Book Talk: Tribal areas come alive in 80-year-old's debut

NEW DELHI, Sept 29 Thu Sep 29, 2011 5:00am EDT

NEW DELHI, Sept 29 (Reuters) - It took more than three decades for Pakistan's Jamil Ahmad to get published. The first draft of his musings on life in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan was written in the 1970s -- and then forgotten.

In "The Wandering Falcon", published earlier this year in India and due out in the United States next month, Ahmad gives readers a rare insight into a highly traditional, honour-bound culture in the region long before the Taliban arrived, relying on what he observed as a member of Pakistan's civil service serving in Balochistan and other provinces.

Tor Baz is the central character of Ahmad's book and he forms a tenuous link between the nomadic tribes, their code of honour and the harsh, desolate landscape that surrounds them.

Ahmad, 80, who is now retired and lives in Islamabad, told Reuters in an email interview that the two decades he spent among the tribes were perhaps the most fulfilling of his career.

Q: It is rare to see an author make his debut in his 80s. Tell us more about how this book came about?

A: "How the book came to be written is in some ways a story by itself. In 1970, I was posted to Swat, which turned out to be a light charge. I decided to while away my spare time by writing. My wife suggested that instead of diverting myself by writing bad poetry, I should focus on writing about the tribal areas, where we had spent more than a decade of our lives. I agreed.

"She faithfully typed the pieces that I wrote on an old manual typewriter. I would occasionally tinker with the rough draft as some thoughts struck me. However, by and large, the document hibernated for about thirty years."

Q: How much of "The Wandering Falcon" is inspired by real life?

A: "Almost the entire book draws inspiration from real life experience. Some characters have been transported from one place to another. Some incidents have been transported in time but the images, the scenes, the faces, the fragments of conversations that I registered form the bedrock of this book."

Q: Except for the first part of the book, the central character Tor Baz makes fleeting appearances. Was this planned?

A: "This point has been made in one form or another by many friends over the years. I treat Tor Baz as a real person. My way of thinking, a twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week hero figure is the stuff of myths and comic books. In real life, the best of human beings has only brief moments of bobbing on the crest of life. The book is created around Tor Baz. He is absent in two of the chapters, but these two chapters lead to the denouement."

Q: How is life in the border areas different today from the tribal life portrayed in the book?

A: "The two decades I spent with the tribes were perhaps the most fulfilling part of my service memory. Presently, I am living a retired life and am no longer in direct touch with the tribal areas. However, from what I hear and read, the tribal fabric and their traditional way of life has undergone radical changes. Their leadership stands decimated and their age-old code of life has suffered erosion."

Q: What is the time-period spanned in the book?

A: "(It) stretches from the First World War up to the late 1970s. The early period, that is 1900-1956, is based on some old documented records and personal diaries of political officers of that period. My own association with tribal areas started in 1957."

Q: What was your writing schedule?

A: "I had no set writing schedule. I wrote if and when I had some time to spare after working hours and when I was in the right mood."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "It would be presumptuous on my part to consider myself a 'writer' merely because I have written one book." (Reporting by Tony Tharakan; editing by Henry Foy and Elaine Lies)