30 May 2011

Book Review: Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon

Nearly a century ago, the legendary literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin gifted to all would-be analysers of literature a superbly fertile idea: the chronotope, literally meaning 'time space'. A chronotope indicates the manner in which time and space come together in a literary narrative. Among the most widely used novelistic chronotopes is the road. "People who are normally kept separate by social and spatial distance can accidentally meet; any contrast may crop up, the most varied fates may collide and interweave with one another," wrote Bakhtin. "The chronotope of the road is both a point of new departures and a place for events to find their denouement." Most obviously, of course, the road becomes a metaphor for the course of a life.

Jamil Ahmad's rather wondrous collection of interlinked tales skilfully combines a whole range of chronotopic associations of the road: arrivals and departures, meetings and partings, and the encounter, where paths unexpectedly cross. And then there is Tor Baz, the black falcon, who without quite being the hero of the book, is the figure whose crisscrossing journeys in time and space knit these narrative worlds together.

Ahmad's refusal to place Tor Baz at centrestage is deliberate: his aim is not to tell the story of a man so much as of a place and a people. The place, of course, is Balochistan. The people are the various tribes that occupy that harsh and dusty terrain: the Siahpads, the Mengals, the Kharots, the Bhittanis, the Wazirs, the Mahsuds, the Afridis, the Gujars. Whether intentionally or not, each tale centres around a single one of these – a tightly-knit community headed by a sardar, its disputes settled by a jirga (an assembly of elders), its negotiations with the modern nation-state increasingly tenuous. And Ahmad weaves these lovingly and carefully into a precise, almost ethnographic portrait of a region.

It adds another layer to the road motif, of course, that in this "tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet", being on the road was, until recently, a way of life, and a marker of seasons. When the Pawindahs (literally, the 'foot people') started to descend into the plains with their herds, it was clear that winter was on its way: their annual movement was as inevitable as that of "migrating birds, or the locusts". The onset of spring, on the other hand, is marked by the ice cutters reaching the top of the mountains, to cut blocks out of the glaciers and carry them "on their backs down into the valley where waiting trucks loaded them up and sped away to the cities to people living in the warmer regions". In this world, even kidnapping is seasonal: "To start with, he accepted the fact that a gang had been formed in the hills and was heading for his district...Kidnappings usually started in October, with the onset of winter, but it was already late."

Yet not all movement in this world is predictable. In the opening story, a Siahpad couple on the run gets shelter at a military outpost in the desert – and stays on long enough to raise a five year old. In another, a party of Baluch outlaws comes to a town for talks, but is tried and sentenced instead. A girl is married off to a young man and leaves her home, only to find that she must spend her days walking from town to town behind him and his performing bear.

Which leads me to a related point: several reviewers have described the world of this book as a traditional, honour-bound one, whose codes are clear and unbreakable. The book's own blurb chooses to call it "a world of custom and cruelty"; those words are not coincidental. But to see it so unidimensionally is to do injustice to Ahmad's thoughtful, nuanced representation. There are rules here, and perhaps the rules are more stringent than we moderns are used to, but it would be a mistake to think that having rules makes men and women somehow inhuman: witness the subedar who refuses to intercede "between a man and the law of his tribe" but is unhesitatingly generous in offering the same man shelter for as long as he wants. Traditions are also things people play with – breaking them, tweaking them, or just cleverly using them to their advantage: a man who has pledged revenge on his nephews once they come of age is outwitted year after year by their laughing refusal to dress in adult clothes; women who suffer indignities at the hands of men also give it back to them with bawdy wit and wisdom. And can it be a coincidence that Tor Baz himself, Ahmad's sole recurring character, is born of a tradition-defying union between a man and his sardar's daughter, and spends his life wandering between tribes? If Tor Baz can have a home here, Ahmad seems to say, then surely nothing is impossible.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

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