Muscular story of a wrestler & courtesan

This review appeared in the Asian Age on April 11

The hands of two wrestlers frozen in a near clasp, one (of the vanquished?) buried in sand, the other (of the victor?) nestled above it, amidst a carnival of soil and dust. The wrinkled hand on top, half-hidden, half-visible, tells you the wrestler isn’t young any more.  If you were to judge a book by its cover, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s third novel Between Clay and Dust, after the Kafkaesque Salar Jang’s Passion and the Austenesque The Story of a Widow, is tantalising enough to command a read.

Between Clay and Dust, one of the first three books to be published by David Davidar’s
Aleph Book Company (Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto and The Taliban Cricket Club

by Timeri N. Murari are the other two), is a short, but muscular and moving story of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, a wrestler and a courtesan, a pahalwan and a kothewali, who have left their eras of eminence behind and are entering the twilight of their years. But, instead of choosing to go gently into the good night, they burn and rave, in their own subdued and quiet ways, at what seems to be the beginning of the end of their heydays.

In keeping with the book’s overarching theme, the story begins with ruin. In detailing the ruination of the “Inner City” in a chapter titled exactly that, Farooqi is subtle and sparse. The opening chapter, like the 41 others that follow, is short but admirably adequate. These chapters are like the strings of a musical instrument; together they weave melancholic melody out of the similar vicissitudes of its two key characters and the similar destinies that await them. The novel underlines that fame and fortune and life’s little tragedies and triumphs are but transient, and all of us have to return to the dust eventually.

The novel dwells on two great souls, whose spirits remain indefatigable to the end, and who, caught in the inexorable march of time and the strange changes it engenders, remain resolute in their days of reckoning, steadfast even if faced with greatest of challenges in the fleet of months preceding their retirement.

But let’s talk about the opening riff first. We are initiated into the Inner City, which has been left “unscathed” by the “ravaging winds of Partition: “The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls hadn’t touched this quiet habitation.” But the cleaving of the subcontinent had caused a “slow disintegration of values”. Devoid of its old inhabitants, the Inner City lies in a state of utter abandonment. But its worn stones “still intoned past splendour in broken whispers”.

Part of the Inner City’s past splendour were Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan. Ustad Ramzi, the custodian of a wrestler’s akhara, once held the highest wrestling title in the land, Ustad-e-Zaman. The title lay at the root of a long struggle between Ramzi’s clan and its rival; while the former had taken pains to defend it, the latter left no opportunity to snatch it away. But Ustad Ramzi’s world, as well as that of his rival, had been irreversibly shaken with the abolition of princely states whose rajas and nawabs had patronised and promoted the wrestling arts. Ramzi’s younger brother, Tamami, who aspires to the coveted title, has little luck with winning the consent of his elder who views the young wrestler as an
unworthy heir. Tamami once accepts a challenge for a bout with rival clan’s Imama and loses it. But to acquire the title of Ustad-e-Zaman, Imama must fight with Ustad Ramzi.

But before that happens he meets an unexpected end on the akhara at Tamami’s hands who gets violent while fighting yet another bout with him. Soon after, Ustad Ramzi disowns his sibling, who can’t handle his “humiliation” and takes to drugs. Ustad Ramzi could save his brother from going downhill. But he remains puffed up with pride even as his brother fights his battles alone, hoping that some day

his elder brother would forgive him. But Ustad Ramzi remains a prisoner to his own sense of propriety and pride.

When Tamami is gone, Ustad Ramzi, on a day of silent reckoning, wonders about the life he had given up and how “one association had brought to naught all his probity and care in the calibration of human relationships”. Gohar Jan, the intriguing courtesan, has an unlikely admirer in Ustad Ramzi, who has been so loyal to his field of activity (wrestling) he chose to stay celibate. Ustad Ramzi takes a shine to Gohar Jan’s raga recitals and frequents her mehfils. While it is his love for music that brings Ustad Ramzi to her kotha regularly, we discover towards the end that Gohar Jan looked upon Ustad Ramzi as an “anchor”.

Between Clay and Dust is a tale that wrestles with the themes of rectitude and retribution, pride and redemption, grief and guilt, love and loss. It is about the commotion of souls and the moral and emotional wherewithals that nobler souls among us possess to withstand time’s ravages, leaving behind robust and sturdy foootprints on its sands.

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