Detective Parker Pyne and the Pashtun code | india | Hindustan Times
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Detective Parker Pyne and the Pashtun code

india Updated: May 26, 2012 22:39 IST
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Stats are often quite amazing. You remember Parker Pyne, the Agatha Christie investigator who retired from the bureau of statistics and swore that all situations arranged themselves in one of precisely twelve categories? Another pattern to add to the many you’d know is ‘Pakhtunwali’, the Pashtun code of honour, based on three obligations: revenge, hospitality and forgiveness.

Avenging a wrong is a duty known as ‘badl’. The Pashto proverb goes: ‘The Pashtun who took revenge after a hundred years said, “I took it too quickly.”’ The feuds are proverbially over ‘zar, zan and zamin’ (gold, women and land), a sub-pattern known to Indians.

The second pillar of the code is hospitality, ‘melmastia’, which supercedes even the duty of revenge or retaliation. A man may well spare the enemy he has bested if he feels obliged to someone in that enemy’s family for hospitality. The third duty is forgiveness or submission, ‘nanawati’, which means forgiving an enemy who seeks asylum or comes in supplication, asking for peace. This duty may be sometimes starkly fulfiled as when a man may kill his own son for bringing dishonour on him by mistreating an asylum-seeker.

Other noticeable patterns in traditional Pashtun society are apparently humour, folk wisdom, riddles, a belief in destiny, belief in miracles and debt among peasants. The harshest patterns, common to old societies, are the importance of male heirs, the unreliability of ‘inferior’ tribes and the b&w attitude to women: ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘fickle’ and ‘virtuous’. The virtuous woman’s biggest qualification seems to be the overcoming of all sorts of unpleasantness in pursuit of a worthy goal.

Reflected in folk tales, these patterns are vivified in ‘Pashtun Tales from the Pakistan-Afghan Frontier’, a gripping compilation drawn from vanishing oral traditions by Aisha Ahmad and Roger Boase. Many of you may have read it but I’ve just managed to extricate this locally unavailable book with the greatest difficulty, giving my word of honour (though but a woman) to return it by a set date after enduring many Talibanesque strictures from a person who borrowed it from a common library and let it sit unread for months. It is a Pashtun tale in itself, my borrowing. May we infer that a virtuous love of books is capable of overcoming any hazard? How might Parker Pyne sort this quaint situation? And would a Pashtun say it’s a brangle with a ‘zan’ over ‘zar’ or ‘zamin’?

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture. You can reach her at