Dead Man’s Prisoner is a fascinating novel by a former provincial bureaucrat of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. It addresses the despicable tribal tradition of Sawara where young girls are married off into a hostile family to end a blood feud. In such societies, the women end up bearing the brunt, as they have through millennia, to save their families from sure destruction at the hands of ruthless enemies. Young girls and women thus become sacrificial lambs at the altar of towering egos and man-made traditions.
Ali Begum Khan, the author, had an illustrious carreer as a female bureaucrat in the provincial civil service. Being from the tribal area of Kurram, she has intimate knowledge of the textured and layered nature of tribal customs and traditions.
Those traditions commit members of a tribe or clan to offer unfettered hospitality to strangers, to protect one’s property and family and to take revenge when an insult is hurled towards an individual or a family. Pashtun tribes are considered devout Muslims to the point where Pashto and Islam are used interchangeably. However, when there is a clash between tribal traditions and Islamic laws, religion almost always takes the back seat. This contradiction is glaringly evident in the novel under review.
Nadia, a young high school student, is pursued by a young man of loose character and morals from a prominent local family in the city of Kannu. Her family refuses the marriage proposal, which goes against the male ego of the pursuer. The man stalks the girl outside her school and to add grievous insult to an already vulnerable and scared young woman, goes to her home in the middle of the night to avenge the insult that her family has subjected him to by refusing the marriage. His revenge is the same as men through history have done to women: to rape. However, before he could violate the girl, he gets spooked and flees the house, leaving his recognisable cap behind.
The first half of the book is fast-paced and grabs the attention of the reader where one cannot put the book down. It is to the credit of the author that she weaves a tale that pulls the reader into it
Since the man had violated the girl’s family’s honour and trampled on the sanctity of their home, one of the family’s men, the girl’s brother, kills the offender. Thus, he creates another layer of complex grievance and insult that demand retaliation. This is how feuds start in the tribal mindset. Layers upon layers of grievances and slights are passed on to next generation and the next, and the next, until one family is wiped out or relocates away from the reach of avenging hands.
Title: Dead Man’s Prisoner Author: Ali Khan Pages: 287 pages Price: Rs. 460 Publishers: National Book Foundation, Islamabad ISBN: 978-969-37-1255-1
Thereupon the story goes through many twists and turns that result in Nadia being married off to one of the brothers of the murdered man who had started the whole sordid chain of events. The groom is a doctor who lives in Europe and comes home to sort out the affairs after his younger brother’s murder. One would think that marrying the girl into a hostile family would be the end of the story, but it is not. It seldom is.
While the thrust of the story deals with cries for revenge by both men and women of the murdered man, there are some noble characters in the story as well. Somehow the Pashtun greybeards find a path that prevents mutual bloodletting and stops the feud between the families. After marriage, Nadia is subjected to taunts, insults and even physical harm at the hand of her new husband’s family.
The first half of the book is fast-paced and grabs the attention of the reader where one cannot put the book down. It is to the credit of the author that she weaves a tale that pulls the reader into it. The second half of the book, however, loses the crispness and fast pace. There are many slow-paced twists and turns that do not replicate the beautiful pace of the first half. But the author could be forgiven for in any long piece of writing some redundancies do creep in. Such minor flaws however do not distract from the continuity of the story.
The story of Nadia his does not have a conclusive end. She lives in the hostile home environment of her new husband. He leaves for England and his promise to take her to England away from his family does not materialise. And the poor girl is left as an indentured servant with her in laws.
It seems he author plans to write a sequel to the novel. It would indeed be interesting to see what turns the story takes.
While the non-Pashto words used in the book are to some extent self-explanatory, but for foreign audience a glossary of terms would have been of help.
The practice of Sawara is not limited to Pashtun culture; it is widely practiced amongst traditional tribal societies in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Ali Begum tells an interesting and absorbing story on an important subject and exposes the underbelly of some of the ugly traditions of tribal societies.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org