Sunday, July 1, 2018

Between Clay and Dust Paperback – September 8, 2015 by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Restless Books)

Between Clay and Dust commences in 1950 in Pakistan, just after Partition from India. In 1935 Ustad Ramzi won the highest wrestling title in the land. He is now the custodian of a wrestlers’ akhara. The akhara (training academy) was where a man became a man – where “a man made of clay came in contact with his essence.” But the future of the sport is uncertain and training academies are declining. Adjacent to the akhara is a private cemetery where Ustad Ramzi’s unfilled grave lies waiting for him. He has no wife and no children because he “vowed to remain celibate to achieve perfection in his art.”

Gohar Jan was an extremely accomplished singer and sitar player. She now has her own kotha (training academy) where girls receive instruction in the arts of musical entertainment. It was the largest and most famed kotha in the land. So serious was the discipline that if girls fell in love, they had to choose to leave the academy or to leave their romance. Gohar Jan herself had never married, remaining committed solely to her art.

Ustad Ramzi makes regular visits to Gohar Jan’s academy, where he could “understand how music could quieten the aggressive humours of his soul.” He passes on custodianship of his academy to his brother, Tamami, 20 years his junior. But the academy soon falls into disarray.

Gohar Jan’s academy is losing its high-class appeal too – it smells of dampness, the carpets are musty, dust is gathering, fewer people are attending, and the music rooms are quiet. She retains her faithful long-time servant, Banday Ali, even though he is addicted to opium. Malka, 23 years old – whom Banday Ali found as a baby left on the academy’s doorstep, and raised by Gohar Jan when the orphanage could not take her – wanted to stay at the academy. Malka was pretty but she grew up to be “cold and reserved” – and Gohar Jan had never allowed her to perform. Gohar Jan encourages Malka to become Hayat’s bride and leave the academy, which she shuts down. Now Gohar Jan has to come to terms with solitude without Malka and her clients.

Ustad Ramzi has a bout with his younger brother. Tamami feels as if his strength has been proven when he defeats Ustad. Now the hero of the academy, Tamami competes in further wrestling matches despite his constant joint pain. He takes drugs to relieve the agony, but his match with Imama brings unintended consequences.

Gohar Jan is surprised when Ustad Ramzi visits the academy – hadn’t he heard that it had closed? There was no-one to perform for him. Not wanting to send Ustad Ramzi away, Gohar Jan picks up the sitar and plays.

The area where they live is re-zoned into a commercial district, and investors are interested in Ustad Ramzi’s and Gohar Jan’s properties. They are now both retired, and are both faced with a major decision – to sell their training academies (their homes) or not.

Farooqi’s novel is about the shift in the lives of two once-famed individuals, now in their ‘twilight’ years: the shift from fame to obscurity, and authority to loss of power. Their skills are no longer sought after or valued, just as the old government before Partition gives way to a new regime, with major changes and restructuring.

Bare writing depicts bare emotions. Restrained writing depicts the restrained and disciplined lives of Ustad and Gohar. Farooqi explores themes such as avoiding humiliation, retaining integrity and identity, and the realization of the two characters that their strength of body and discipline are declining. The 

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