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The Wandering Falcon

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The Wandering Falcon

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page


  One - THE SINS of the MOTHER

  Two - A POINT of HONOR





  Seven - A POUND of OPIUM





  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA ● Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) ● Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England ● Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) ● Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) ● Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India ● Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) ● Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Copyright © 2011 by Jamil Ahmad

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Ahmad, Jamil.

  The wandering falcon / Jamil Ahmad.—1st American ed.

  p. cm.

  ISBN : 978-1-101-54795-3

  1. Nomads—Fiction. 2. Pakistan—Fiction. 3. Afghanistan—Fiction. I. Title.

  PR9540 9.A44W


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

  To my wonderful family,

  especially my wife,

  Helga Ahmad



  In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten, and broken hills where the borders of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.

  Lonely, as all such posts are, this one is particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around, and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against one another, and no water other than a trickle among some salt-encrusted boulders, which also dries out occasionally, manifesting a degree of hostility.

  Nature has not remained content merely at this. In this land, she has also created the dreaded bad-e-sad-o-bist-roz, the wind of a hundred and twenty days. This wind rages almost continuously during the four winter months, blowing clouds of alkali-laden dust and sand so thick that men can barely breathe or open their eyes when they happen to get caught in it.

  It was but natural that some men would lose their minds after too long an exposure to such desolation and loneliness. In the course of time, therefore, a practice developed of not letting any soldier stay at this post for two years running, so that none had to face the ravages of the storm for more than one hundred and twenty days.

  It was during one of these quiet spells that the man and woman came across this post hidden in the folds of the hills. The wind had been blowing with savage fury for three days, and had its force not suddenly abated, they would have missed the post altogether, and with it the only source of water for miles around. Indeed, they had steeled themselves to travel on during the approaching night, when the impenetrable curtain of dust and sand seemed to lift and reveal the fort, with its unhappy-looking date trees.

  The soldiers, who had remained huddled behind closed shutters while the wind blew, had come out into the open as soon as the sky cleared. Sick and dispirited after three days and nights in darkened, airless, and fetid-smelling rooms, they were walking about, busy cleaning themselves and drawing in gulps of fresh air. They had to make the most of this brief respite before the wind started again.

  Some of the men noticed the two figures and their camel as they topped the rise and moved slowly and hesitantly toward the fort. Both were staggering as they approached. The woman’s clothes, originally black, as were those of the man, were gray with dust and sand, lines of caked mud standing out sharply where sweat had soaked into the folds. Even the small mirrors lovingly stitched as decorations into the woman’s dress and the man’s cap seemed faded and lackluster.

  The woman was covered from head to foot in garments, but, on drawing closer, her head covering slipped and exposed her face to the watching soldiers. She made an ineffectual gesture to push it up again but appeared too weary to really care and spent all her remaining energy walking step after step toward the group of men.

  When the veil slipped from the woman’s face, most of the soldiers turned their heads away, but those who did not saw that she was hardly more than a child. If her companion’s looks did not, the sight of her red-rimmed swollen eyes, her matted hair, and the unearthly expression on her face told the story clearly.

  The man motioned for the woman to stop, and walked up, by himself, to the subedar commanding the fort. He kept a frenzied grip on the barrel of an old and rusty gun that he carried across his shoulders. He had no time to waste over any triviality.

  “Water,” his hoarse voice said from between cracked and bleeding lips. “Our water is finished, spare us some water.” The subedar pointed wordlessly toward a half-empty bucket from which the soldiers had been drinking. The man lifted the bucket and drew back toward the woman, who was now huddled on the ground.

  He cradled her head in the crook of his arm, wet the end of her shawl in the bucket, and squeezed some drops of water onto her face. Tenderly, and feeling no shame at so many eyes watching him, he wiped her face with the wet cloth as she lay in his arms.

  A young soldier snickered but immediately fell silent as the baleful eyes of his commander and his companions turned on him.

  After the man had cleansed her face, the Baluch cupped his right hand and splashed driblets of water onto her lips. As she sensed water, she started sucking his hand and fingers like a small animal. All of a sudden, she lunged toward the bucket, plunged her head into it, and drank with long gasping sounds until she choked. The man then patiently pushed her away, drank some of the water himself, and carried the bucket up to the camel, which finished whatever was left in a single gulp.

