Reviews / September 2012 (Issue 18)

The Crucible of Time: Musharraf Ali Farooqi's Between Clay and Dust

by Sucharita Dutta-Asane


Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Between Clay and Dust, Aleph, 2012. 213 pgs.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi's novel Between Clay and Dust begins with a meticulously crafted elegy to the "inner city," a character-in-transition woven subtly into the narrative. Efforts to locate it geographically are meaningless: it's inconsequential whether this city is in India or Pakistan. What matters is its setting in time: a post-independence, post-partition, post-old world time warp. It's a city "emptied of its old inhabitants," a city whose "disfigured architecture and worn, paved stones...still intoned its past splendour in broken whispers."

Located in this time warp are the two principal characters, Ustad Ramzi, head of a clan of wrestlers, and owner of the Ustad-e-Zaman wrestling title, and the courtesan Gohar Jan, known for her singing, beauty and "haughty airs and capricious treatment of her lovers." The two are disparate in their background and profession but similar in their worldview and their receding importance under altering socio-economic circumstances. As change creeps in all around them, the wrestler and the courtesan continue "to exist by exercising some power to resist change, or perhaps because no one found it worthwhile to remove them. They had been left on their own and forgotten..."

Farooqi's language is taut and matter-of-fact, and his narrative of two extraordinarily lived lives is also that of ego, the illusions of the past and the slow decay of human endeavour. In graceful prose, the story journeys into the heart of an akhara (wrestling arena) and a kotha (courtesan's residence), both remnants of a past era, relegated to history's lost pages. Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan continue to inhabit their shrinking confines, even as modern edifices and lifestyles crowd in on them, squeezing the life they once had. The prose is simple and unpretentious; the leanness of language nicely captures the Ustad's "absolute ways" in which "every gesture (is) of consequence" and Gohar Jan's rigid and "imperious" approach to her life and her dependents.

Tamami, the Ustad's younger brother, plays the perfect foil to the Ustad-e-Zaman. For the younger man, the title means fame and power rather than the nobility cherished by his elder brother. Into this conflict in outlook and interest enters a rapacious agent who manipulates Tamami's ambition and finally leads him to his ruin. Despite this, the new-generation wrestler comes across as the more humane of the two brothers, the more emotional and sensitive. Indeed, the Ustad's insensitivity could easily drive the reader away if not for the book's unsentimental portrayal of the realities of the modern world, such the increasing influence of sports agents, the greed of real estate sharks, the apathy of government officials and the bigotry of the public. These realities inspire our empathy for Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan rather than our disdain for their arrogance, and make them compelling characters despite their weaknesses.

Farooqi's style is elegant and leads readers right into the minds of his characters and into the very core of a culture caught in the throes of change, a paradigm shift that can best be narrated through austere sentences. His measured pace beautifully reflects the book's themes: a wrestler's slow moulding to perfection, a kotha life gradually falling silent, the slow but sure decay of cultural mores. Between Clay and Dust reminds us of a gentler, more innocent era but without the melodrama to which stories of decay and ruin are susceptible. There is drama and ample scope for the imagination to set up its own stage, but the language controls the threat of overkill, cuts out the excess and keeps the portrayal of emotion and character frugal.

Here are the last words of the novel, the poignant closing scene that offers no closure for Ustad Ramzi:

When Gohar Jan's bier was brought there and Ustad Ramzi stepped forward to lead the funeral prayer, most of the trainees of his clan lined up behind him. A few men who had thronged the gates of the enclosure to watch the spectacle and gossip quickly cleared out at one look from him.

After the burial, Banday Ali pressed Ustad Ramzi's shoulder for a while quietly before taking his leave.

He was left alone in the cemetery.

He remained there in the growing silence, as darkness fell over the inner city.

There is no spectacle or melodrama here; instead, as we turn the last page, we are left thinking of human courtesies, and like Ustad Ramzi, of the choices we make that determine our lives: "When reflecting on the choices he had made, .... he often felt a curiosity about how life might have been different if he had chosen differently."

Between Clay and Dust brings us up close to individuals who choose exactly how they want to live and live by their choices; who die with their beliefs in place, even if they are dented by an avaricious and impatient world; who hold their values dearer than they do their kith and kin; who create an inner world that allows restricted entry only to those willing to lend a patient ear. All these elements create a lasting bond between Ustad Ramzi, the avowedly celibate wrestler, and Gohar Jan, the "capricious" courtesan. All these elements determine the journey between "clay" and "dust."

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