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Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel is the literary equivalent of an artfully executed miniature painting. In its meticulous planning and circumscribed space, a cast of vigorously modelled characters and their subtle movements and emotions leap into life; the fluency of the narrative and unfolding of the story owe something to the conventions of dastangoi, the Urdu art of storytelling. This is not a coincidence. Among his many accomplishments, the 43-year-old author is the acclaimed translator of Urdu epics such as The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba.
Between Clay and Dust, however, breaks from convention in its controlled brevity. Told in short, tight chapters, the prose, in the words of publisher David Davidar, whose first offering it is from his new imprint, is “spare and lush at the same time”.
In an unnamed inner city after Partition, two celebrated performers from another age are eking out their last years: Ustad Ramzi, once the most famous of wrestlers, still prepares the clay at his akhara for daily practice and personally sweeps the adjoining graveyard where his clan’s ancestors lie buried; at the other end, where “the inner city still intoned its past splendour in broken whispers”, sits the courtesan Gohar Jan, in a music room from which the grandeur of late night mehfils and dalliances has fled. Her kotha once rang with the notes of her superlative melody but, now, the quiet is “broken sometimes by the sound of a string snapping”. Gohar Jan’s retinue of alluring tawaifs have either migrated or joined the movie business. The ineptitude of Ramzi’s feckless younger brother threatens to heap dishonour on the ustad as he prepares to fight a last bout with an old rival before a dwindling audience.
The counterpoint of akhara and kotha, as parallel arenas of public performance, are resonant with allegorical references to change and decay: the dying of the old arts, the languishing life of inner cities, and the capriciousness of audience tastes that dictate transient ideals of beauty, power and fame—in this case of musical merit and spectator sport. Yet these allusions hover in the distance, like delicately drawn landscapes and subsidiary characters in a miniature meant to convey the passing seasons or reactions to the principal players in the foreground.
What concerns Musharraf Ali Farooqi are the inner lives of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan. What drew the devoutly celibate and austere pahalwan to the beauteous and supremely gifted tawaif’s gilded rooms? How did their association grow? And despite the series of estrangements, betrayals and humiliations they suffered that set into motion the powerfully poignant denouement—what, in the end, was the singular motivation that governed the lives of these two applauded figures of the past?
This is that rare novel where gesture, nuance and suggestion underscores, and often takes precedence, over dialogue and dramatic action. Conversations occur, and things happen in Farooqi’s swift-flowing narrative. But the protagonists, although often in proximity, barely exchange a few words. The paramount paradox of this short, superbly crafted piece of fiction is that, although accustomed to the pains and pleasures of the flesh, the wrestler and courtesan are never physically intimate. Gohar Jan touches Ramzi just once, lightly, and in rejection. This is when, as her lone audience, he tries to leave his customary payment and she turns it down, imperiously adding, “Ustad Ramzi...you will be our guest from today.”
In terms of literary lineage, it may seem easy to establish a connection between Farooqi’s novel and well-known classics by Urdu writers such as Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. In fact, the author’s acknowledged debt is to the Japanese modernist Junichiro Tanizaki, in particular his novel The Makioka Sisters, the story of four daughters of a rich man in Osaka during World War II, whose personal tribulations hardly reflect the larger tragedy around them.
In Farooqi’s last novel, The Story of a Widow (2009), the predicament of a rich widow (with married daughters) who falls in love is an exploration of interior lives within domestic confines. The city of Karachi is but a distant drumbeat. Similarly, the catastrophic after-effects of Partition are sensed rather than seen in Between Clay and Dust.
Decline and disintegration are inevitable, Musharraf Ali Farooqi suggests in this novel of parable-like luminosity that took him ten years to finish, as nascent ruins overlay the old.