  He brought the empty bucket back to the group of soldiers, set it down, and stood there, silent and unmoving.

  At last the subedar spoke. “We have given you water. Do you wish for anything else?”

  A struggle seemed to be going on within the man, and after a while, very reluctantly, he looked back at the subedar. “Yes, I wish for refuge for the two of us. We are Siahpads from Killa Kur
d, on the run from her people. We have traveled for three days in the storm, and any further travel will surely—”

  “Refuge,” interrupted the subedar brusquely, “I cannot offer. I know your laws well, and neither I nor any man of mine shall come between a man and the laws of his tribe.”

  He repeated, “Refuge we cannot give you.”

  The man bit his lips with the pain that roiled within him. He had diminished himself by seeking refuge. He had compromised his honor by offering to live as a hamsaya, in the shadow of another human being. He turned as if to move but realized that he had no choice but to humble himself further.

  He once again faced the subedar. “I accept the reply,” he said. “I shall not seek refuge of you. Can I have food and shelter for a few days?”

  “That we shall give you.” The subedar hastened to atone for his earlier severity. “Shelter is yours for the asking. For as long as you wish it, for as long as you want to stay.”

  There was a long line of rooms some distance away from the fort. These had been hastily constructed during the First World War, when the strength of this fort had, for a short period of time, increased almost a hundredfold. Sand had started collecting against the walls as soon as the construction was raised. Slowly and steadily, it had risen and, with no one to clear it, had reached roof level after a few years. With the passage of time, most of the walls and roofs caved in under its crumbling pressure. Now, nearly fifty years after the initial construction, mounds of sand occupied these rooms. However, there still remained a few that had not yet collapsed.

  It was in one of these rooms that Gul Bibi and her lover were provided their shelter. For a few days, the couple hardly stirred outside their one small room. The only signs of life were the opening and closing of shutters as the wind died or strengthened, or when food was taken to the hut by the soldiers. Some time after the food had been left at the doorstep, the door would open furtively and the platter would be dragged in, to be pushed outside a while later.

  As days passed, the couple appeared to gather more courage. They would occasionally leave the door open while the man stepped outside to look after his camel. Then one day the woman, too, came out to make a broom out of some thorn shrubs for sweeping the room. After a few days of inactivity, the man, of his own volition, started fetching water for the troops on his camel. He would load up the animal with water skins and visit the springs twice a day. Once he brought to the fort, as a gift, a few baskets, which the girl had woven out of date-palm leaves. “They are to keep your bread in,” he explained to the soldiers. And this is the pattern life followed as time rolled by. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months. Winter gave way to summer. Some soldiers left as their period of duty ended. Others arrived to serve their turn at this outpost.

  With each change—even the most minor—the couple appeared to withdraw into themselves for a while. They hardly ventured outside, and none of the shutters would open. Then, after some time, they would cautiously emerge and slowly adjust to the change. In this state, they reminded the soldiers of small, frightened desert lizards, which rush frantically into their burrows at the slightest sign of danger.

  As each party of soldiers left, some would try to leave behind for the couple anything they could spare out of their meager possessions. A pair of partly worn-out shoes, a mended bedsheet, some aluminum utensils. These they would tie into a parcel and place at the doorstep of the hut before the army truck drove them away, back to the headquarters. Then the soldiers started taking up a collection on every payday and insisted on handing it over to the man for fetching their water. He had refused the money the first time, but as the soldiers appeared to get upset at this rebuff, he forced himself to accept the payment without expressing his gratitude in words. With no discernible expression on his face, he would take the proffered money, stuff it into a pocket of his tattered waistcoat, and walk away. Indeed, there were times when his look of infinite patience, aloofness, and lack of expression made some new arrivals among the soldiers feel uneasy. But as time passed, each new group would accept him, though they failed to breach the barrier he had drawn around himself.

  The real change came with the birth of their child.

  The soldiers had become accustomed to the same collection of drab buildings with their sullen and frustrated dwellers, each begrudging the days wasted at this bleak outpost and desperately longing for a return to more habitable places, to the sights and sounds of crowded bazaars, the smell of water and vegetation, the feel of clean, freshly laundered clothes, and the banter and sally in the shops. But with news of the birth, the air of resentfulness and bitterness, which seemed permanently to envelop this post, appeared to lighten.

