Pakistan badlands inspire belated literary success
A retired Pakistani civil servant nearing 80 may not sound like the most obvious debut author to take the international publishing world by storm, but Jamil Ahmad has done precisely that.books Updated: Oct 18, 2011 07:21 IST
A retired Pakistani civil servant nearing 80 may not sound like the most obvious debut author to take the international publishing world by storm, but Jamil Ahmad has done precisely that.
Over a cup of tea and a glass of lime juice, he talks about a career as an administrator along Pakistan's desolate borders with Afghanistan and Iran, and how he turned those memories into a book that has earned rave reviews.
The Wandering Falcon, published by Riverhead Books in the United States this month, captures the raw romance of Pakistan's wildest terrain -- associated today in the West with Taliban lairs and Al-Qaeda terror plots.
Seduced by tales of 'cowboys and Indians' as a schoolboy, Ahmad quickly developed a lifelong passion for the tribal way of life in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan and the tribal areas along the Afghan border in the northwest.
He joined the civil service in 1954 and later became commissioner of Swat, a northwestern district where Pakistan in 2009 led a major operation against a Taliban insurgency, and of Waziristan, today the focus of the CIA's most active drone war against Taliban fighters.
He served at the embassy in Kabul from 1978 to 1980, a crucial time for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, coinciding with the Soviet invasion of the former.
When he showed his German wife Helga some poetry, she dismissed it as "rubbish" and told him to write about something he knew -- namely, the tribal way of life.
The result was a manuscript finished in 1974 and tucked away in a drawer. Helga, "like a bulldog", kept showing it to people over 20 years.
Then Ahmad's brother heard a short story competition on the radio, called up Helga for a photocopy and submitted the draft, which attracted local attention and ultimately wound its way to the publishers.
The book is a collection of gently interlinking short stories, all but one featuring Tor Baz, a boy born to a couple who elope. He becomes the "Wandering Falcon" after his parents are killed.
Contemporaries have queued up to pay homage to Ahmad for what Kashmir writer Basharat Peer described as "one of the finest collections of short stories to come out of South Asia in decades".
With the United States fighting a covert war against militants in Pakistan and locked into the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan, Ahmad's US editor hopes the book will shed light on a region isolated from the outside world.
Laura Perciasepe says it is a "clear and powerful story" set in an area "of great interest and importance to American readers, but so little understood".
Ahmad's age and background clearly set him apart from the urbane group of young writers responsible for a renaissance in Pakistani literature that has found a captive audience in the West following the 9/11 attacks.
For one thing, Ahmad has never been fond of cities. For another, he doesn't like to travel. He turned down invitations to book launches in India and the United States "because of all that checking in at airports and hotels".
Something of a "wandering falcon" himself, he moved constantly as a child around India with a father who worked in the judiciary. "There was no anchor point. We moved all the time."
Today he lives in Islamabad largely for practical reasons because as Helga said, what would they do about doctors and dentists in Chitral, up in the Hindu Kush mountains where he originally wanted to retire.
Sipping a blend of Earl Grey and Darjeeling, and lighting up one cigarette after another, he chuckles over fond memories of Baluchistan, training in Britain and even a brief stint at the Irish Peat Board.
He sees tribes as the earliest building blocks of humanity, which functioned for centuries until they started clashing with nation states and empires.
"There's a tribal gene, as I said, somewhere embedded in each one of us," he says.
But Ahmad writes also of a lost world.
It is difficult to imagine today, for example, a civil servant living with his German wife on a hill miles from anywhere with only a militia post for company.
In Baluchistan, Helga was frequently left alone, having to look after three children under five without electricity or running water.
Once, Ahmad got a message saying "the tap is leaking". He thought "silly girl, what do I do, sitting on the Iranian border?".
"So I came back after 10 days and I find the message she sent was 'the baby is seriously ill' and the militia has transmitted the other side of the paper, which was her personal note that the tap was leaking," he said.
By then, the crisis was over and the baby had recovered -- doused in olive oil, the only remedy to hand.
Ahmad is reluctant to be drawn into politics, but he is angry about what he sees as the destruction of the tribal leadership as a result of Pakistan and the United States sponsoring the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation.
"I'm angry about it. I could call them Frankensteins, these monsters who were created and they stood by and watched the tribes being decimated."
For the moment, he has no clear plans for another book.
But a consummate storyteller, he is captivated by the quirky characters and tragic incidents that helped set the mood for his book, and says perhaps he could write more about the background of tribal life.
For example, there was one of his seniors so bored living in the middle of nowhere that he submitted fortnightly reports on the number of flies killed in the office -- a practice that head office promptly demanded of others.
Then there was a colleague who always dressed for dinner, gently mocked by the others for donning a cummerbund in the wilderness.
And the day that a group of pretty models came looking for help when their bus from Tehran to Mumbai broke down. Ahmad was sitting under a tree, in his pyjamas.
Today, he passes the time smoking, reading and playing cards. No snob, one book on the go is a bestselling crime thriller.
"I love reading trash," he smiles.