The ruination of the inner city was attributed to time’s proclivity for change. It lay abandoned, half buried in and half surrounded by the squalor of shanty towns. New settlements cordoning it on three sides seemed to avoid the shadow of its sunken grandeur. Streets connecting new colonies skirted off its periphery. Links binding old and new neighbourhoods were either never formed or broken at the start. The wide serpentine alley of high, arched gateways dividing its residential and artisan quarters looked strangely desolate.
The ravaging winds of Partition had left it unscathed. The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation. There had been anxiety that things would be greatly changed, but later there seemed hope that the worst was over and life’s routines could now be renewed. Nobody expected that in Partition’s wake would follow a slow disintegration of values that would unravel the inner city. In a way, the inner city was always a cat’s cradle – a crisscross of life’s many facts, each sustained by the other. The strings of this cat’s cradle had not snapped but they had become hopelessly tangled. (pp. 9-10)Some of the best stories involve defeat, or rather the struggle of a soul that we know almost from the beginning is doomed to be beaten down. Those who take a perverse sort of Schadenfreude at witnessing one’s comeuppance may find something to enjoy in Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Man Asian Prize-nominated novel Between Clay and Dust, but there are so many layers to this slender and yet powerful 213 page novel. There is the inevitable failure of two people, the respected clan elder and wrestling Ustad-e-Zaman Ramzi and the aging courtesan Gohar Jan, to strive against the winds of change and the effects of such upon those around them. Within this core struggle, we see their choices juxtaposed against that of those around them, with a glaring contrast of values and actions that make early 1950s urban Pakistani life (the city is never named, although it is located apparently on the Indus River) comprehensible for those of us who came of age a generation or two later in a land and value system alien and yet in some ways akin to that of the Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan.
Between Clay and Dust stretches over a few years, beginning in 1950 with the upheavals caused by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan still ongoing. Ustad Ramzi has been Ustad-e-Zaman for fifteen years and to him has fallen the task of training his twenty years’ younger brother, Tamami. Tamami embodies values foreign to ustad Ramzi: he is impetuous, headstrong, valuing the celebrity of the clan-centered wrestling bouts over the traditions embedded within these fights. Through both his and Ustad Ramzi’s points of view, we come to see just how flawed of a character Tamami is, as he descends through anger and puffed-up pride to despondency and ultimately drug addiction in his futile quest to at first supersede his renowned older brother and later to earn his esteem. Farooqi does an outstanding job in developing Tamami’s character, even though he is secondary to both the Ustad and the courtesan, through not just his thoughts, but even through conversations in which a corrupt wrestling promoter (itself an affront to the likes of the traditional ustads and their followers, who view staged exhibitions as akin to sacrilege) lays out the key conflict in the novel:
Gulab Deen smiled.
‘Tamami asked me if he would come. I said he may come. I said I think he will come. That was all I told him. You know how he is these days. But I hope very much that Ustad Ramzi does come. A challenge fight lacks something without the blessing and presence of elders. Ustad Ramzi knows the venue where the bout is to be held. I will keep a chair for him in the front row. I will do all I can.’
‘So, is he going to come or not?’
Gulab Deen did not answer his question but continued: ‘I have heard rumours that he said he will come. But again, he may boycott the fight. These old ustads and their ways. Ustad Ramzi shouldn’t think he is doing me a favour by coming. He should remember that it was I who arranged an exhibition match for Tamami when nobody was willing to fight him. There is no gratitude in my business. Everyone thinks I am after money. But what’s wrong with that, you tell me? If I don’t make money I go hungry. Do you know how hard I have worked to arrange this fight? Don’t say you don’t. But I get no thanks. Only complaints.’ (p. 160)Here the clash of values between the older and newer generations are crystallized. Money and the staging of what was formerly a proud cultural tradition have pushed these older values down. Things have begun to change after the Partition (with the undertone later that things are always changing) and not for the better. Tamami’s pride has cost him everything that he used to cherish most. Now he is reduced in stature, forced to throw fights against inferior wrestlers in order to make a living after disgracing himself in front of his older brother. This has affected him greatly and Farooqi illustrates this not just through Tamami’s PoV chapters, but also through the ways in which the corrupt promoter, Gulab Deen, views him. To Deen, Tamami is not the fallen heir to a proud tradition, but instead is a potential moneymaker for another wrestler of his, one who stands to benefit from the “rub” that he gets for “winning” against the Ustad’s former protege.
Yet Ustad Ramzi is not blameless here. In his chapters, we see a fascinating combination of tenderness and stiff-necked pride. We see his noble intent when he visits the kotha of the singer/prostitute Gohar Jan, as he sits within her domicile listening to her sing and yet not seeming to have the slightest intent to have sex with her. The respect he accords her is in sharp contrast to the mixture of frustration and condescension that he gives Tamami. To him, Tamami is irrevocably flawed, whether it is his impetuous temper, his desire for fame and acceptance, or his succumbing to the ravages of drug addiction. He cannot forgive him and this crushes the two of them in different ways. Farooqi’s portrayal of Ustad Ramzi, through his meticulous care for the ancestral cemetery or the traditional patterns of his actions and beliefs, is subtle in its presentation yet penetrating in how he dissects Ustad Ramzi’s character. Here emerges a complex character that has an uncommon clarity to his beliefs and actions. The Ustad never feels underdeveloped or a caricature of the flaws of traditionalism.
Gohar Jan is the least developed of the three main characters, although much of that is likely on purpose. In her can be seen the effects of a patriarchal society in which a very talented singer is disdained for being nothing more than a prostitute. Her looks are all that matter to the men who visit her; when they fade, so do they from her company. She is quiet and resolute in her attempt to maintain the appearance of relevancy, even as age strips her of most visitors (outside of the unusual visits of the Ustad Ramzi) and leaves her near novel’s end at the brink of losing her home and kotha as unscrupulous builders have bribed city officials to take not just her property but also that of the Ustad (including the family cemetery). Yet she fights on. Men may call her whore and try to deny her respect, yet there is such a noble spirit about her that makes these demeaning actions futile. She is the bedrock for the Ustad, a symbol of how traditional admonishments may, if not quite cast away, be borne with a grace and dignity that transcends her lowly station in life. It is her ultimate fate that brings Between Clay and Dust to a close and which underscores the connections between the novel’s title and the action within it.
Farooqi’s writing is superb. He utilizes short (rarely more than four pages) chapters to switch character PoVs rapidly, yet no chapter feels rushed or sketchy. There is an understated elegance to his prose that reminded me at times of some of Hemingway’s best stories in their way of showing character motivation and action in an economical yet powerful fashion. There is never the sense of padded scenes or underdeveloped dialogue. Everything meshes well together to create a memorable, moving fiction. Between Clay and Dust is one of the best novels in a Man Asian Prize shortlist that is stacked with excellent writers. Highly recommended.