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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

An old voice sings of the replacing of worlds

t isn't often that someone has a debut novel published at the age of seventy-eight, and the sheen surrounding Jamil Ahmad's achievement is barely dimmed when you learn that he wrote the first draft of The Wandering Falcon in the 1970s and returned to it recently at the prompting of his family. We should be glad that he did. If it's true that every author has one book in him that he alone can – and should – write, here is a clear case. Ahmad worked for the Civil Service in Pakistan and served as chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation, which gave him an insider's view of the struggles of itinerant people living near the borders of nation-states. More importantly, he has the good writer's empathy and talent for observation.

Most outsiders think of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran mainly in terms of the political conflicts that they have recently been at the centre of – events that hinge on their identities as nations with manmade borders and modern systems of governance. But for the tribes who lived in and around these regions for centuries, codes of honour and discipline had nothing to do with concepts such as statehood and citizenship. In the past few decades, the lives of these people have seen wholesale changes, and The Wandering Falcon is about the passing of an old world, its gradual replacement by a world of documents and stamps (not to mention greed and betrayal), and the many dreams that have been crushed along the way.

This isn't to say that Ahmad excessively romanticises the ways of tribal people, who can be brutal in dealing with those who break their internal laws. In fact, the book's haunting first chapter is about forbidden lovers who flee their tribe and seek shelter at a lonesome military outpost, where they live with their little son for a few years. Ahmad's description of the hostile land, the brief period of grace available to the family – and the inevitability of their eventual fate – is both restrained and vivid, and the chapters that follow tell other compelling stories: about a group of people forbidden from crossing a border with their thirsty herds; a first-person account by a man returning from Germany to his tribal homeland of Tirah; the plight of a Gujjar girl married off to a cold-hearted bear-trainer. These tenuously linked tales cover the shift from a truly communal existence – where a family could easily pick out its own animals from a large joint herd – to personal circumstances so dire that people might lose all contact with children and siblings for decades. This book is remarkable for the intimacy with which it chronicles lives that are all but invisible to most urban, English-language readers.

Infusing new magic into much-loved talesImage 2nd

'm a little skeptical about the frequent publication of books, especially children's books, that retell popular old stories from mythology or folklore. Too many of these retellings fall into one of two extremes: they are either bland and unimaginative (hence superfluous) or they are so self-consciously modern and politically correct that they retain little of the original's flavour. Besides, is it really possible to bring a fresh perspective to a tale as widely known and well-loved as "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" or "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp"?

But The Storyteller: Tales from the Arabian Nights is a reminder that Anushka Ravishankar is one of the finest children's writers in the country today. Her treatment of the Arabian Nights' framing story (the stubborn, wife-beheading king Schariar is regaled every night by his clever wife, the adept storyteller Scherazade) is engaging and witty, and so are the many stories within this external narrative. You might remember that Ali Baba's brother Kasim finds himself trapped in the cave because he doesn't remember the magic words ("Open simsim") to open it; but you probably won't know that when the robbers found him, he was muttering "open pompom?" and "open dimsum?" to himself!

 
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