In the 1950s, a young Jamil Ahmad joined the Civil Service of Pakistan, and opted to serve in the North West Frontier Province. For the next twenty-five years, he lived among the nomadic tribes of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In that time, he crossed deserts and negotiated settlements, interacted with the tribes and earned their trust. He even forayed into the Tirah Valley, where only members of the Afridi tribe are allowed. Having served in Baluchistan, Khyber, Malakand and Dera Ismail Khan, aside from the Frontier itself, he wrote a whimsical book about the ways of the tribes in the 1970s. For the next 40 years, it had an audience of two—the author and his wife Helga Ahmad. A chance opportunity, a publishing deal and several awards later, The Wandering Falcon and its author have taken the literary world by storm. In this interview, Jamil Ahmad speaks of the baby he had to look after, the Fairy Godmothers who tended its story, and the honour, dignity, charm, warmth and wit of the people he loved living among.

Reading your book, one feels a sense of respect for tribal governance, a sense that the national government may have interfered too much in this region. Is that how you saw it?

Well, I think I look at it differently. I think governments of all kinds have been harassing the tribes for more than 2,000 years. If you look at the whole span of history, all the important history, you’ll see that governments have seen tribes as an adversary at all times, whether it was Caesar’s campaigns at Gaul, whether it was British India where the Criminal Tribes Directment was made, all over the world—in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, in the Americas. And the traditional ways in which the tribes lived have been phased away.

Now, with the region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border becoming so sensitive for various reasons, can tribes live like they did?

Well, I’m feeling very unhappy because the tribal structure in this part of the world has been totally decimated. And, you know, the traditional tribal power centres, the decision-makers, the systems, are virtually gone. They’ve been harassed to the point of almost being exterminated.

What do you think it was that made those times different, that made it possible for them to sustain themselves? And do you think that can be redeemed?

I don’t know, because I think the repression has been massive, so I don’t know whether it can be redeemed now, at this stage. I wish it were possible, but let’s see.

You must have seen the transition from these men of honour to the warlords. Where do you think the system failed?

I think the issue of warlords is a recent creation, so I’m not completely aware of the scene on the ground now, but back when I was there, there were no warlords. There were tribal chiefs, there were what we used to call the greybeards—you know, the old men who used to jointly sit down and take a decision. So, there were no warlords as such.

What I’m saying is that when we compare our systems vs. feudal systems, the theme of country vs. society, empires, nation-states, it appears this type of collectivity is less tyrannical, more just, and has very simple rules of right and wrong, compared to other society.

In the book, you’re never judgmental, not when there’s sale of women or ill treatment of people because they’re considered low-born. Were you trying to portray the lives of the tribes as is, or does being there make you see these things as acceptable, as a part of life?

Well, what I think is in this time, you see, people sometimes get the impression that I’m talking about certain elements of feudality that need conquering. What I’m saying is that when we compare our systems vs. feudal systems, the theme of country vs. society, empires, nation-states, it appears this type of collectivity is less tyrannical, more just, and has very simple rules of right and wrong, compared to other society. In fact, if you think about it, the amount of brutality committed in the cities and what we know as civilised society is far more than has ever been committed in tribal areas.

In The Wandering Falcon, there’s a story of a tribe that goes to the city thinking they’re negotiating a settlement over the killing of some officials. But they’re sentenced to death without being heard out. You must have witnessed this clash of their traditions versus the laws of the land first-hand.

Yes, they thought they were coming for discussions and for talks, which is what the tribesmen do. When there is a dispute, they talk among themselves. And they settle the dispute. And while the talks last, there is a truce called out. So, they went expecting that kind of thing. Instead, they were taken to court and sentenced to death. Well, I was there serving in those areas at times when we understood that tribes were still tribes, with their particular customs, and I think there was no friction as such. And if a sort of adversarial relationship developed in course of time, the tribes were not to blame.

In one of the stories, a man’s wife speaks up before the leader of the entire tribe. You know, she makes a rather ribald joke when she notices one of the soldiers eyeing her. That seems to go entirely against the notion that women were subjugated. Were women treated as equals by men in these parts?

