Pakistan’s latest literary star is not young, hip or urban.
He’s 78, and a retired civil servant who spent most of his life posted at the frontiers.
He’s also the only ‘debut’ writer to have been shortlisted, along with compatriot and renowned author Muhammad Hanif, for the prestigious 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
Ahmed and Hanif join three Indian and one Bangaldeshi writer, along with an American translator, for the $50,000 prize that will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India on January 25, 2013.
Ahmed’s own story, however, is as compelling as his novel, The Wandering Falcon, a collection of inter-linked stories set in Balochistan.
The civil servant started his career in the 1950s in Balochistan and stayed on for decades along the frontier. During that time, Ahmed took notes and had his first manuscript ready by 1974, only to be stashed away for more than three decades.
A call for short stories for a competition brought the manuscripts back to light.
“Jamil Ahmed’s manuscript came to us without an agent,” said a pleased Faiza Sultan Khan on the phone from New Delhi.
“The manuscript was sitting in his drawer for more than 35 years,” added Khan, editor-at-large at the New Delhi office of global publisher Random House and co-founder of the short story competition, Life’s Too Short.
For the other co-founder of the competition, and literary critic, Aysha Raja, The Wandering Falcon is “important because it’s about an inhospitable region that most Pakistanis have not visited themselves”
Ahmed’s book is a “powerful account that humanizes an entire swath of a population [Pakistanis] are oblivious to,” added Raja.
She had judged The Wandering Falcon for the Commonwealth Prize, where it made it to the shortlist. “People were really moved by [Ahmed’s] writing,” she added.
Elated at Ahmed’s recognition, both Khan and Raja, who discovered the septuagenarian through their competition, said they would re-launch the Life’s Too Short award. The award was not announced last year “due to a lack of suitable entries,” according to the competition’s website.
“Despite disappointing entries one received last time, if the prize capable of finding Jamil Ahmed, it’s worth doing; and we’re doing it again,” said Khan.
Hanif, and Farooqi
Raja, meanwhile, was also all praise for Hanif, shortlisted for his latest novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.
“Hanif articulates what is at the forefront of our mind and the tip of our tongue. His work is a social critique that cuts to the bone,” Raja said.
She added that Hanif’s work is truthful, and hence revelatory. “As Pakistanis, we need that,” she said.
Critic Mahvesh Murad, who has been hosting Pakistan’s only book show on the radio for six years, said her bets would be on Hanif, “mainly because I did so enjoy Alice Bhatty on a great many levels.”
“While I enjoy [Hanif’s] writing in general, I found Alice Bhatti representative of a wonderfully organic evolution in Hanif as a writer,” she said in response to correspondence over email.
She added that she would also have liked to see Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust on the shortlist, a sentiment echoed by Raja.
“I’m surprised that Between Clay and Dust is not on the list,” Raja said. The book had made it to the long list. “I would prefer that instead of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis,” she added.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2012.