Everyone has heard of the ruggedness of the “Northwest Frontier Province”, the “forbidden area” where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran meet, of the merciless codes of honour that govern the lives of the Pushtuns and the Baluchis, of the primitive pride of the tribes that must battle with nature – and with one another – merely to survive.
But exactly how rugged? How merciless? A new book, The Wandering Falcon, provides a rather frightening introduction to what constitutes everyday life in a part of the world that is virtually beyond the writ of governments. Everyday life here is also everyday death. Here the spirit of revenge is carried from generation to generation, tribal loyalties are unbending, and women pay heavily for any sign of self-assertion.
Human nature raises its head occasionally. A woman of the Siahpad tribe, married to an impotent man, runs away with a servant. The two are deeply in love and manage to hide in a military post. The woman's husband tracks her down after a five-year hunt. Knowing that they have no escape, the lover does what is expected of him: shoot his beloved dead. He then surrenders – to be stoned to death and the head crushed beyond recognition. That, it was proudly proclaimed, was how “the Siahpads avenge insults”.
A bunch of such stories strung loosely together make up this brief novel (180 pages). But they get under the reader's skin because of the stamp of authenticity they carry. Author Jamil Ahmad was born in Jalandhar but spent his life in the Civil Service of Pakistan, mostly in the Frontier Province and Baluchistan in senior positions. He knew the people and their passions at first hand.
There is a pervading air of menace when he describes the Wazirs and the Mahsuds, “the two predatory tribes of Waziristan”. Every few months, he says, “their hate and tensions explode into violence and some men die...If nature provides them food for only ten days in a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat and comfortable lives in the plains”.
That explains why the Wazirs and the Mahsuds look upon the jobs of hired assassin, thief, kidnapper and informer as honourable professions. We are given graphic accounts of how an informer does his job, how the deputy commissioner pays the informer, how the kidnappers take away their victims and how the authorities pay the ransom and settle the matter. It's all routine.
Our sense of unease grows when we realise that the men who live by their exalted honour code are illiterate and ignorant of the world and its ways. They do not comprehend things like national borders. They have to migrate from the hills to the plains in winter and back to the hills in spring. If someone now tells them that the hills are in Afghanistan and the plains in Pakistan and that you need permission to go from one place to the other, they just don't get it. The result is that migrating groups are sometimes butchered along with their animals.
Jamil Ahmad, a first-time author, narrates all these with detachment, which adds to the horror of the events he describes. There is no judgmental approach even when he tells us about the village of Mian Mandi, the market place where women are on sale on Thursdays.
A judgmental touch is allowed only when he relates the story of how a group of rebel Baluchis were executed. “There was complete and total silence”, says the author, “about the Baluchis, 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 Philiphine – not to their own people”.
Very true. Of all journalists.