Demons Within Gods: A Review of Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
They had cleared the debris from the field and sprinkled the grounds with water to settle the dust. The akhara clay had been turned several times to remove lumps, and later kneaded with turmeric and aromatic herbs.
It was the sport of gods. The mythical Rustum, whose name is still synonymous with herculean power, was a warrior and a pehlwan (wrestler). In Zoroastrian tradition, when Zarathustra was readying himself to fight his nemesis (the Ahriman or ‘destructive spirit’) he referred to pehlwani as a divine gift. The Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, spoke of the wrestling prowess of Bhima and the god Hanuman.
In the enclosure Ustad Ramzi put on his fighting drawers. A white turban fumigated with incense was tied on his head by an elder of the clan and his shoulders were draped with a coverlet embroidered with Quranic verses. Tamami and the trainees carried him to the exhibition ground on their shoulders, reciting the qasida burda to solicit an auspicious outcome.
The scriptures tell us that man was made from clay, and must eventually turn to dust. Between these two states he has moments of divinity and instances of terrible failure. It is this atmosphere of destiny and struggle that surrounds the inhabitants of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel, Between Clay and Dust (Aleph, 2012). The book follows the fortunes of two brothers, Ramzi and Tamami, who are trained in the art of kushti (Indian wrestling) and who are forced to face their inner demons in their divergent pursuits of greatness. Their struggle takes on an added significance against the backdrop of Partition – a time of great opportunity and merciless change in the subcontinent at large, but particularly for the ‘inner cities’, where the old traditions still survived.
Location is an important factor in this story. While Farooqi does not let on which city the novel is set in, the characters are firmly rooted in their familiar spaces. In fact, in the rapidly shifting socio-political climate following Partition, they almost cease to exist outside of these spaces. Ustad Ramzi, the older brother, lives between the akhara and the pehlwans’ ancestral graveyard (once again, between clay and dust). Outside of that, his influence – one might even argue, relevance – is greatly diminished. The only other location where he establishes some legitimate space for himself is in the kotha of Gohar Jan, the courtesan. She, in turn, is also inextricably attached to the courtesans’ enclave – we almost never see her move out of her kotha, and the need to stay in ‘her place’ becomes all the more evident as her relationship with Maulvi Yameen, the local cleric, deteriorates. Between them, these three spaces (the akhara, the kotha and the masjid) represent three pivots on which Farooqi makes the life of the inner city spin.
The architecture of this novel is thus simple, but it is an artful and deliberate simplicity. Farooqi is not out to change any paradigms or to teach his readers anything new. He is simply striking a match where there is already fuel for fire, and he draws liberally on existing social constructs to do this. The book seems in parts to romanticise the past (for example, the beginning reads like an elegy for the pre-Partition era) and the reader is asked to accept a rudimentary view of historical change, in which there is a stark divide between the old and the new. Even in characterisation, Farooqi does not try to rock the boat; he focuses instead on layering the characters so as to make them as real and as familiar as possible. For instance, the reader finds herself rooting for the good courtesan and riling up against the overzealous cleric. This is predictable, but there is no doubt that it is happening because the story is hitting a real nerve somewhere.
Indeed, Between Clay and Dust seems to pull its characters out of the very hearts of its readers, to dust our denial off them and to put them out in the open sans any pomp or ceremony, with all their strengths and their faults plain to see. This is the extraordinary strength of this novel: it could be anyone’s tale. The characters, right down to the masterfully crafted fight-promoter, Gulab Deen (a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting player), will keep reminding readers of someone they know.
In many ways, this is a book about faith – faith in people, in principles, in society. It is also a book about human nature and how it betrays the same people, principles and society. By choosing two siblings as his protagonists, Farooqi eliminates the white noise of a sexual relationship and is thus able to cut directly to the basest human emotions and to explore the insecurities that plague us all at a more primal level.
It is the age difference between the brothers that makes the relationship more complex (one is old enough to be the other’s father) and that in turn saves this from becoming a classic Kane and Abel drama. The power equation is skewed from the very beginning, and yet the battle is inevitable. One of the beautiful ironies of the book is that it is set in an akhara – a pehlwan’s battleground – but the real tussle takes place outside of the arena, between the hearts and minds of the two brothers.
This is one book that ought to be judged by its cover. The stirringly beautiful cover image shows two hands frozen mid-motion as they vigorously rub clay on a wrestler’s head in preparation for a match. Amidst the flurry of movement, all that is visible are disembodied hands at work with clay. It could be a depiction of the creation of Adam just as much as the ceremonial grooming of a pehlwan. Between Clay and Dust is easily one of the best-looking volumes to have emerged from the English fiction scene in South Asia, and the surreal divinity of its cover echoes the soul of the novel. Despite the melancholic historical tone of the book, its observations on human nature will strike a chord with any reader in any era. It has all the makings of a classic and is likely to go down as one in the canon of South Asian literature.
The italicised portions at the beginning of the review are quotes from the novel.