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‘There's a time for everything'

Anita Joshua
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Winning the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize has not made Jamil Ahmad more willing-to-talk than how he chooses to be.Excerpts from an interview with the 80-year-old author who likes to maintain a low profile. Anita Joshua

Amonth ago, Jamil Ahmad became the second Pakistani author to win the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for The Wandering Falcon after Mohammed Hanif walked away with the honours in 2008 with his The Case of Exploding Mangoes .

For Ahmad — who is pushing 80 — the award is just one in a series of surprises which have been coming his way since The Wandering Falcon was snapped up by a publisher over three decades after it was written. A retired civil servant, he penned the loosely-connected collection of short stories to fight the dreariness of working in the far-flung tribal areas of Pakistan in the early 1970s; way before the belt along the Afghanistan border became the headline-grabber that it has been post 9/11.

But for his younger brother's initiative of entering the manuscript for a literary award — albeit a tad late in 2010 — The Wandering Falcon may still have been lying in a cupboard of the former Balochistan chief secretary's Islamabad home. Thus salvaged, the manuscript — which began as diary jottings which were then typed out by his German wife Helga — was picked up by Penguin India and edited. There has been no looking back since with the literary world taking note and toasting the arrival of arguably one of the oldest authors.

How does it feel to have beaten younger writers to the Shakti Bhatt Prize for First Book?

The Wandering Falcon has offered me one surprise after another during the past one-and-a-half years. When it garnered the Shakti Bhatt Prize, my reaction was “what a pleasant surprise?” The feeling of beating other writers never crossed my mind.

You say The Wandering Falcon has brought you several surprises over the past year-and-a-half. Could you please dwell on some of these surprises?

The first surprise was when it caught the interest of Ms. Faiza Sultan Khan in Karachi. She carried it to London and showed it to Meru Gokhale of Penguin India, who took a liking to it. What followed was the decision of Penguin India to publish it.

You must be the senior-most writer in age to have won this award for maiden literary ventures. What, in your assessment, gave your book that edge?

I really don't know. It is possible that the flavour of life and description of certain societies as they existed half-a-century ago aroused interest and curiosity of the current generation.

Do you think the attention that the war on terror has brought to Pakistan, particularly the tribal belt, has had some bearing on the success of your book?

Perhaps.

Now that your book has been received so well, do you regret not having published it earlier?

No, I have no regrets. There is a time and chance for everything. Perhaps the right time for the book was not four decades ago.

Since you have yourself mentioned in earlier interviews that the manuscript had been rejected in the past, what do you attribute the success of your book to?

It is possible that the happenings in the past three decades, the wars and genocides in Africa, the Balkans, in Asia, in Central America and the simmering tensions have brought about a realisation that fostering and understanding the tribal system could lead to greater stability and less disequilibrium and that tensions that erupt could be handled, more competently, if tribal sensitivities are taken into account. The Wandering Falcon is a work of fiction but it does try to offer images of tribal life which are other than that of “uncivilized savages”.

Most readers and reviewers of your book can't seem to figure out if it is a novel or a collection of short stories. How would you describe the book?

I do not reject the description of connected short stories. Indeed, I have always believed (and more so at my age) that human lives conform more closely to the connected short-story mode rather than the orderly and uninterrupted flow of a novel.

What was it that drew you to tribal culture to such an extent that you opted to work in the frontier areas?

I cannot say for sure but it is possible that the choice of reading suggested to me by my teachers and elders may have acted as a catalyst in developing an interest in the tribes.

And, is this book a conscious effort to make people understand the dynamics of tribal culture or is that just a chance outcome of your writing?

I am, and have always been a great admirer of the tribal system and believe that it is the least tyrannical and the least inequitable of all forms of human collectivity. I also believe that it suffered great harassment from other rival lower systems, nation states, feudalism, empires, consumer capitalist societies, socialist societies.

You say the tribal system is probably the least tyrannical. But the general impression is that it is violent, particularly along the Durand Line. How would you reconcile these extreme views? And, what about the rights of women or is that a fallout of the Talibanisation of the area.

The scenes in the book precede the Afghan war and the interventions of major powers in the region, which has led to “unintended consequences” of violence and fracture of the old tribal system.

Speaking of Talibanisation, how and how much has it changed the areas you once engaged with as an administrator?

I am out of touch with the current system. It would not be right on my part to offer any comments based on second-hand reports and observations.

Has the success of the book encouraged you to write another book? If yes, then when and what are you working on?

At this point I cannot answer Yes or No. I may take a decision in a month or two.

Would you consider a Pashto translation of this book for, after all, yours is a rare sympathetic Punjabi voice on the tribal areas.

The Wylie Agency in London is handling translation rights to the book. It is they who will deal with any offer as they have done with other translation rights so far.


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