Early in my first travel through Central Asia, I pitstopped at a roadside shack for a bowl of soupy flour noodles. While I ate, a television set bracketed onto the wall played a grainy VCD of a burly mustachioed man weeping pitiably as he clubbed his lover to death in slow motion to swelling music. The woman was wailing in Urdu and crying. They both seemed awfully regretful about their circumstances – he didn’t want to kill her and she didn’t want to be killed – but I got the sense that inexorable forces more powerful than regret compelled this violence. The scene reminded me strangely of the 1968 broadcast of aliens in togas using their powers of telekinesis to puppet a quiveringly reluctant Captain Kirk into kissing Uhura.
The Wandering Falcon by retired Pakistani civil servant Jamil Ahmad goes some way toward explaining those forces. Ahmad spent a whole career in the tribal border regions of Pakistan which provide the setting for his stories. It would be easiest to describe this territory as lawless, but that would be a little shallow. As Ahmad’s stories reveal, these tribal regions operate in a snarl of tangled codes – the law of the land, the law of the book, the law of the tribe, and underpinning them all, the law of survival.
The book itself is a short story collection that has been glued into something a publisher might call a novel. The joinery is clumsy, and in some pieces the storytelling sputters before finally seizing up and croaking dead. On the whole these chapters make better short fiction than long, but their imperfections are worth enduring for a glimpse at the alien world which comes into soft focus.
It’s an extraordinary place. As the yarns unfold, Ahmad conjures up a cast of Pakistani subedars, Baluch banditos, cringing Gujjars, predatory Wazir kidnappers, and hapless civil servants. One story opens with an out of work mullah proudly marrying his daughter to an ice cutter who has caught himself a bear and trained it to perform. Ahmad narrates soberly, “To find a match for the eldest girl with a man of independent means—” those means being a circus bear on a leash “—was something they had dreamed and hoped for.”
These stories all take place between the second world war and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was the time just before these borderfolk would be portrayed as mujahideen, or later as Taliban sympathizers. Especially in the earlier chapters, the world has a certain biblical quality. The longer you spend immersed in the mores of the society Ahmad describes, it begins to seem reasonable that a man could be compelled to kill his own son on an altar, or to seed a child in his handmaiden, or to trick some besotted fool into marrying the wrong daughter – or indeed to murder his own beloved wife as an act of reluctant compassion.