THE FIRST MASTERSTROKE, one of many in the novel Between Clay and Dust, is the setting. It is the subcontinent a few years after Partition, but it isn’t necessarily Pakistan. The city is a nameless character, like the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. One hopes that the unspecified locale will spare this fine book the obligatory critical appraisal of the English fiction of Pakistan as the infamous “window to a troubled nation”. It is an appraisal that magnifies the ‘tortured artist’ theory to a national scale: Pakistanis were writing because it had been the year of living dangerously, and apparently strife produces great art. Whatever derailed the Bosnian literary boom, one may well ask, not to mention the fact that turbulent times tend to produce reporters and not necessarily writers of fiction. Why people experiencing greater levels of strife than Pakistan’s comparatively privileged elite weren’t the ones producing these novels also failed to dent this romantic supposition. In fact, it was inconvenient, if not downright confusing, for international readers that social distinctions existed at all. The Pakistan of the global imagination was terror firma, bloodied, bearded and exotically backwards—but for a few people producing literature of international standards.
An exploration of the human condition, if emanating from Pakistan, is received as an exploration of the human condition of Pakistanis, with the idea that it may be a more broadly shared sentiment dismissed. It appears that when literary output from beyond the West began to be read more globally, the idea of universalism, ironically, went straight out of the window. As Orhan Pamuk said at the Jaipur Literature Festival last year, “When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can’t love be general?”
Though the prolific and prodigiously talented Musharraf Ali Farooqi has not yet garnered due attention in the slew of largely hyperbolic pieces on the (fictitious) Pakistani literary boom—which refer to seven or so authors publishing in English in recent years—Between Clay and Dust shall be, I’ll wager, the novel to change that.