  To most of the soldiers, there was sheer wonder in the wizened looks of the infant, with his black locks of hair, as he was carried around by the mother. The baby’s thin, plaintive cries brought back memories of their own families, whom they had not seen for years.

  With the birth of their son, the couple, too, seemed to shed their fears. Indeed, they appeared to be relieved finally of their worries and tensions.

  As soon as the season of sandstorms was over, the woman wove an awning out of desert scrub and rigged it over the door to provide protection from the strong sun during the coming summer months. She mixed some clay and water, and coated the room, the floor, and the door front with it.

  She did more than that. She made a low wall about six inches high and enclosed an area the size of two beds in front of their room. She also made a gate into this small courtyard of hers—a gate with two small towers, each topped with a small round knob. After completing it, she stood proudly, waiting for her man to return in the evening to see her handiwork.

  She had to wait for a long time, because his camel had wandered away while grazing. When he finally returned, he looked at her work for a long time before speaking. “My love, take away the towers, there is something about them I do not like.”

  She stood still for a while, and then, as the meaning sank into her, she rushed frantically toward them and crumbled them back into clay.

  Subedar followed subedar as each year ended and a new one began. Indeed, the couple measured the passage of time by the change of subedars. When the sixth one arrived, they realized that the boy was five years old.

  A sprightly and active child he was, too. Fed on army rations, he looked older than his years. He spent his days inventing games of his own and playing them by himself or skipping from boulder to boulder, following the soldiers on their patrols. By the evening, he was generally tired and would creep into his mother’s lap and sleep for a while before they started the meal.

  One evening, when the man returned with water from the springs, the boy was still asleep in his mother’s lap.

  She turned as if to get up, but the man stopped her with a gesture. “Stay for a while, I like looking at you. There is an air of peace around you.

  “I wonder what his life shall be when he grows up. What would you like him to be?” He looked at the woman.

  She thought for a while. “Let him be a camel herder, handsome and gentle as his father,” the woman murmured.

  “And fall in love with the sardar’s daughter, his master’s wife,” the man countered.

  “And carry her away,” continued the woman.

  “Into misery and sorrow and terror,” flung back the man.

  “Don’t ever repeat this. You must never talk thus,” she whispered.

  The sleeping boy suddenly opened his dark eyes and said laughingly, “I have been listening to you, and I shall tell you what I will be. I shall be a chief, I shall have horses and camels. I shall feast your friends and defy your enemies, wherever they be.”

  Gently the woman pushed the boy away from her lap and started getting the evening meal ready.

  One winter morning, while the couple was sitting in front of their hut, a camel rider suddenly appeared and rode his camel straight up to the fort. His arrival was so unexpected that it left them no time to hid
e. So they remained sitting impassively while the man finished his business and rode away without casting a glance in their direction. Nevertheless, as soon as the stranger rode over the crest, the couple gathered the child, who had been playing in the dust of the courtyard, and moved inside the hut, as though its chilly interior suddenly offered more warmth than the sun outside.

  A little later, the subedar walked up to the hut and called the man outside. He wasted no time on preliminaries.

  “That rider who has just left the fort was a Siahpad,” the subedar told him. “He was asking questions about you. You know what that means?”

  The man nodded dumbly.

  “If you wish to leave,” continued the subedar, “collect some food from the canteen. The men have packed a bag for you. If God wills, we shall meet again one day.”

  The couple departed on their camel at early dusk, the man sitting in the middle with the boy perched in front and the woman behind him. Once again, the old familiar smell of fear was in his nostrils. The woman had asked no questions. She packed and dressed quickly, first putting warm clothes on both herself and the boy, and then making a light load of the few things that they needed to carry for their journey. The rest of her possessions, those collected over the past years, she neatly arranged in a pile in one corner of the room.

  Her man had brought the camel around to the doorstep and made it kneel. He had cleaned his gun, and it was back on his shoulders. As she stepped out to mount the camel, she cast a quick backward look into the room, her glance briefly touching the firmly packed clay floor, the date-palm mats she had woven over the years, and the dying embers in the fireplace. Her expression remained as calm and serene as if she had been prepared for this journey for a long time.

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