Parallel tales of a courtesan and a wrestler unevenly evoke an era erased, says Vikram Sampath
A BOOK should not be judged by its cover. Yet, the picture on the cover of Between Clay and Dust catches the eye. The symbolic interplay of clay and dust, signifying the ephemeral nature of life could not have been captured better. It provides an enticing entry into what lies within the covers. Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a gifted writer and has several works of fiction and translation to his credit. This novel, set in an unspecific city, narrates the story of two seemingly different individuals, both in the twilight of their lives, labouring under the burden of nostalgia. Ustad Ramzi, an ace wrestler, has the legacy of generations of pahalwans to carry on his able-bodied shoulders. Gohar Jan is a celebrated courtesan whose voice had enraptured aficionados across the country. The novel navigates the dwindling years of these powerful yet poignant characters, battling a series of misfortunes in their personal and professional lives.
Ramzi’s younger brother Tamami constantly strives to prove himself worthy of his brother’s love and respect, committing several blunders in the process. The reputation of the akhara being at stake, Ramzi ostracises Tamami for his foolish acts of omission. The kotha of Gohar Jan, once graced by the rich aristocrats, now stands the risk of being closed for ever. Farooqi paints a distressing picture of these falls from grace.
While the story and the lives of the protagonists are heart-wrenching, the narrative is not without its inherent, avoidable flaws. The first half reduces its characters with staid and monochromatic descriptions of their battles. There is hardly an attempt to recreate that past splendour to give weight to nostalgia of these two ageing doyens. The characters are fleshed out initially with a matter-of-fact, journalistic blandness. Farooqi opts for a dual narrative structure where he essays the lives of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan in parallel. But, in what turns out to be an uneven narration, he almost forgets Gohar Jan midway and the focus shifts entirely to Tamami, his tragic selfdestruction, akhara politics and scheming promoters trying to milk the situation to monetary advantage. Gohar makes a sad appearance after a few 100 pages by when she has almost evanesced from the reader’s mind. There is rich detailing of the wrestling world of pre-Independent India, the manner in which bouts were arranged and the preparation that pahalwans underwent. The same cannot be said of the courtesan culture. Gohar Jan, the singer, suddenly starts playing the sitar and beyond calling her concerts “raga recitals”, there is precious little detailing of the tawaif tradition. It is mentioned that many tawaifs fled from kothas for careers where they could use their musical training — doing that in India (or Pakistan) post-Partition was almost unthinkable as these women came under sharp political and social scrutiny. The effect of Partition or even the ‘Anti-Nautch’ campaign of the prude elite, against singing and dancing women, is barely correlated with the characters.
THE NARRATIVE picks up dramatically in the second half. Ramzi’s helplessness after he throws out Tamami, his doubts and his wilting under this regret are movingly depicted. Gohar Jan’s sudden death and the inability of her agent Banday Ali to find a resting place is tragic. The book leaves the reader with a heavy feeling and an indefinite sense of remorse. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of an era where professional honour and honesty to one’s art superseded everything else.
Sampath is the author of My Name is Gauhar Jaan!