December 6, 2012 by markstani
This is my second review as part of the ‘Shadow’ Jury for this year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize. For all our longlist reviews, refer to the MAN Asian 2012 page above.
It may have the sport at its core, but it would be doing a great disservice to Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay And Dust (pub. Aleph) to describe it simply as a wrestling yarn. This is no paean to the golden era of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks; nor is it likely that a ripped-up Mickey Rourke will pop up playing the title role in Hollywood any time soon.
Across the sub-continent, wrestling has always been about so much more than masked avengers and overweight pantomime villains. To many, it has embodied the very essence of masculinity itself; a sport shrouded in myth and legend, adhering to a strict etiquette unchanged over centuries.
‘Between Clay And Dust’ is set a decade or so after Partition in an unnamed city – it is also unclear whether it is part of India or Pakistan, but the author’s inference is clear: it is of no consequence, for this is a story that breaches man-made borders of time, religion and politics, a land in which rival clans wrestled for superiority in the sacred akharas or wrestling arenas, where the ultimate prize was the Ustad-e-Zaman – the highest ranking wrestling title in the land.
The novel’s central character, Ustad Ramzi, has devoted his life and soul to the sport:
The akhara was a hallowed place for him, where a man made of clay came in contact with his essence. On the day he first put on the fighter’s belt and stepped into the akhara, Ustad Ramzi made the pahalwan’s traditional pledge to strive for the perfection of his body and soul until he returned to earth upon his death. The akhara, which is patriarchs had tended with their labour and sweat, was still the mainstay of his life. It had always been guided by the example of his elders, and as it was before, so it was now.
But Ramzi is facing up to the erosion of this world, which is the only one he covets. Partition has led to the steady crumbling of old-fashioned cultures, and has diminished the importance of the akhara. Ramzi’s own plight mirrors that of his sport: his health is declining, but he cannot bring himself to entrust the superiority of his clan to his younger brother Tamami, whom he believes does not pay heed to wrestling’s sacred rituals. Tamami, for his part, is growing frustrated at his brother’s stubbornness, and their mutual frustration will escalate towards the point of tragedy.
In a parallel narrative, the ageing Gohar Jan runs a kotha – effectively, though not implicitly, a brothel – in the courtesan’s quarter. Like the akhara, the kotha and its almost Geisha-like traditions and structures are buckling under the weight of change. As Ramzi’s plight worsens, he seeks solace in Gohar Jan’s evening sitar recitals: together, they mourn a world upon which they are slowly losing their grip.
If there is any criticism to be made of ‘Between Clay And Dust’, it is that this secondary plot element takes some time to develop, not through any particular failing of its own part, but simply because it is overshadowed by Farooqi’s rich and vivid portrayals of the wrestling life and in particular the extraordinary training regimes of its protagonists:
Tamami’s preparations for the bout began. He was awakened at two in the morning. After saying his prayers, he drank milk in which the flowers of blue lotus and barberries, sandalwood powder, dry endive, myrobalan and green cardamoms had been soaked. He started his sit-ups under the supervision of Kabira and an assistant trainer, and then swung the pair of forty-kilo Indian clubs. Later, he set off on a five-mile run from the akhara to the clock tower and back.
‘Between Clay And Dust’ is a welcome antidote to the silliness and stereotype that so often attaches itself to stories with sport at their centre. You won’t find lurid tales of personal redemption here. Sad, elegant and under-stated, Farooqi’s is a beautiful novel: a book about the inevitable passing of time; a reminder of the importance of striking a balance between preserving old traditions whilst paving a way for the new.
It’s probably ridiculously premature to say it, but I’m going to have to read some seriously good books if this isn’t going to end up being a contender for my ‘Shadow’ MAN Asian Prize shortlist.