This late in the Man Asian Literary Prize timeline, I guess those following the books are at least vaguely aware of the story behind each one. The Wandering Falcon interested me for a number of reasons – first, Ahmad wrote this more than thirty years ago, but has only just had it published, at the ripe age of 79. Secondly, it’s won a number of other prizes, including the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India. Finally, it deals with the border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the tribes that live there. I have a fairly vested interest in border studies, so I was interested to see how Ahmed pulled this off.
In a time before terrorism, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, live various tribes of people, outside the mainstream. Their lives are dependent on good weather in the mountain landscape, on the goodwill of their neighbouring tribes, and of the governments in the cities below not trying to force them into a life they do not want to lead. Their lives are hard, and in this insight into a world rarely glimpsed, Ahmad provides snippets of these lives, spanning several decades.
Obviously we need to talk a little about the structure of the novel first. Ahmad has written what is essentially a collection of linked short stories – the one, mysterious common element is the boy (and later, man) Tor Baz, or the eponymous wandering falcon. I’m still not quite sure just how old he is supposed to be by the end, but there are several decades of history covered in these nine tales. In several – including the excellent opening chapter/story – Tor Baz features quite heavily. In others, he barely rates a mention – in fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t appear in one of them, though I can’t remember exactly which one that is.
Each story deals with a different aspect of tribal life in the vast wilderness between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, as one may expect, there are several universal themes that make this collection of tales more cohesive than a simple short story collection. Arguably the overarching theme is the harsh and unforgiving nature of life away from big cities, in a land that is, quite frankly, close to uninhabitable. It is a testament to the human spirit that people have managed to eck out an existence here, and though Ahmad pulls no punches in highlighting the brutal and sometimes fatal lifestyle that is simply the norm for these people.
I’m glad, too, he wrote the last chapter, “Sale Completed”, and in many ways leaving it until the end, as the final message, was clever. For a long time, I was wondering if he was going to talk in detail about the role women play in traditional bedouin tribes like the ones outlined in The Wandering Falcon, and was worried he was just going to skip it. But when he turns his hand to writing about the brutal treatment of women in the name of “tradition,” he brings up a whole new set of questions that leave you wondering after you’ve finished the novel. Because, let’s face it, a culture that views women as nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged for money and sexual favours is one that needs to be examined closely.
In some ways, this constant onslaught of the worst of what it means to be human left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The cold, almost clinical style in which Ahmad writes leaves no room for any kind of hope, and ultimately, the whole thing left me cold. The fact that this has been sitting in his desk for thirty years, and the fact that he was unsure whether to publish it as fiction or non-fiction leaves me wondering whether it would have been better off to publish it as a kind of travelogue – maybe his style would have worked better there.
Reading The Wandering Falcon left me informed, but not inspired. This was a part of the world about which I knew almost nothing, so to see a different kind of existence portrayed so diligently was nice. But as a piece of fiction, as a work that should let me into people’s lives and make me feel something – I’m afraid it just didn’t work for me.