(Published in the Business Standard, July 14, 2014)
The work of a good political agent in the days of the British Raj could be splendidly varied. In Flashman and the Great Game, George Macdonald Fraser has a highly coloured description of the “political’s” job:
“After a couple of days, when I’d got the old Urdu baat rolling familiarly off my palate again, I even browned up and put on a puggaree and coat and pyjamys, and loafed about the Bund bazaar, letting on I was a Mekran coast trader, and listening to the clack. I came out rotten with fleas, stinking of nautch-oil and cheap perfume and cooking ghee, with my ears full of beggars’ whines and hawkers’ jabbering and the clang of the booths… It helped to get India back under my hide again, and that’s important, if you intend to do anything as a political.”
Jamil Ahmad died this week, at the age of 81, leaving a lifetime of warm memories and one minor classic, The Wandering Falcon, behind him. The most interesting part of his career had begun in Swat, where he was a political officer in 1971, though unlike Fraser’s Flashy, Ahmad did not feel the need for costumes and theatrical make-up in order to get his job done. Instead, he travelled across Balochistan, until he could have recited the family trees of the frontier tribes in his sleep.
The new Commissioner of Swat knew the area well: he had spent time as a political officer in Waziristan, Baluchistan, Malakand and the Frontier. But something changed in ’71; he began to set down his encounters with the tribes on the typewriter he shared with his wife, Helga. When we spoke some years ago, they laughed at the thought of how his writing began—he had aspired to poetry, but Helga, an exacting critic, said that he was wasting his time. He began writing sketches instead, and setting down incidents as they were told to him. They would make up the nine loosely connected chapters/ short stories that became The Wandering Falcon decades later, starting with the life of the orphaned boy, Tor Baz, whose name gives the book its title, continuing through the prostitute and slave markets of Mian Mandi, with Ahmad’s careful eye not shying aware from the death of camels, or the massacre of tribes.
Faiza Sultan Khan discovered Jamil Ahmad when the retired government official sent in a short story he’d pulled out from an old trunk to her literary magazine. She introduced him to editors and when she speaks of Ahmad today, it’s of the integrity and the gentleness of the man as much as of his talent.
What many readers loved about The Wandering Falcon was something they sensed in the way these stories were told, the lives of the frontier tribes revealed with compassion and openness, not dug out as anthropological curiosities: Jamil Ahmad’s integrity as a human being was inseparable from his skills as a writer.
As Faiza says, “He wrote about the tribes with such humanity, not seeking to explain them to us, but trying to make us see that we were just like them.” The empathy was mutual. The Powindahs and the Baloches narrowed the distance between the Commissioner-saheb and themselves. Faiza tells the story of how Ahmed had to tactfully decline the offer from his friends to provide a sizeable escort to his daughter on her first date—a well-meant offer, though one can only imagine what his daughter would have felt if he’d sent her off with the escorts in tow!
When we met, he was undeterred by illness, happy to talk about Delhi, where he had grown up and attended St Columba’s school. He was as wide-eyed as a child on the subject of the changes that had overtaken Delhi, though his gravitas returned when he spoke of the far sadder changes that had swamped his friends in Balochistan.
He wrote with gentle honesty and unflinching clarity. What he had chronicled in The Wandering Falcon, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, was the almost unbearable sadness of a proud culture with its own integrity, despite many flaws, coming up against the blank, unyielding wall of a civilisation could not understand, let alone share, the way the frontierspeople saw the world.
In The Dead Camel, Ahmad was blunt: it was the tribes themselves, and the way they lived, that went against the harsh grain of this thing called civilisation. The Pawindahs, the “foot people”, move freely across from hills to the plains in order to find grazing for their flocks. “This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last for ever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself. Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.”
One way of life had to die. Many historians chronicled that death, but it took a writer like Ahmad to tell the full story of the General and the last of the travels of the Kharot tribes.
As the General reminded us, life is full of unpalatable things: it is best to develop a taste for raw onions, and to find a way of loving the world, even as the old ways collapse around you. There may be flashier, more spectacular writers than Jamil Ahmad, but few had his integrity, his wisdom and his compassion. May his tribe increase.