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Between Clay and Dust

Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Aleph Book Compnay

Pages: 216 Rs. 450

Masterful rendition of two worlds ebbing away

Musharraf Ali Farooqi has written a wonderful, quiet novel about how traditions and lives can decline into unmeaning, writes Trisha Gupta

Trisha Gupta  29th Apr 2012

Musharraf Ali Farooqi

usharraf Ali Farooqi's first novel, The Story of a Widow (2009), was the delicate, understated tale of the middle-aged but still wooable Mona Ahmad, whose disciplinarian husband's sudden death leaves her in possession of an independent fortune and a desire to experience the freedom she's been denied all her adult life. One of the things that made that novel unusual, at least in the context of South Asian writing in English, was Farooqi's choice of protagonist: a woman who is no longer young, someone who has assumed that the pattern of her life is set forever, but now finds that she is a position to make changes.

The recently-released Between Clay and Dust also features older people being forced to grapple with unexpected change. But unlike Mona Ahmad, these characters are indisputably in their twilight years. The crumbling, once-grand domains of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, both barely surviving the post-Independence transformation of popular tastes, are a far cry from the comfortably-off Karachi in which Mona leads her cosseted existence. The end of princely patronage has sounded the death-knell for both Ustad Ramzi's akhara, once the focus of an unending stream of admiring fans and would-be pahalwans, and Gohar Jan's kotha. The great pahalwan and the celebrated tawaif must deal with a harsh new world, governed by the market on the one hand and an impersonal bureaucracy on the other.

But even as he describes lives that are increasingly affected by such unseemly things as municipal inspections and leaking roofs, Farooqi manages to retain a distant, otherworldly air. If his present-day Pakistan, as one grateful reviewer of The Story of a Widow pointed out, displayed a "complete absence of dictators, diasporas and post-9/11 traumas", his 1950s inner city has managed to remain unscathed by the "ravaging winds of Partition". Not for Farooqi the burgeoning historical canvas of an Amitav Ghosh, or even the unobtrusive (but omnipresent) detailing of a Vikram Seth. What we get instead is a setting that's left deliberately unidentified, the aim of the words less to recreate a known geography than to evoke a mood, distill an essence.

The elegiac mood is created as much by the inevitably tragic ebb in the tides of its protagonists' lives as by Farooqi's choice of language. There is an old-world quality to his prose that some might think teeters on the verge of purple — "The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation" — but that, if read with the cadences of an imagined other language echoing behind the English, feels exactly right.

There are moments, though, when this feeling of 'translatedness' begins to extend its welcome; for instance when Farooqi writes, "He always experienced a deep sense of harmony in that place" — rather than simply "there", or "turquoise-coloured mosaic panels" – rather than simply "turquoise" (my italics). Sometimes the awkwardness is just the outcome of sloppy editing: "his life, too, would have conformed to that of his elders' existence and become part of it". Other curious linguistic choices include the repeated use of 'raga recital' for Gohar Jan's evening mehfil, 'nayika' for tawaif, and words like 'ewer' and 'mattock' where the Hindustani equivalents or at least less archaic English words might have been less jarring.

There is an old-world quality to his prose that some might think teeters on the verge of purple but that, if read with the cadences of an imagined other language echoing behind the English, feels exactly right.

But none of these linguistic stumbling blocks can quite divert one from the pleasures of a tale well told. There is a bell-like clarity to Farooqi's delineation of his characters, his slow unraveling of their motivations and desires. Instead of doing anything as indignified as building towards a crescendo, Farooqi maintains a deliberate even tempo. Even the most dramatic events are described without drama.

n this carefully laid out world, balance is everything. Farooqi's arrangement of figures is almost perfectly symmetrical: if Gohar Jan's life is tied to her kotha, Ustad Ramzi's heart lives in the akhara — and in the graveyard of his ancestors that is attached to it. Ustad Ramzi's tumultuous relationship with his brash younger brother Tamami has as its counterpart Gohar Jan's complicated connection with the young tawaif Malka. The Malka episode — which I won't give away — hinges on the way a tawaif's life swings between freedom and necessity. And balance is also key to wrestling: as Ustad Ramzi's tragic epiphany goes, "Did the essence of his art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force?"

It feels somewhat unfair, then, that Farooqi decides not to balance the attention he gives his primary protagonists: Ustad Ramzi — and the world of the akhara, its pitchers of sardai and two-kilo-mutton breakfasts — gets far more space than Gohar Jan, who despite all her potential complexity, ends up playing a mere foil to Ustad Ramzi, yet another version of the golden-hearted courtesan we know only too well.

This is a quietly affecting book, with a profound understanding of tragedy: that what happens to us is as much a function of how we respond to events as the events themselves.

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