‘Between Clay and Dust’ by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Between Clay and Dust coverReviewed by Amy Attas

Between Clay and Dust is a story about pride. It is a story about the young and old failing to communicate, and failing to capitalize on each other’s strengths.

The story’s stage is post-Partition India, after the mass slaughter and mass migration of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus into Pakistan and India, a time when everyone suffered “the turmoil that…seared the fibre of men and gored their souls.” In this period of ruin and reimagining, Ustad Ramzi leads a traditional wrestling akhara. His once-undefeated body is now frail and it is time to pass on the practice, but he sees no one worthy of the job. His younger brother Tamami desperately wants to take over, but he lacks the restraint and respect needed for the position. In the same neighbourhood, Gohar Jan runs a failing kotha where men once came in droves to listen to her sing and bask in her feminine charms. She’s an accomplished musician whose beauty was once as well known as Ustad Ramzi’s wrestling skill, but her kotha is no longer popular and her skills no longer valued.

This tension between the young and the old, the modern and the traditional, feels particularly relevant as North America’s baby boomers retire. Our society would do best if the youth’s vigor and the senior’s expertise were both given voice. But too often the old are pushed out because their qualifications make them too expensive, and their expertise makes them threatening. The young struggle to find work despite their education, and encounter antiquated procedures that stifle instead of nurturing their ingenuity.

In Between Clay and Dust, the young are at the mercy of their emotions and often fail because they’re hot-tempered. But the old are slaves to tradition above all else, and lack compassion when dealing with their pupils. There are things that the young want from the old – in this story, it’s an entertaining wrestling match or a night in a sensuous room with a pretty singer – but they want them on their own terms. They aren’t willing to engage with the tradition or support their elders consistently; they want flashy entertainment free of decorum and commitment.

Author Musharraf Ali Farooqi (who splits his time between Toronto and Pakistan) uses an omniscient narrator to navigate these tensions with a keen awareness of what drives his characters. Take, for example, Farooqi’s description of the conflict between Ustad Ramzi and his younger brother, Tamami:

Ustad Ramzi’s pride would not allow him to ask another to take on his duties. When he was a trainee pahalwan, even to have the privilege to ask for an important task one had to first prove oneself worthy of it. He was willing to be persuaded to delegate the tasks, but Tamami never asked to take them on. He merely expressed surprise at Ustad Ramzi’s insistence on performing them himself when he could easily assign the work to one of the trainees.

That omniscient narrator contributes to a feeling that this is an old story, a well-worn story, where the teller is fully confident and articulate in the motivations and explanations of each character. In this way it is like a story from scripture, or a play from Shakespeare where the characters are hyperbolic, used almost as symbols for a certain type of human being. But don’t mistake that universality for cliché; these characters are as human as a neighbour who is at once unique and simultaneously reminds you of a hundred different men. This style of storytelling is more myth-like and removed than most modern literary fiction, but it is enchanting and revealing.

Like most people who learned English in the Indian sub-continent, Farooqi’s language would make Strunk and White, authors of The Elements of Style, roll in their graves. Basic rules like “use the active voice” are ignored, and other opinions, like, “rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating” are flagrantly violated. From the opening paragraph, this style will make many North American readers stumble:

The ruination of the inner city was attributed to time’s proclivity for change. It lay abandoned, half buried in and half surrounded by the squalor of shanty towns. New settlements cordoning it on three sides seemed to avoid the shadow of its sunken grandeur. Streets connecting new colonies skirted off its periphery. Links binding old and new neighbourhoods were either never formed or broken at the start. The wide serpentine alley of high, arched gateways dividing its residential and artisan quarters looked strangely desolate.

And yet, despite our stumbling, this language is an accurate representation of how people speak English in India. To write differently might be unfaithful to the culture being discussed. Furthermore, by the heart of the book this style is much less distracting; in fact it adds to the ambience of the book as much as sipping a chai while you read.

So does that mean that Strunk and White were stuffy racists from a time which is no longer relevant? Or perhaps there is only one kind of good English, and Farooqi’s writing style really is opaque, distracting, and in need of correction? The answer, I think, is somewhere in between. This book was a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and it deserves this high praise. But the language does, at times, divert attention from the story. Like a foreign accent, comprehension gets easier over time, but the fact that some parts are worse than others makes me think the novel needs one more edit for clarity. Lines like “he had turned his brother into his personal slave, fighting the shadows of his own fears” can stay; lines like “a few trainees also stepped forward and accompanied Kabira and Tamami outside for a short distance until Kabira sent them back” can have their fat trimmed.

There is no question, though, that Farooqi uses deft skill in cutting characters as tangible as sculptures, who are at once distinct and similar. The brothers, Ustad Ramzi and Tamami, are presented as polar opposites, but as the story evolves their familial similarities rise to the surface. The two aging leaders, Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, seem to be carbon copies when dealing with issues inside their houses – both cling to tradition for guidance, and scorn the emotion and hastiness of youth. However when the two leaders interact with each other, the nuances of their characters are immediately apparent, and it feels like they couldn’t be farther apart. When the story has spun out in tragic Macbeth-like proportions, Farooqi perfectly articulates the deep twisted doubts of Ustad Ramzi, who “increasingly felt that someone had lived inside him whom he had not fully recognized.”

The cover art for Between Clay and Dust is troubling. A recent post by africaisacountry.com had the Internet aflutter about the curse of the acacia tree on novels about Africa – even parts of Africa where acacias do not grow. Between Clay and Dust doesn’t take place in Africa, but it still features a silhouetted tree against a golden sunset. The novel features wrestling, music, brotherhood, non-sexual companionship, bureaucracy, and drugs; the cover features oddly-shaped stone buildings and a tree missing half its leaves. The cover is a mix of black and hot yellow, despite the fact that much of the book takes place during the rainy season. At least it doesn’t have a picture of a woman’s hands covered in bangles and henna, or worse, a token image of the Taj Mahal. The Indian publication’s cover was infinitely better, with an image of a wrestler’s hands and head, covered in the akhara clay they trained upon.

If I have left any doubt that Between Clay and Dust is an important and insightful novel, let me banish it with these masterful words from Farooqi about the challenges of mentorship. Using water as a metaphor for guardians, Farooqi illuminates the painful truth that nurturing in infancy can become toxic in adults; that what’s good for a baby is not good for a young man.

Heavy rains fell on the inner city after a long dry spell, washing away the layers of limestone paint from the old buildings, exposing more patches of their brickwork. Water, which had united elements in the process of construction, now aided in disintegration, allowing decay to make deeper inroads into the edifices. New cracks formed in the aged roofs and old walls. The ground-water rose. The old sewers overflowed and puddles of rainwater formed in the alleyways.

And that is only the beginning of the difficult truths Musharraf Ali Farooqi has to tell.


Freehand | 208 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1554812073

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