“There was complete and total silence about the Baluch, their cause, their lives, and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf.
‘I’m not an anthropologist’
Faiza S. Khan
Published at 79, Jamil Ahmad began the book that became ‘The Wandering Falcon’ some 40 years ago after receiving some sage advice from his wife, to whom the book is dedicated.
“Your poetry is rubbish,” she said, “why don’t you write about something you know about?”
It’s advice every reader has longed to dish out at some point in their life and blessed is the man with the good sense and the humility to listen. Mr Ahmad started to write about a subject close to his heart, Balochistan, and the life of the Baloch tribes with whom he had interacted at close quarters as a civil servant posted in Balochistan.
The book took him two years to complete and he submitted the manuscript to a few American publishers on completion. It was rejected, and sat in a drawer for the next 40 years till his brother heard of a short story prize for Pakistani short story writers on the radio and sent it in.
It was my great fortune as one of the administrators of this prize that this modern classic landed at my desk. I confess, I didn’t have the highest hopes for a book from a retired bureaucrat. I was wrong.
I received it in Karachi just as I was leaving for my first ever weekend break in Bombay. I started reading it on the night I arrived. At the end of the weekend I’d finished it and with due respect to Bombay’s many splendours, I’d only left my hotel room to eat.
It took very little time to see that Mr Ahmad had written a book of great empathy and compassion with such a profound understanding of his subject – falling neither for romanticised notions of tribal life nor the equally common knee-jerk contempt for tribal traditions, terming them brutal and backwards. It soon found an enthusiastic publisher in Delhi, who loved it as much as I did, and pushed to introduce it to an international audience. Critical acclaim followed.
Evidently a man of great dignity and integrity, I learnt only after his passing that he had left the coveted post of chief secretary of Balochistan when he found himself unable to comply with General Ziaul Haq’s wishes to facilitate the victory of selected candidates in the local elections. But then Mr Ahmad never sought praise or indulged in any form of self-promotion in the case of his bureaucratic or literary career.
Unlike several authors from the region, he had no wish to present himself as an expert on the country and dismissed the obligatory, “what does the future of your country hold” questions from the press, once giving the delightfully glacial response “[I wrote] a work of fiction, I do not wish to step into the quagmire of geopolitics and political economy. I am not a trained anthropologist either”.
If one wasn’t given to asking irritating questions, Mr Ahmad was one of the most charming and gracious people one could hope to spend an evening with; warm, incredibly well-informed, and a witty conversationalist, he was the youngest 80 year old I’ve ever met.
Like a lot of people, I too picked up my copy of ‘The Wandering Falcon’ again and stumbled upon a chilling paragraph that could have been written today: “There was complete and total silence about the Baluch, their cause, their lives, and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. Typically, Pakistani journalists sought salve for their conscience by writing about the wrongs done to men in South Africa, in Indonesia, in Palestine, and in the Philippines — not to their own people. No politician risked imprisonment: they would continue to talk of the rights of the individual, the dignity of man, the exploitation of the poor, but they would not expose the wrong being done outside their front door.”
With the passing of Jamil Ahmad we’ve lost one of our greats, but the terrible and beautiful truths he captured in his book are more alive than ever.
The author is a freelance editor and critic
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2014