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Through nomads’ land

books Updated: Apr 22, 2011 22:31 IST
Antara Das
Antara Das
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The Wandering Falcon
Jamil Ahmad
Hamish Hamilton
Rs 399 pp 181

After a lifetime of service as a bureaucrat in the wild terrains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, 78-year-old Jamil Ahmad has the perfect understanding and insight into a place that vexes many a strategist around the world today. The Wandering Falcon, his debut novel, is a product gleaned from that experience, a record of individual tales of honour and desire among the tribes inhabiting Balochistan, Waziristan or the Swat Valley, people for whom “the terrible struggle for life makes it impossible for too much time to be wasted over thoughts for the dead”.

Tor Baz is the eponymous falcon, who is born and grows into adulthood during the course of the novel. In a region of fierce tribal identities, his origins remain amorphous. Nor is he useful in lending narrative cohesion but ends up loosely linking the stories of his parents who defied the tribal code of honour and eloped, the nomadic Kharot tribe trying to come to terms with the limitations of political boundaries or the way of life of the Wazirs, Mahsuds or Afridis.

Set in the mid-20th century, it is the changing life and mores of the nomadic tribes that Ahmad captures in clear, haunting prose: “One set of values, one way of life had to die ... The new way of life triumphed over the old.” His keen observation is not lacking in humour either: a peek inside the Mahsud jirga reveals not just a dour assembly of bearded men but also intense discussions about “the safest smuggling routes, the most profitable items of contraband ...and all the current social gossip and scandals in the area.” For the sheer humanising of a much-misunderstood people, the book is worth a read.