There is this world among the many worlds of Delhi- the world of book events- you show up for a reading followed by a conversation between the author and some other prominent member of the fraternity. Afterwards you drink wine and exchange news with everyone you know there. And you know everyone there. The scale of some of these events would make you think books actually sell. But the greater riddle for those of us who show up is this- Why do we show up? To see friends, to socialise and occasionally to celebrate books, perhaps- their very existence irrespective of quality; to register our support for words and stories bound by charming jackets; to toast these objects of desire in a simulated bubble where they shine on undeterred. Debatable as their meaning might be, for most part these events are mere rituals. On the 21st of December, however, for a brief moment I was made to see that they could be more than that.
And the man who made that apparent was not even physically present in the room.
The Shakti Bhatt first book award went to The Wandering Falcon by Pakistani novelist Jamil Ahmad this year. The shortlist was arguably more competitive than it has ever been but Ahmad’s win made for a great story. After all it is not everyday that a 79 year old wins a coveted first book prize. Posted in Baluchistan in the 1950’s, Ahmad spent more than two decades in the tough terrain as a political agent. In the 1970’s he began making notes on what he saw of the tribes in the region- their way of life and the conflicts of their customs with the modern world. The notes soon took the shape of a collection of interconnected short stories but it was not until three decades later that they were published. In 2008 Ahmad’s brother suggested he send his manuscript to a short story competition in Pakistan. The organisers of the competition forwarded it to a leading publishing house in India and from there on it effortlessly found its way to international acclaim. The book is memorable and there is little that I have to add to the great reviews it has already accrued. What moves me about this story, however, is the man behind the book.
There is a strong case to be made for knowing authors only through their work, especially when you happen to like the work in question, for more often than not you are likely to be disappointed otherwise. Ahmad allayed this apprehension the minute he was visible on a projected screen over Skype. Poised and dignified, he spoke with exemplary humility and absolutely no pretensions. His wife came up a couple of times in good humour but other than that the conversation centered on the tribesmen he had written about. In a private conversation with the moderator, Nilanjana Roy, earlier he had said that he did not care so much for literary success as it is regularly defined but he does wish he could take the book back to the people he has written about and see what they make of it.
Despite serving in the most hostile of places, Ahmad never lobbied for a transfer out of the tribal areas of the north-west frontier province. He was happy to live among the tribes. He built strong bonds with them, he worried for them, he was angry for what was being done to them, and (as Jeet Thayil, writer and one of the principal organisers of the evening shared with the audience), he defied Zia-ul-Haq’s orders where he felt that was necessary to protect them. As a result of this defiance he was forced to resign from his job.
Telling a story you believe in, not for a career or an audience, but simply because you love what you are writing about, is what one might call the purest act of writing. And this was no ordinary love either. It was capable of accommodating all that was not fair and simple about his characters- it was capable of accepting them and showing them for what they are without giving in to the urge to defend them.
Everything you like or dislike about the book comes from Ahmad himself. It is an old-fashioned narrative about the loss of olden times. Ahmad is of a piece with lost time too- a time when English writing in south Asia wasn’t a fashionable enterprise. If his central character, torbaaz recedes into the background of the book for a large part it is because Ahmad believes that “a human being is like a twig carried by a strong current. It is only for brief moments and infrequently that he bobs to the surface but is then swiftly swept into the depth of the stream of life”.
If his book honours the past that was destroyed in the forging of nation states, so does he. As an 8 year old boy in 1941 Ahmad studied at St Columba’s in Delhi, the capital city of undivided India. He donated his prize money to this school founded by the congregation of Irish Christian Brothers that he left in 1944. Br. Lobo, the current principal and alumnus of the school was at the event to accept the cheque and thank the writer.
Some of the grimmest news from Pakistan comes from the region he writes about, but rarely does anyone talk about the people who inhabit its reality- people who cannot be defined by borders, religion or ideology. Ahmad refused to publish his account as non-fiction in order to try and tell the truth that lies beyond the arguments of fact. He humanizes a political conflict because he is interested in people. On hearing about having won the prize Ahmad asked to read a story written by Shakti Bhatt- an editor and writer who died at the age of 27 and whose name the award is instituted in. No other recipient of the award has done this in the past.
Rarely does grace in life and literature add up like this. Of course there could be more to the equation than I could see in one evening. But like Ahmad said while reminiscing about his days in Delhi, he was happy to know the city only as it existed in his memory even though he was aware that “the landmarks must have all changed. There must be houses on both sides of the ridge and the water of the Jamuna must be polluted.” I am grateful for an evening when I saw a gentleman who embodies the virtues of his writing; a writer who has written his one true book. Ahmad exudes the compassion that illuminates his work and the complexities of a public life have not taken away from that. Witnessing this was recalling Van Gogh’s naïve dream-“In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug and we shall want to live more musically.”
Originally appears in Kafila.