With Souls and Elbows

An evocation of the subcontinent’s past that avoids both elegy and melodrama

01 May, 2012

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.

Between Clay and Dust MUSHARRAF ALI FAROOQI ALEPH BOOK COMPANY 216 pages, Rs. 495

SET IN A PAHALWAN’S AKHARA in the 1950s, in a city that could just as easily fall on either side of the border, Between Clay and Dust is the story of two brothers, the elder Ustad Ramzi, “the head of a pahalwan clan and the custodian of a fighter’s akhara”, and his brother Tamami, who is 20 years younger than him. The strict codes which pahalwan clans have abided by for generations appear to be slipping away and the city is no longer famed for its beauty but for the memories and echoes of it.  It’s a brutal rather than natural transition: “Links binding old and new neighbourhoods were either never formed or broken at the start.” The city’s fading glory and the beginnings of disjointed new neighbourhoods speak of a past that has not led the way to the future, where the latter has instead rudely encroached upon the past’s territory, and where little hope can be had for both states to live in harmony.

Middle-aged Ustad Ramzi, a former champion and current title-holder, is past his prime and feeling the effects of time in his aching joints. His previously indomitable strength is on the wane, a decline accelerated by his pahalwan’s diet and the use of arsenic to digest it. Ramzi sees this fundamental shift reflected too in his much younger brother Tamami, who suffers from the “modern” ailment of wanting the fame of the championship title without appearing to possess either the rigour or the discipline to earn it.

Still, changes shan’t be allowed to creep their way into the akhara, not on Ustad Ramzi’s watch. Quietly determined, sober of temperament and profoundly aware of his responsibility to his art and to the “hallowed place” which his forebears entrusted to him, Ustad Ramzi is the keeper of the flame. In spite of his body’s increasing resistance, he does not delegate even the most physically demanding tasks to his trainees or his brother, as “one had to first prove oneself worthy”. A lesser man would insist on sharing the burden, but Ramzi is too proud to pass on duties on account of pain and weariness alone. While he is frustrated by Tamami’s cavalier attitude to what Ramzi considers sacred—the land of the akhara, the titular clay that is the “essence of his creed”—he is still hopeful that the boy will someday understand the significance of their calling.

Tamami, on the other hand, feels slighted by his brother’s lack of trust. It seems that he can get nothing right. He is confident and playful with his friends and with the akhara trainees, but shrivels in the presence of his elder brother. When Tamami puts himself forward for a tournament, his brother rages at him, and he slinks off shamed and confused. Ramzi is fearful that Tamami’s lack of training will lead to a humiliating defeat and so, in spite of his rheumatism and his deteriorating strength, takes it upon himself to train his brother. And when Tamami is finally entrusted with the duties of running the akhara, in the hope that he may learn on the job, he performs them with his usual carelessness, letting the place lapse into disorder for the first time in generations, much to his brother’s disgust.

Ramzi sets Tamami a gruelling regime as his day in the sun draws near. In spite of onlookers commenting on his body and mind’s inability to cope, Tamani endures it all: “His intense and punishing training regime was not only transforming his physique, it was also building up a fierce rage inside him.”  The reader senses disaster but is unsure of when it will erupt or what form it will take. The writing is as taut as a wire, and reminds me, if comparisons must be made, of Ian McEwan’s neat trick of bringing the reader to the edge of their seat and somehow keeping them there throughout the duration of an entire novel. It is the tantalising foreshadowing of eventual disaster that both McEwan and Farooqi have down pat: “Tamami’s body became tense and the expression on his face hardened. His eyes were fixed on Imama’s. He resolved to show his brother how quickly he could eliminate his adversary.” In Ramzi’s day, the akhara alone determined who fought and when, but as the profession begins to slip from its ancient and noble perch, commercial exhibition tournaments organised by promoters in order to keep an interest in the art alive become more commonplace—but not without altering the form from art to sport. Tamami, Ramzi feels, is being led astray by one such crass mercenary, Gulab Deen, whose complaint in turn is, “Everyone thinks I am after money! But what’s wrong with that, you tell me? If I don’t make money I go hungry!” The promoter, however, is the only person willing to offer Tamami a semblance of a livelihood after his brother expels him from the akhara, a decision, it seems, not taken out of cruelty so much as self-abnegation: “With a final effort he shut his heart to Tamami.”

One of the few pleasures of Ramzi’s ascetic existence is music, and for this purpose he visits the kotha of Gohar Jan, a courtesan celebrated more for her classical recitals than her now-ebbing beauty. Celibate in deference to his art, Ramzi shares a great deal more with Gohar Jan than either of them suspected at first meeting. She too feels “despair at the snapping of the thread that connected her past, present and future”. She is graciously and heroically holding on to all the good in a world giving way to something uglier, and while she and Ramzi have similar outlooks, there is a vital difference in how they treat their loved ones. Of the characters who people this story, Gohar Jan is perhaps the one who understands her predicament most fully and succumbs to it with true nobility. She does not try to rail against the growing religiosity around her, evidenced by the new maulvi—clearly an opportunist (though a benign amateur when compared to those who will follow)—who refuses to accept her donation towards the restoration of the local mosque. Yet, even Gohar Jan, a woman who prepares for every eventuality, finds that she has failed to anticipate the final blow her faith will deal her.

