Saga of shifting sands

Saga of shifting sands

Lead Review

Saga of shifting sands

SOARING Into the horizon against all odds.

Tor Baz is the ‘wandering falcon’ whose origins kick-start the book. Kick-start is probably the wrong word to use. For a novel that tells of rough people, merciless terrains and rootless lives of uncertainty and violence, it is amazingly gently written.

It moves at such a disarming pace that you are lured, lulled and left aghast at the wasted caravans passing by, fading right before your eyes.

Tor Baz is the young product of a forbidden love that strengthens him at the altar of its own destruction. Having watched his parents being killed, the little boy moves from person to person, place to place, incident to incident. Hitchcock-like, he surfaces unexpectedly in this episodic novel like a rough-hewn gem reappearing in a garland of beads.

Jamil Ahmad is the 78-year-old author who was there and saw it all. As member of the civil service of Pakistan, he’d served in the Frontier Province and Baluchistan. He was also a political agent in Quetta, Chaghi, Khyber and Malakand. He knew the local language and understood the people — their passions and traditional compulsions, their helplessness at a changing political reality, their relationships, the amoral struggle to survive. Being an outsider, he saw them in perspective.

He had access to places we only read about, dangerous deserts, ravines and wastelands where the gun speaks quicker than reason, and rheumy-eyed old headmen uphold the law; where men live away from their families for 20 years, and old women shoot at each other in neighbourly exchanges. We journey through inhospitable terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan, long before the Taliban, long before borders.

And that’s the book’s abiding concern: borders and freedom of movement. Imagine these tribes in their 1,000s moving from one place to another at the dictates of the weather — “their seasonal migration from the Afghan highlands in autumn and their return from Pakistan after the winter was over, in early spring,” families with tents, belongings and animals. And then come borders. And identity papers for every individual. At first they laugh it off. They cross over disingenuously, and the officers turn a blind eye, not being too sure of the new laws. But not for long. The intruders are gunned down. Their traditional freedom is curtailed; belonging everywhere, they now belong nowhere. Their very existence is illegal.

“One set of values, one way of life, had to die. In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual.” The autumn of 1958, the British Empire already dismantled, the borders rigid. It is flashpoint.

Jamil Ahmad sees everything with a kind and gentle eye, often amused, sometimes pained, but without judgement, leaving his characters to articulate. In one tale, Dawa Khan takes off for a long-pending chore, to avenge the murder of his cousin by a Kakar tribesman. The murderer having unobligingly died, he settles for his sons. Unfortunately, the boys, who greet him cheerfully, aren’t wearing shalwars to signify their having come of age, a prerequisite for murdering them. “For all he knew, these perfidious Kakars might well refuse to wear shalwars in his lifetime.”

Women are loved and sold, beaten and used. Some retaliate, others run away, most accept. Each story is heavy with meaning, light in narration. And though young wandering falcon is supposedly the tenuous link between them, it’s finally the reader himself, scanning the horizon, spotting the first caravan, wiping his eyes at a moment in the book or to dislodge a grain of desert sand, who puts them together to become the real link in these unforgettable tales of truth.