That varied from tribe to tribe. In some tribes, like this particular one where the story is set, the women were boisterous, they were not subdued, they had their own way of talking, and they never saw themselves as subordinate to the menfolk. I’ve seen women carrying rifles on their shoulders, and just walking about freely. In some tribes, the women were more subdued.

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You wrote the book about forty years ago. Have you never revised it in all that time?

No, I haven’t. See, the thing is, I wrote it forty years ago, and then I just almost forgot about it. But my wife retained the manuscript. It was handwritten, and she typed it out on her German typewriter, and safeguarded it. It has been lying there for forty years. If it wasn’t for her, I think it would have been consumed by white ants. But she took custody of the manuscript.

You did try getting it published several times. What were the reasons people gave you for not accepting the manuscript?

I took it to London to try and get it published, and got some suggestions. One was that the language is too archaic, and then I said, ‘Sorry, but tribes do talk this way. They don’t talk in modern idiom.’ Then, another publisher said, ‘If you change this to non-fiction, we can publish it.’ But I said, ‘Sorry, I want to keep it as it is, and it came to me as a work of fiction.’ The third publisher said the character should be stronger. I said, ‘No, I think the common character of the human being is just this.’ Because no one can be a dominant figure 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes, it emerges, and sometimes it submerges. To me, that’s a normal character. But then, after ’73, ’74, I sort of decided there’s no point trying to publish this book.

But your brother made you try again.

Well, yes, that’s right. The manuscript had been lying untouched for more than thirty years. But about four years ago, my brother Javed Masud wanted me to send it in to a short story competition organised by a young lady, Faiza Sultan Khan. And she sent it to Meru Gokhale at Penguin, who became the book’s Fairy Godmother. (Laughs)

When you saw the first published copy on the shelf, with your name on it, how did you feel?

Very different. (Laughs) It was indeed a surprise, and I think what I liked about the whole thing was that my children and my grandchildren and the whole family—my brother, my sisters—were so thrilled. What made me so happy was the joy with which they reacted to the publication of the book. That’s something that really moved me.

I believe you wrote some poems when you were there, and showed them to your wife, after which she suggested you write stories. Do you still have the poems?

(Laughs) Well, what happened was that I had some time on my hands, and I experimented with writing poetry. And so I showed them to my wife, and she said ‘This is rubbish. Why don’t you write about the tribal areas?’ And then I, well, followed her advice! (Laughs)

So, I take it you won’t have them published?

No! I mean, probably, they were rubbish. They were all haiku, and... see, I thought it was very easy to write poetry, but turns out she was right and I was wrong. (Laughs)

Even when you deal with something serious, like confrontations between tribes and soldiers over cross-border migration, you bring in elements of hilarity, whether it’s subverting the code of honour, or telling witty stories to win an argument.

The tribes were amazing. And I’ve a lot of memories of my good times with them—the sights, the sounds, the places, the conversations—and they were amazing people. I have not put all of them in this book, but there were many of them.

Is there any particular encounter that you recall of your interaction with these tribes that you haven’t put in the book?

Many, many encounters, personal encounters. I’ve been all over that area, and so there were many encounters, and they were memorable ones. I think there’s one incident which I have quoted in my earlier interviews. There was an accident in Baluchistan, where the first story is set. And the militia truck hit somebody, and that man died. And the government decided that the family must be paid a compensation of about 1200 rupees, which was then about 150 pounds, an enormous amount. And then word was sent to that area, and a boy of about fifteen-sixteen appeared. It turned out he was the eldest son of the man who had died. And I took out the money from my drawer to compensate this boy. He was dressed in rags. But he said, ‘What is this for?’ I said, ‘Your father died, and this is compensation for that.’ The boy was stunned. He said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t make a profit from my father’s death,’ and walked away. That is an honourable man. In our society, people insure their loved ones, and make money out of their deaths. And here was a boy who had probably not even seen a five rupee note in all his life, and was saying, ‘I will not make a profit out of my father’s death.’

In one story, you speak of how men would put up banners saying ‘Spy in the service of the government’ and how being an informer was quite acceptable. Have you actually seen banners like this?