WHILE NOSTALGIA FOR PAST SPLENDOUR is a fairly universal sentiment, it amounts to a fetish in South Asia where, if the past had been as idyllic, as honourable and as faultless as it is imagined to be, the present would presumably have found itself in better shape. This book, however, doesn’t succumb to the lazily romanticised concept of the ‘good old days’.  On the contrary, it turns it on its head. In fact, Between Clay and Dust turns entirely, like a sonnet, about two-thirds of the way in. And it does so with such manifest skill. The novel is not an elegy on the past, as one would suspect: It is a level-headed mapping of both the good that’s been lost and the bad that one is better off without. Change, especially when brought about by seismic events like the Partition, can be brutal and frightening, but the only thing more painful than change is no change at all, for when one celebrates the dead past, one is too often celebrating all the rigidity it adhered to.

It is the fashion among critics nowadays to throw the word ‘devastating’ about like birdseed, but it belongs here, to Between Clay and Dust. This is the most poignant, the most subtle, the most moving novel I have read in the past few years from this, or any, region. A natural storyteller, Farooqi imagines a world we thought we were familiar with and then pulls the rug out from under our feet.  It is a testament to his craftsmanship that he does this without resorting to that other South Asian specialty, melodrama.  He has staved off melodrama in large part due to his choice of lean language that has not an ounce of fat, and by creating characters that live and breathe as we do, with “souls and elbows”, as they say.

The acrid smell of the wilted jasmine flowers in the copper bowl, and the sight of the perfume-soaked cotton plugs in the glass bowl reminded Gohar Jan of Malka who used to arrange them for the mehfils. Something told her she was not to return. Gohar Jan had foreseen Malka going away from her life and was reconciled to it when it occurred. With her decision never to attach herself to any one man, Gohar Jan had also prepared herself for a life of solitude. She had assumed that it was not given to her to find satisfaction in a relationship. She found it instead in a discipline that needed a similar degree of tending and self-sacrifice.

Farooqi’s writing is a stark and welcome contrast to the many subcontinental novels that practically haemorrhage excess description, usually to make the exotic locale do half the writer’s work. Between Clay and Dust is so pared down that not a detail makes it without good reason. “The acrid smell of the wilted jasmine flowers in the copper bowl” is ostensibly the description of a room, but also serves to reaffirm the sense of decay, of dying beauty, barely preserved.

While this may be Farooqi’s most ambitious novel to date, he is by no means new to this gig. His The Story of a Widow (2009), which was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, is a small, quiet and immensely subtle novel which lost out to HM Naqvi’s more brazen Home Boy. Mona, a recently-widowed mother of two, is befriended by her neighbour’s tenant, Salamat Ali. The glamour of romance rears its head, causing Mona to reconsider her first marriage, her belief system at large and what she can reasonably expect from life. While the setting and characters are entirely dissimilar, The Story of a Widow, like Between Clay and Dust, looks behind the surface of respectability and isn’t entirely blown away by what it finds.

Farooqi is perhaps best known as the translator of the epic The Adventures of Amir Hamza (originally, Dastan-e Amir Hamza), which was an enormous undertaking.  When he started writing fiction, he was drawn to fables and fairytales. “I like writing stories for children. I never did prefer the adult of the species...” he said to me in an interview. His children’s fiction is grounded in the strong storytelling tradition of fables and folktales but breaks away from the school of thought that insists children’s stories be morality tales. In retelling the folktale ‘Monkeyshines’, published in the collection  The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories (2011), he went so far as to replace the original moral. “In the original Urdu folktale the monkey turns away from all mischief after the beating,” Farooqi said. “From personal knowledge I know a monkey would never ever turn away from mischief. So to have let the original moral stand would have gone against Nature. Furthermore, I am against reforming monkeys. So my personal politics also intervened.”

This is playful, subversive writing in the tradition of Roald Dahl. But it is also uniquely Farooqi’s own. His children’s fiction does not have any particular locale, and the worlds in his retellings are geographically neutral—to not rely on his environment to do half the writing for him goes to prove his storytelling prowess.  In The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories, a character named Snotbog is found a few pages from another character named Moochhander. Written for an international market, and published successfully in South Asia, where it was shortlisted for the 2011 Comic Con India Award in the ‘Best Publication for Children’ category, it has not yet found a publisher in the West. Farooqi says that Western publishers find it difficult to categorise his children’s fiction; they look at his past work translating Urdu language classics, then look at the stories of piglets and ogres, try to find a common thread, and draw a blank.

Between Clay and Dust belongs to yet another genre. While it is a slender book, the tradition it borrows from most is that of the Victorian novel—employing a restrained realism, speaking of everyday events, and using a rational but flawed protagonist whose personality changes as the story arc progresses, culminating in his painful deeper understanding of both the changing world around him and, necessarily, also himself. While the concept of the Pakistani literary boom is dodgy at best, this novel undoubtedly marks the arrival of a major new player.