Between Clay And Dust | Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Musharraf Ali Farooqi dedicates his new novel to Afzal Ahmed Syed, the Urdu poet who writes, in The Secret History of a Republic (not incidentally in Farooqi’s own translation), “Brought under the hammer/the Republic was declared destitute and ill-starred/Except for well-cared-for hunting fields/and/love-play couches of kept women/which attracted the highest bids.”
Much of the action of Between Clay And Dust alternates between sporting arenas and women’s rooms, in spaces which we tend to think of as repositories of our memories, rather than our histories. Perhaps this accounts for the power of this small, spare book, a novel which fulfils the most novelistic of purposes—to refract history through the prism of memory, and to tell us its secrets and doubts.
Between Clay And Dust: Aleph Book Company, 216 pages, Rs 450.
Between Clay And Dust opens in an unnamed city, in the austere confines of an akhara. The ageing pehelwan, Ustad Ramzi, worries about how to preserve the glorious ascetic tradition of wrestling in which generations of his family and disciples have been brought up. His life of rigid principle has left him ill-prepared for change outside the akhara, and the ways in which that change intrudes into his own world, through his young, impetuous brother and heir Tamami. We guess that this story is set some time after Partition, but not exactly when, or on which side of the India-Pakistan border. Yet, beyond the atmosphere Farooqi creates for his story, this becomes immaterial to our reading. Ustad Ramzi’s dilemma, the struggle of the very disciplined in an undisciplined world, is timeless.
The ustad has one escape from worldly turmoil, the music of the courtesan Gohar Jan, who is also an artiste from a fading world. The mansions of the tawaifs (courtesans) are closing fast as the story opens, prey to new construction and new morality. Gohar Jan, a graceful, remote woman, has dedicated her life to her music. But while Ustad Ramzi’s art is founded on ideas of social and moral purity, hers lies outside the boundaries of propriety altogether. So Gohar Jan, perhaps circumstantially, becomes a foil to Ustad Ramzi; as a woman and something of a pragmatist, she sees, forgives and accepts changes that he cannot. As her street grows dark and silent, and her own disciples leave her halls, it occurs to her “that among the many men who frequented her kotha, Ustad Ramzi was the only one for whom she remained only a voice. It was strange that at the end of her career he was the only person with whom she shared her deep relationship with her art.”
They must both come to a reckoning in the end, and Farooqi traces the unravelling of their world with near-uncanny attentiveness. Gone is the air of suppressed hilarity that pervaded his last novel, 2008’s The Story of a Widow. But the careful tread of that story through the inner lives of its characters is echoed here too. Farooqi’s narrative voice is cool and hypnotic, almost impassive in its patience.
The Story of a Widow had admirers comparing him both to Jane Austen and Vikram Seth. But while his talent for social observation—the basis for that praise—remains as keen as ever in this book, Farooqi does something far too original here to make those comparisons useful.
His Gohar Jan remains, at the end of the story, something of an unknown quantity, in spite of the time we have spent with her. That may seem befitting of such a private character, and we are not left dissatisfied. But Farooqi’s true victory in this book is Ustad Ramzi, a patriarch who evokes both our sympathy and our discomfort. His sins may seem smaller than those of a society rushing headlong into the future, but Farooqi’s writing is too wise and too elegant to make this a romance instead of a tragedy. As in Syed’s poem, we are left with the notion that every history is underwritten by the minute, private failures of human beings.