As far as intimate epics – that beloved but apt oxymoron of reviewese – go, Between Clay and Dust is intimate enough to pass for a whisper in the middle of pillow talk between two lovers. And yet its richness in capturing a culture at the moment of expiry is the stuff of epics. Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s novel, shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, is historical fiction without the history and a love story with no shot at romance. Perhaps that’s why it works: it runs against the naturalistic expectations of most South Asian–themed fiction and does so on its own, quiet terms.
In an inner city in post-Partition Pakistan (i.e. the early 1950s), Ustad Ramzi, a defending champion pahalwan (wrestler), is fending off attempts by his brother, Tamami, to become the title holder, while simultaneously reacting to threats from other pahalwans. His mind is strong but the flesh keeps getting weaker by the day. A variation on the fading-glory and dying-arts theme emerges in the singer and courtesan Gohar Jan, whose kotha (salon) once served as the meeting place of pre-Partition socialites. Ustad Ramzi and Gohar find comfort in each other, but in this narrative, personal happiness proves too lofty a goal.
Farooqi’s defiantly understated prose recreates a world that history books tell us once existed, but renders it free from the burdensome specifics of time and political events. Between Clay and Dust is a novel whose characters are invested in their own mythologies and resent the passage of time, and the author’s de-historicized approach enhances the lyricism of the writing. It also has the added bonus of elevating Ustad Ramzi and Gohar to the level of folk heroes while allowing them to remain relatable to readers. Although their gender roles follow such stereotypical lines that one can imagine Peter MacKay – sorry, his staff – nodding in approval, Ustad Ramzi’s physical vulnerability is palpable while Gohar’s mental resolve shows signs of the heroic. There’s timelessness, sorrow, and so much emotional delicacy in their brief encounter.