A Wrestler and a Courtesan

A quiet story about a divided land gathers depth with every turning page

Written by Parvatisharma | Published:July 21, 2012 3:43 am

Book: Between Clay and Dust

Author: Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Publisher: Aleph

Pages: 213

Price: Rs 450

Most chapters in Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s second novel,Between Clay and Dust,are shorter than this review; this sentence is already longer than most of the spare,unencumbered units of prose that build the book. This is a narrative entirely devoid of linguistic fireworks,in fact,and of what its author has recently decried as the “cleverness” too many writers aim for. There is no fancy wordplay here,no self-conscious syntax,no drama. Instead,we have a quiet story,quietly told,gathering not so much momentum as depth with every turning page.

It begins shortly after Partition in “the inner city”. Not “an” inner city,mind,but “the”,indicating a generalised inner city that might be located on either side of the newly drawn border. Whether it is Delhi or Lahore makes little difference to the story,and this you may take as indication of its politics or apolitics as you will,and that is not really the point. Briefly,as we begin,the inner city hangs in a moment of inertia: “The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation.” An overwhelming sense of decay pervades its “disfigured architecture” however; and already,its tombstones are being used to fuel new construction.

Farooqi,who has translated versions of the Urdu epic fantasy Tilism-e-Hoshruba,and has also written for children,brings something of the fairytale to his novel. His protagonists,then,are the pahalwan and the courtesan,figures teetering at the very edge of the real. Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan both practise dying arts,and do so with dying notions of honour and pride. Both must also find ways of engaging with representatives of a younger generation who depend on them for directions towards their own place in the world. Gohar Jan has raised the foundling Malka without any apparent affection,while Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with his much younger brother Tamami — a pahalwan in waiting — is rife with incomprehension and tragedy.

Here,for example,Ustad Ramzi experiences the “weakest moment of his life”,having only just managed to win a bout against an old rival:

“Just then he felt someone’s hand on his shoulder,and turned to find Tamami standing by his side. Tamami had tears in his eyes as he quietly embraced Ustad Ramzi. His presence there annoyed Ustad Ramzi. ‘Get rid of your tears!’ he snapped,breaking away from him. Tamami withdrew without a word.”

It seems as if nothing Tamami does fails to set Ustad Ramzi’s teeth on edge — for the most part because the old wrestler doesn’t think his rather more careless brother will be able to defend the clan’s honour,specifically the title of Ustad-e-Zaman that Ustad Ramzi has guarded for 15 years. Tamami,by contrast,is more easily moved — by compassion or self-pity,and often to tears. For better or worse — and in a more “modern” way,certainly,than his brother — Tamami is in touch with his feelings.

Such ideas,of honour and compassion,of one world of art and another of feelings,of a world of royalty and patronage being rushed into the past by newer ambitions and bureaucracies — these perform a slow dance with each other in Between Clay and Dust,leaving the reader with a growing sense of loss,so much so that as you turn the last page,you may well find tears in your eyes.

How Farooqi manages to create such lingering emotional impact without once manipulating the emotions of his readers is the greatest pleasure and mystery of his work. Every scene,every confrontation,every moment of incipient love is rendered in a language so simple it seems almost — but not quite — banal. Sentence after unadorned sentence follows the other,from one chapter to the next,with no intention except to tell the story. It’s an ascetic kind of storytelling and what it achieves is to distil an essence — not of inner cities,or of akharas and kothas,but of an intensely human preoccupation: death.

“Sometimes it is a difficult thing,” Gohar Jan tells Ustad Ramzi,“to go through life carrying all the memories of your family,knowing that both the memories and the family will end with you.”

By this time the celibate pahalwan is the courtesan’s only client,though that is hardly the right word. He comes to listen to her sing; and she sings for him. They are both falling into that good night. The inner city is engulfed in a damp melancholy,and it seems only certain that any rage they feel against the dying of the light shall be fizzled out by a leak sprung in the roof.

Parvati Sharma is the author of ‘The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love’

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