Archive for May 9, 2011


The Wandering Falcon; Jamil Ahmad, Penguin India, Rs. 399.  Seldom does a writer take you by the hand and lead you into a hidden world with such sure-footed ease. Jamil Ahmad does precisely that as he takes you deep into a folded land of hills and valleys straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Occupied by a tribal people united under the banner of Islam but governed by a more ancient code of conduct, this is a dark world of abject poverty, deprivation and want, but one that is also lit from within.

Translucent beams of Life irradiate it. The will to live, the zeal to carry on with dignity and grace, the inherent desire in human beings — no matter how lowly or brought low by fate and circumstance — to rise above the human condition permeates this seemingly dark domain that could have been wretched but is inexplicably not in the least wretched. A deeply ingrained sense of honour, justice and loyalty permeates a world that is as harsh and unforgiving as it is inscrutable to the outsider.


Set in the decades before the onset of talibanisation, The Wandering Falcon allows us to wander, like the falcon that soars high over hill and dale, but takes in the minutest detail of life on the ground with its razor-sharp gaze. Appropriately enough, it has a boy protagonist, Tor Baz or the hunting falcon, the outsider looking in who connects the series of inter-linked stories that comprise the book.

While each chapter can be read as a self-contained short story, together they narrate the rite of passage of a boy — whose lineage is unknown, whose parents were a run-away couple killed in cold blood to avenge the family honour, who belongs to neither this tribe nor that — as he learns to survive in a world that is both cruel and gentle, harsh and loving, fragile and unrelenting, timeless yet changing.

The notion of honour and its concomitant principles of loyalty, fidelity and truthfulness string the stories together as much as the coming of age of Tor Baz from infancy to adulthood.

Winters of misery and desperation followed by the short-lived spring of hope and the summer months of wandering are leavened by a highly codified set of principles that govern every moment from birth till death.


 For a writer who has debuted at the age of 78, Ahmad writes with a surprising ease and confidence. Simple, spare and stark, his words are unembellished by rhetorical flourishes, his sentences shorn of even a trace of artifice or artfulness. There are no fancy turns of phrase, no verbal acoustics, no play upon words, nothing in fact to draw away from the stories he wants to tell in as straightforward a manner as possible. Here is writing – the finest one has read in a very long time in English by a South Asian writer – that ebbs and flows with such effortless ease and conveys the essence of the story in such few words that it catches you unawares with its freshness.

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“Judiciary stands on the faith of the people. That is the only thing we have.” That is a statement coming after a great amount of contemplation from Prabha Sridevan — the fifth woman who served as Judge of the Madras High Court.   Yet another landmark “woman judgment” related to compulsory registration of marriages, “First of all it serves as proof of the marriage and proof of paternity and secondly it can be used as evidence for prosecution in case of a second marriage. No child will be left to wonder who his/ her father is in such complicated situations. It’s also about the dignity of the woman. As per the Hindu Succession Act, children from a void marriage have a right to the property — but it leaves it entirely to the man to decide whom he will acknowledge.”

What may come as a surprise is that Prabha Sridevan took to law at the suggestion of her husband after marriage and motherhood. Acting on her husband’s suggestion she graduated in law in 1983. From 1983-1993 she worked with her husband dealing with civil cases, writs and family court matters.

“He allowed me to grow. Like any junior whenever I had doubts I would go to him and he did what he would have done for anyone. There were times when I demanded that he teach me things. His way was to make me watch and observe him and learn.”

The untimely death of her husband when he was just 53 came as a big blow to Prabha. “It was something out of the blue. I was naturally angry and sad but someone I respect greatly told me to channel this emotion into something positive. First I thought I would look at women’s issues; for instance I engaged myself with parents of mentally challenged girls and dialogued with them on the correctness of compulsory hysterectomies for their wards. Later, as a judge I realised that there is so much one could do for the ones who had not. The courts are really for them. So when a case came up when I could give expression to my thoughts and beliefs I hope I made the best of it.”

The versatile Prabha Sridevan is a woman of many interests having dabbled in writing and theatre. She even acted in a Madras Players production — a play by Maria Fornes in which she played the part of a maid. “I resented the fact that while the lady of the house could sit in a chair the maid had to be on her toes. Theatre makes you walk in the shoes of other people. A judge should walk in the shoes of others for only then you will understand the case.” More recently she translated verses from the Mahabharatha for the Madras Players production “Karna”.

Post retirement she teaches at the National Judicial Academy Bhopal, studies Sanskrit, attends music concerts and spends time with one of her grandchildren who lives in Chennai. She still writes but “hasn’t decided what to do with it.”

“I don’t like to limit my teaching to the various sections. What I teach is the judicial attitude and temperament. While knowledge is important; attitude is the one thing that sets everything right.”

Does she have a word of advice for women? “On the one hand we want power and on the other hand we want protection. I have been fortunate in a lot of ways. Yes, I lost my husband but I had an education — a law degree — and my husband’s family was great. These are advantages all women may not have. I don’t want to pontificate but I think women should take charge. They should want to know, become aware of their rights and display indomitable courage. You never know when your chance might come but you should be ready for it.”

If the book succeeds in making the reader ask what independent India’s worst affliction is, it would go down in history as a document as important as the story of Ambedkar it tells.To call Bhimayana a ‘book’ would amount to a trivialisation — it is a magnificent work of breathtaking art that symbolises the soul-stirring biography of an exceptional leader.The art, literally “out of the box” on each page, compels one to go back to it again and again, to discover another nuance here, another message there, lest it was missed.

Every single detail — the three speech bubbles as explained towards the end of the book, the constant flashing of “the mind’s eye”, the humour (horse laughing on page 82), the symbolic representations of Ambedkar (sometimes a thirsty fish, sometimes a buffalo or a park), loudspeakers as sprinklers, the earthmover, the pond, the handpump, the train, the fort ,all as having a mind and feelings of their own — lends a richness to Ambedkar’s life experiences, evocatively bringing out what it is to be born as an “untouchable”, and what it means to be a dalit even today.

The polemic of Gandhi versus Ambedkar towards the end necessarily brings to our attention that, unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar’s was a far more universal struggle against injustice perpetrated by home-grown oppressors. And the fact that a crime is committed against a dalit every 18 minutes even today shows how his has proved, in many ways, a far more difficult one. Bhimayana drives home that it is high time each one of us owned this struggle. A must-read for every child and adult in the nation and a must-include in every school’s curriculum.

polemic – A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine. 2. A person engaged in or inclined to controversy, argume