08 May 2012

Between clay and dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Elegant depiction of fading grandeur
Human civilization throws up institutions of culture which grow gradually, gather momentum, and peak as they deliver aesthetic and sensory pleasure. Then historical events intervene, and decline and decay develop. This book is set in an alcove of an Indian city in which such institutions once flourished. Though this private world remained unscathed by the ravaging winds of Partition, the changes that it brought led to its end.
Gohar Jan is a courtesan, celebrated for her beauty and skill, pursued by the wealthy and aristocratic. Ustad Ramzi is a pahalwan, head of his clan and defender of the highest wrestling title in the land. In this book we get a peep into the kind of lives they led, the problems they dealt with as their world faded away, and the lifestyle and emotions that tradition compelled upon them. The crux of the story is in the unlikely relationship they developed.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a wonderful storyteller. His unfussy, pastel prose engrosses you as it tackles even dramatic or painful topics with calm. Here is a sample.

Ustad Ramzi saw Tamami grapple with him for a few minutes. The thought occurred to him that Tamami had missed a few opportunities for takedown, before he realized that Tamami was deliberately prolonging their engagement. The trainees who had not understood it became restless wondering why Tamami was unable to bring down Sher Ali. Another few minutes passed before Tamami finally took down Sher Ali.
“What were you trying to show others? That Sher Ali is your match?” Ustad Ramzi said to Tamami after Gulab Deen had left.
“No Ustad… I was just trying to see what he knew.” Tamami smiled sheepishly.
“Don’t waste time playing with your opponent,” Ustad Ramzi said.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi has used this unhurried and deceptively simple style to good effect while exploring the complex emotions here. Tamami is Ustad Ramzi's brother, much younger, and a classic example of a sulky and inept but adoring inheritor. I enjoyed traversing the layers of the insights into how such a relationship might be exploited. I had been looking forward eagerly to Between Clay and Dust ever since I read the author’s first novel The Story of a Widow, and was happy (and relieved) to find it just as gentle and evocative; a reader’s delight.