Yes, that was quite acceptable in that particular region, but it varies. You see, each of these tribes has its own taboos, its own mores. It varies enormously from tribe to tribe.

Are the stories fictional, or are they based on events that actually happened?

No, I think the only changes I have made to what actually happened is that I’ve changed the names at times, I’ve transposed one scene from one place to another, but most of it, almost all of it, I think, is based on personal observations. It’s not fabricated.

You have some lovely sayings in the book. One is about wailing in a man being like honey in a pot—it attracts trouble. There’s another about conscience being like a poor relation in that it must stay cheerful at all times for fear of being thrown out. Are these also drawn from actual tribal sayings?

In these two cases, the words are mine. The expression is mine. But I’ve heard these thoughts being expressed. Like, the conversation about bitter onions which appears elsewhere in the book is something which is absolutely correct. But the other two are translations of their thoughts, or their bits of conversation, into my own language.

I think the quality I admire most in them is, as a collectivity, if you compare them with other forms of collectivity, including the human pair, I think they were as close to the Ideal as one could imagine, in comparative terms. They were not perfect, but they were very close to being perfect.

You speak often about the code of honour of these people, their courage, their doggedness, and their trust—what do you most admire in them?

I think the quality I admire most in them is, as a collectivity, if you compare them with other forms of collectivity, including the human pair, I think they were as close to the Ideal as one could imagine, in comparative terms. They were not perfect, but they were very close to being perfect.

You chose to begin your government service in this region. What made you want to go there?

Yes, that’s right, I did choose this place. What made me want to go there, I don’t know – I think someone may have to analyse! But maybe it’s the kind of fascination for the tribes, right from my schooldays, that prompted it.  And I think I was there for a total of about almost a quarter of a century. I started in 1956, and stayed for about a quarter of a century.

Did you miss it when you first moved back to the city?

Well, I didn’t like leaving the place, but circumstances sort of forced me, you know. I left the government service in 1982, but I maintained some kind of a link with them, but then finally I ended up leading a retired life, a quiet kind of life. So I lost touch. But that’s how life is.

Do you think you could have got to know the ways of these people well enough to write this book if you’d had a shorter stint there?

I don’t think so. Because I was very happy that I served the tribes from one end, from almost the Arabian Sea, right to the other end. So, I got to know them very well.

There’s a boom in émigré writing about the subcontinent as a whole, and a lot about Pakistan and Afghanistan specifically, often by writers who left as children. Do you think one can get a sense of such complex countries without living there?

What do you think? (Laughs)

I don’t think it’s possible to understand the complexities. You can research something, but living there is a bit different, isn’t it?

I think I agree with you. (Laughs) I can’t be judgmental of it. I think there are people who can know that area, who are close enough, who are observant enough, who are sensitive enough, to be able to understand that society. If one can do that, one may be able to write quite knowledgeably about it.

The stories seem to indicate the tribes sort of accommodated organised religion into their code, rather than follow it absolutely. In one story, a tribesman speaks of how Adam was a Baluch, and created a sardar for himself and called him Allah—a notion that may be considered blasphemous now. Could you describe how they reconciled religion with tribal traditions?

Well, that’s a little complex, you see. I mean, of course they have the religion, but vis-à-vis their lives, that didn’t clash with the tribal code. The tribal code is dominant—used to be dominant. And they sort of felt that it doesn’t have any clash with their religious values. The tribal code used to be stronger in those days.

And how does that affect their relationship with the Taliban and with the government now?

I’m afraid I’m out of touch. I lead a retired life. I listen to the radio, I read a bit, I sleep a lot, I walk a little. (Laughs) So I have no special knowledge of the political scenario, other than what I read in the newspapers.

You mention that no editor or journalist would speak for the Baluchis and others of their own country and risk imprisonment, no politician would risk punishment or bureaucrat dismissal...that they would mollify their consciences by speaking about injustices elsewhere. Does it seem strange to you that so little has changed in 40 years, that those threats still exist?

I can’t talk about the current situation, but when I wrote that, I did feel that they were less vocal about their own areas than about what was happening in the rest of the world—in South Africa or Palestine, for example. So I felt that needed to be said.

