At 78,Jamil Ahmad is among the oldest writers to win a first book award. The retired Pakistan-based civil servant-turned-authors debut work,The Wandering Falcon,has bested five other contenders to win the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.
The Shakti Bhatt prize,instituted in honour of a young writer and editor who died in 2007,is in its fourth year. Former winners are Mohammed Hanifs The Case of Exploding Mangoes,Mridula Koshys If It Is Sweet,and Samanth Subramanians Following Fish.
Though Ahmad was not present at the award ceremony at the British Council Auditorium on Wednesday,guests had an extensive Skype discussion with him. I started writing this book in 1971,when I was 40,and finished it in 1973, he said,in conversation with literary critic and journalist Nilanjana Roy. The Wandering Falcon revolves around tribes who have long inhabited the borders of Afghanistan,Pakistan and Iran. My writing is full of sights,sounds and conversations, said Ahmad adding,Im no anthropologist,thats why I prefer fiction. The book hibernated for the next 40 years,as Ahmad was unable to find the right publisher.
He also recalled his young days in Delhi and his career in Pakistan. What I remember most about Delhi are my boyhood days at St Columbas School, he said. The Shakti Bhatt award includes a Rs 1 lakh cash prize which was handed over to his alma mater on the writers wishes.
The shortlist was strong this year. For us,it boiled down to two books,Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka and The Wandering Falcon. Eventually,what drew us to Ahmads book was the unknown world of tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said writer and blogger Jai Arjun Singh,who was on the jury with graphic novelist and illustrator Sarnath Banerjee and short story writer Palash Mehrotra.