For the past couple of years, we have been told, often and loudly, that Pakistani fiction has come of age. It is unclear exactly what this means, but apparently a dedicated issue of Granta is an essential marker. In some recent essays, the Indian writers Amit Chaudhuri and Palash Mehrotra among others have argued that plaudits for recent Pakistani books should be seen from the point of view of a backlash, as it were, of geopolitics: after 9/11, the outside world cared more about Pakistan, about US involvement in the region—and thus the books were commissioned, read, and kindly reviewed. This is not a claim which makes much space for individual genius. And the argument that large, impersonal historical forces, rather than a generation of exceptional writers, seem to be driving the interest in Pakistani fiction has been, unsurprisingly, viewed with suspicion and anger by many of the writers themselves.
Yet it is difficult to deny that the ‘New Pakistani’ novels are almost all, without exception, 9/11 novels, the shadows of our troubled times looming large on every page. Even those written before, or about events before 9/11, serve an explanatory purpose. And unlike novels that ‘explain’ India—overwhelmingly soft, mushy things, optimistic or empathetic—novels ‘explaining’ Pakistan are about violence, repression, public affairs. And are thus hard, taut, exciting.
I have laid out these rules to show how, to them, Jamil Ahmed’s The Wandering Falcon is exception; and example; and explanation.
First, exception. Ahmed’s book carries with it, unlike all the others, a quality of timelessness. The stories you will hear may have been set in the First World War, after Independence, or in the decades just past; but it is impossible to read it as a critique, or response, to American involvement, of Pakistan’s implosion as it repeatedly encounters the West—as are, for example, most of the other stories in that Granta issue on Pakistan.
Yes, the geography of The Wandering Falcon—the tribal areas that constitute the fuzzy border between Pakistan and Afghanistan—resonates today precisely because it is the frontline of the world’s post-9/11 battles. And the proud, problematic independence of these tribes, a resistance to outside domination, is a leitmotif of the stories, as well as of the area’s politics today.
But, unlike in so many other stories you have read about Pakistan, here the fundamental opposition is between the tribe that the protagonist, Tor Baz, happens to be with at any point—and everybody else. Rather than have these stories play out as a parable against foreign involvement, they are a testimony to the complexity of any form of engagement with tribal societies, even for a modern, supposedly liberal state. This is a book about Pakistan that is not about the West’s image of Pakistan, written by a westernized creative writing student or journalist who knows the right buttons to push. This is a book written by a retired civil servant, one nearly 80, whose life was spent observing the tribes he writes about.
Yet it, too, is an example of what we want to get out of the New Pakistani novel. You cannot read these stories of the orphan Tor Baz, born to a doomed liaison, abandoned when young and then moved from one protector to another, without learning a great deal about these bleak highlands, where change and water seem alike scarce. The stories, which follow Tor Baz as he grows, and are told from several perspectives—but never his—do not sugarcoat or romanticize what the absence of outside power has birthed: a harsh, xenophobic society with little trust, brimming with self-assurance that the old tribal ways are unchanging and unchangeable, and a cynical optimism that any outsider, whether well-meaning or devious, can be outsmarted.
The timelessness of the book is not absolute, merely a reflection of the statis of the tribes Ahmed writes about. Yet, as Tor Baz grows to manhood, and as the decades pass, changes in their lives become apparent, too. Not just that one greatest change, the backdrop of an entire early chapter, the decision by the young Pakistan government to enforce its border and ask for travel documents. The centuries-old migrations between highland and lowland that marked the change of season, in which entire tribes would march, with their stoves, babies, and goats, became impossible. Ahmed explores that decision through the eyes of tribal leaders who found it impossible to believe that their freedom would be so constrained.
There is an odd schizophrenia about how Ahmed represents the tribes’ engagement with the outside world. In some stories, particularly the early ones, the tribesmen’s leaders are shown as unable to fathom how the imperial or the postcolonial state operates. As time passes, though, the tribes begin to see the well-meaning state—and sometimes the entire outside world—as something to be taken advantage of. In one story, the Mahsuds and Wazirs of Waziristan are shown as using the state’s non-interference policies to run a lucrative kidnapping racket; in another, old Afridi soldiers tell stories about the First World War, and how they kept ‘in touch with Afghanistan, with Turkey, with Belgium and Germany and even with Russia and China.’ Apparently nobody took very long to figure out how to earn geostrategic rents from living where the Great Game is played. In that this novel explains better than a hundred news articles the intractability of the region where the world’s post-9/11 strategy is playing out, it is an example of how these novels explain the puzzles of Pakistan to us.
But the nature of Ahmed’s journey to being a published author explains something about the Pakistani literary renaissance to us. Unlike most of the other New Pakistani authors, he is not a career journalist, not some young product of the Iowa Writers Workshop who is comfortable in the Manhattan literary scene. In the first flush of hunger for Pakistani voices willing to explain their country to an anxious West, those were the people who found themselves commissioned and feted. But Ahmed’s book seems to have been conceived and written while disconnected from this frenetic search. It is born, after all, of his own experiences as a frontier bureaucrat; and that The Wandering Falcon was sold at all owes little to the efforts of high-priced literary agents. We must thank instead the editor of a Karachi literary review, who managed to ensure that one of the book’s stories was widely enough read that Penguin gave this very unusual writer a contract.
This is by far the best and most memorable book of the New Pakistani novels. And it is written by an 80 year-old retired bureaucrat. Neither book nor author can be easily categorized, but their authenticity and independence is unquestionable, and the source of much of their brilliance. And thus we come to understand something about the New Pakistani novels: until they become less attuned to the outside world, their achievements will be limited—though the hype that surrounds them may not be.
“In some recent essays, the Indian writers Amit Chaudhuri and Palash Mehrotra among others have argued that plaudits for recent Pakistani books should be seen from the point of view of a backlash, as it were, of geopolitics: after 9/11, the outside world cared more about Pakistan, about US involvement in the region—and thus the books were commissioned, read, and kindly reviewed.”
The Wandering Falcon, thus, is exception, example and explanation for the New Pakistani novels. But, above all, it is a cracking good read. You might think it difficult for a book that is less than 200 pages, and in which the structure is jumpy and discontinuous, to be an immersive experience. But the world that Ahmed describes envelopes the reader, with his spare, stark prose the perfect method of expression for this weather-beaten, orange-and-gold land. It is written, too, with tremendous humanity; the writer’s own position, as commissioner and magistrate and representative of the state, perhaps enhances the sympathy with which he writes of the treatment of rebellious tribes. Towards the end of a chapter in which some Baluch rebels have been executed, he writes: ‘There was complete and total silence about the Baluchis, their cause, their lives and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. Typically, Pakistani journalists sought to salve their conscience by writing of wrongs done to men in South Africa, in Indonesia, in Palestine and in the Philippines. No politician risked imprisonment… no bureaucrat risked dismissal. These men died a final and total death. They will live in no songs; no memorials will be raised to them.’
Ahmed’s last assignment was as Chief Secretary of Baluchistan. Many people at the end of distinguished careers find that their anger and their empathy have both vanished, scoured dull by years of soulless procedure. But not Ahmed’s. His anger at both the casual exploitation that permeates these tribal cultures, and at the state’s distance from them, is what gives these stories the immediacy and power that raises them above the ordinary.