All these tribes come across as hardened, to life, to what must be. Is it faith— by which I mean their tribal law—that makes them so harsh, or is it the conditions of the land they live in, the unpredictability of their lives?

I don’t think I would call them harsh. They are, of course, hard—the land makes them hard, their fight for survival makes them hard. But they also have enormous tenderness, and love, and civilised behaviour. That is there too. So, it’s not all brutality and harshness, no, no.

They are, of course, hard—the land makes them hard, their fight for survival makes them hard. But they also have enormous tenderness, and love, and civilised behaviour. That is there too. So, it’s not all brutality and harshness, no, no.

While writing of people about whom and whose customs so little is generally known, you must have had a tough time deciding what to explain of their ways and what to leave out.

I thought there should be something left to the reader, you see. For example, in the first story, the two small towers that the girl made, assume significance because they symbolise the towers which would become their tombs if she and the man she ran away with were found out. When I came across towers like these in my journeys across the desert, once in a while, I would know what they signified because that was the tradition in those areas. And I thought the reader would be able to understand what they stood for too.

There was one thing in the book that you don’t quite explain. A group of Baluchis are meeting in the desert and discussing whether they should attend a meeting with government officials, and they build these little structures in the sand. What does that stand for?

Ah. You see, when you went to a meeting place, even in the Pashtun areas, after the delegation had left, to settle a dispute, you could find from the signs on the ground, whether the meeting has been successful or a failure. Because, each man, where he sat on the ground, would build these structures. If the meeting were a success, these small structures would remain standing. If the meeting were a failure, they would wipe out that small structure. So, you could judge by looking at the ground whether the meeting had been successful at resolving the dispute.

There are several languages involved here—Pashto, Urdu and tribal dialects. In some cases, you explain, and sometimes you literally translate into English, and sometimes, you just leave the reader curious. Was your choice of whether to translate based on the advice of the editors?

The editors did a wonderful job. My original manuscript was probably more rambling. They typed it up, they cut out bits and pieces, but they didn’t change the language at all. So, the choice of what to translate, and what to leave in the original, and what to explain, was entirely how it came to me. Some things just felt right.

Tor Baz is hardly a pivotal character, in the sense that what he does rarely changes the course of the story—why did you feel the need for him as a link?

Well, as I told you, I think this is what a man is, basically. He doesn’t remain a dominant character either in life or in stories—only in comic books and mythology, he is a permanent sort of figure of force. Otherwise, once in a while he surfaces, and he’s mostly an observer.

A lot of authors develop a special relationship with their central characters. In the case of Tor Baz, you bring him into the story as a baby, and you see him grow up, and you leave him as a sort of wheeler-dealer. How would you describe your feelings for him?

You see, when the thought came to me to find a character to connect all these areas, I suddenly sort of realised I had already created a character—the baby. And I had to look after him.  (Laughs) So, I had to pamper him until he grew up, and could take care of himself. It was a responsibility, and subconsciously, I’d decided that I had to look after that baby.

The Wandering Falcon is, in some ways, a chronicle of events that showcased the way the tribes live. But I’m sure there are events and characters that come from your imagination. Do you think you get given enough credit for this?

I think so, but sometimes, a strange thing can happen. You see, there’s this one character I had created—a little boy at an inn, who’s a minor character in the last story. I had not seen this character, I made him up. But some personal letters which have come after the book was published have confirmed that some people saw him. It’s a scene which I fantasised, and then it turns out that people have actually seen this character and even this scene. Some of these things that I’ve written about are fairly common occurrences in the area, so that’s what has happened.

There’s a lyrical quality to your prose which shows your love for the language, your love for stories. How is it you haven’t written a second book? Or are there unpublished works hidden away somewhere?

(Laughs) Well, I think a good store of my writing has been committed to the tedious files and pompous notes, which made up my full-time job. So this book was written when I had to choose between playing Scrabble and scribbling something down!

Did you always know this book had it in it to do so well?

No, I didn’t expect it all. This has been a surprise.

Can we expect a second book from you, now that you do have the time?

(Laughs) I don’t think so. I do have the time, but I don’t have the energy now to think of sitting down to another book!