Book review: Subtlety in times of high drama: Between Clay and Dust

Published: May 14, 2012

Between Clay and Dust is about a wrestler and a tawaif, two art forms, that no longer hold the glory they once did.

“I have never stepped into an akhara or spoken to a professional wrestler,” confesses writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi talking about his new book Between Clay and Dust. “[A]ll my knowledge of pahalwans and the pahalwani culture is from books,” he says, though that is hard to believe considering the perfectly textured nuances of his new novel. In an “effort to imagine a man’s relationship to physical power and self-control”, Farooqi has written a thoughtful and emotionally articulate story about people whose lives are changing beyond their control.

Between Clay and Dust is about a wrestler and a tawaif, about two art forms that no longer hold the glory they once did. Set somewhere suggestive of post-partition Punjab, albeit in an area left ‘unscathed’ by ‘the ravaging winds of Partition’, the narrative is quiet, thoughtful and centred: no references to current trends of South Asian Literature here, for Farooqi is clearly not interested in them. “Human emotions and human relationships have a universality to them,” he says, choosing to focus instead on the microcosms of Ustad Ramzi’s akharaand Gohar Jan’s kotha.

Both Ramzi and Gohar Jan are heads of their ‘clans’, both have had their worlds shaken by the ‘abolition of the princely states whose nawabs and rajas had traditionally patronized’ these arts, and both are struggling to accept their own limitations as they age. Ramzi must hand over duties to his younger brother and Gohar Jan must eventually shut down her kotha. But the story of Between Clay & Dust is more Ustad Ramzi’s than Gohar Jan’s; she is his perfect foil, the archetype of the whore with a golden heart whose every action reminds the reader that there are reams left unwritten about her.

In fact, the same can even be said about Ustad Ramzi’s character. Though Ramzi is far more developed than Gohar Jan is, Farooqi’s treatment of all his characters is sensitive and subtle. This is a story of uncertain, unfulfilled relationships and lives where what is not said and not done is as important, if not more, than what has been said and done. The tone of the novel is reminiscent of folklore stylistics, as is some of Farooqi’s earlier work as well, such as The Amazing Mustaches of Moochlander the Iron Man. With this particular folkloric narrative, Between Clay & Dust retains a constant sense of a quiet unfamiliarity, never burdened with turgid prose even when there is high emotional drama involved.

Farooqi has told a story in a setting that may be unfamiliar and even quaint, to an urban English reading population anywhere in the world. Will Between Clay & Dust make as much of an impact in a world tuned in to high drama? It should, because as Farooqi explains: ‘the experience of the emotional life of a character is always eminently accessible to readers from other cultures if a writer is able to express it in his work …I do not feel that I have to make the caricature of a character and his or her emotional life to make that character understandable to a global reader.’ And with Between Clay & Dust, he does just that.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 13th, 2012.

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