As he grows, he ekes a living out of being a guide and informer, trading his knowledge for money. Interestingly, the reader meets him mostly through other characters in the book, both male and female, their stories interlinked by a sleight of the writer’s talented hand. One chapter stands out: written in the first person by a dying man, it’s completely unexpected in the middle of the book, but the quirk only adds to the book’s multidimensional flavour.
Ahmad’s writing style is stark and loaded with meaning. The most inhuman acts and the sweetest kindnesses are dealt with an equal, masterful precision, devoid of judgement or irony. The writer lays out his deep knowledge and experience on the field in a sensitive, insightful, riveting way – neither defending nor criticizing the age-old tribal Afghani way of life. They are how they are, the book seems to say. Take ’em or take ’em.
Eventually, we are all one in this world, no matter how different we seem. We’re all in this together. This book has bridged an enormous gulf between some of ‘us’ and some of ‘them’. I wish the author the very best; I hope he wins something. 🙂