Between Clay and Dust

2012, Aleph Book Company (India)

2013, Restless Books (US)


Ustad Ramzi was once the greatest wrestler in the land, famed for his enormous strength and unmatched technique. Young apprentices flocked to his akhara to learn his craft, fans adored him, and rival wrestling clans feared his resolve that would never admit defeat. The courtesan Gohar Jan was just as renowned. Celebrated throughout the country for her beauty and the power and melodiousness of her singing, her kotha was thronged by nobles, rich men, and infatuated admirers.

The novel opens with a glimpse of these extraordinary characters in the twilight of their lives. Their skills are no longer what they once were, new challengers to their eminence have now arisen, their followers have melted away, and the adoring crowds are long gone. An immense catastrophe has laid waste to the country; its new inheritors and rulers have no time for the old ways and, stripped of their resources and their old powers, Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan must face their greatest challenge yet.


Supriya Nair in LiveMint/WSJ

  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi dedicates his new novel to Afzal Ahmed Syed, the Urdu poet who writes, in The Secret History of a Republic (not incidentally in Farooqi’s own translation), “Brought under the hammer/the Republic was declared destitute and ill-starred/Except for well-cared-for hunting fields/and/love-play couches of kept women/which attracted the highest bids.” Much of the action of Between Clay And Dust alternates between sporting arenas and women’s rooms, in spaces which we tend to think of as repositories of our memories, rather than our histories. Perhaps this accounts for the power of this small, spare book, a novel which fulfils the most novelistic of purposes—to refract history through the prism of memory, and to tell us its secrets and doubts. Between Clay And Dust opens in an unnamed city, in the austere confines of an akhara. The ageing pehelwan, Ustad Ramzi, worries about how to preserve the glorious ascetic tradition of wrestling in which generations of his family and disciples have been brought up. His life of rigid principle has left him ill-prepared for change outside the akhara, and the ways in which that change intrudes into his own world, through his young, impetuous brother and heir Tamami. We guess that this story is set some time after Partition, but not exactly when, or on which side of the India-Pakistan border. Yet, beyond the atmosphere Farooqi creates for his story, this becomes immaterial to our reading. Ustad Ramzi’s dilemma, the struggle of the very disciplined in an undisciplined world, is timeless. The ustad has one escape from worldly turmoil, the music of the courtesan Gohar Jan, who is also an artiste from a fading world. The mansions of the tawaifs (courtesans) are closing fast as the story opens, prey to new construction and new morality. Gohar Jan, a graceful, remote woman, has dedicated her life to her music. But while Ustad Ramzi’s art is founded on ideas of social and moral purity, hers lies outside the boundaries of propriety altogether. So Gohar Jan, perhaps circumstantially, becomes a foil to Ustad Ramzi; as a woman and something of a pragmatist, she sees, forgives and accepts changes that he cannot. As her street grows dark and silent, and her own disciples leave her halls, it occurs to her “that among the many men who frequented her kotha, Ustad Ramzi was the only one for whom she remained only a voice. It was strange that at the end of her career he was the only person with whom she shared her deep relationship with her art.” They must both come to a reckoning in the end, and Farooqi traces the unravelling of their world with near-uncanny attentiveness. Gone is the air of suppressed hilarity that pervaded his last novel, 2008’s The Story of a Widow. But the careful tread of that story through the inner lives of its characters is echoed here too. Farooqi’s narrative voice is cool and hypnotic, almost impassive in its patience. The Story of a Widow had admirers comparing him both to Jane Austen and Vikram Seth. But while his talent for social observation—the basis for that praise—remains as keen as ever in this book, Farooqi does something far too original here to make those comparisons useful. His Gohar Jan remains, at the end of the story, something of an unknown quantity, in spite of the time we have spent with her. That may seem befitting of such a private character, and we are not left dissatisfied. But Farooqi’s true victory in this book is Ustad Ramzi, a patriarch who evokes both our sympathy and our discomfort. His sins may seem smaller than those of a society rushing headlong into the future, but Farooqi’s writing is too wise and too elegant to make this a romance instead of a tragedy. As in Syed’s poem, we are left with the notion that every history is underwritten by the minute, private failures of human beings.

Mihir S. Sharma in Business Standard

  • There is a truth about recent novels from Pakistan that few are comfortable accepting. And that truth is that they are often novels of discovery, in which the authors – while professing a writerly disdain for any larger purpose – nevertheless set out to explain that troubled country. This is not an unsurprising aim, as these novels’ creators have lived and worked in literary and political circles in the West, drawing from there the questions that drive their plots and their own sense of their work’s audience. And, of course, this coincidence of wants partly explains the recent attention such novels have received in the West and in India. If Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust does not receive the rapturous attention that it deserves, it will be because it breaks free of these restraints. It begins a decade after Partition, in the old part of a town somewhere in the northern part of the subcontinent. It seems an essential part of Mr Farooqi’s project that we do not know whether, in fact, the town he is writing of is in India or in Pakistan — since he attempts to tell of the passing of the composite, Urdu-speaking urban culture that Partition wiped off the map. He chooses two characters, both invested in aspects of that vanished civilisation, as embodiments of its graciousness, its virtues and its flaws. Both are ageing, their eyes dimming as they look back towards a more brilliant time when royal patronage in an undivided nation allowed their arts to rise above commerce. One is a champion wrestler, who runs an akhara with meticulous attention to ritual and tradition; in spite of aching knees, he always kneads and scents the clay on which the bouts will occur himself. The other is a courtesan, who wakes up before dawn every day to sing her riyaaz to the rising sun. Both of them must confront the passage of time and the death of their art; one accepts it with good grace, and the other rages against it, making one poor decision after another. Both of them lose those they should have mentored — in a reminder that traditions die not just because the world changes, but because they are murdered by those who hew to them too closely. This book is a pleasure to read. The first from David Davidar’s new Aleph imprint, it is perfectly produced, its thick, elegant, old-fashioned paper and monochromatic design satisfyingly complementing the story it tells. And Mr Farooqi’s language is never laboured or strained. Beneath the simple, rhythmic, formal sentences of his English it seems possible to detect the Urdu of which he a master, allowing you to believe, almost, that you are reading an excellent translation of a book you have read before in another language. That this is by design, not accident, is revealed towards the end, when one character meets a municipal commissioner who delivers a short speech about the duties of a civic official. It jars — and not just because this entire book is about a more antiquated notion of duty than the bureaucrat is outlining. It jars because Mr Farooqi shifts register effortlessly for that passage into an English that is more recognisably the English of today’s subcontinent, of position papers and newspaper reports and public defences of private probity. Of course, to those familiar with Mr Farooqi’s previous work – translating the riotous Lucknowi epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, and writing a hilarious, mock-solemn interpretation of the cult Punjabi film Maula Jatt as a foot-fetishist’s Sholay – it will be doubly clear that the restrained style of Between Clay and Dust is consciously chosen. That Mr Farooqi’s book is different from many others that have emerged from Pakistan of late is, perhaps, not unrelated to the fact that he himself has had a trajectory as a writer that is out of the ordinary. After dropping out of engineering school and starting a small literary magazine in Karachi, he emigrated to Canada at the time that city began one of the convulsions of violence it has suffered of late. In Toronto, he worked for over a decade in fast-food restaurants and packing factories, borrowing Urdu books from public libraries, writing and translating at night. This is a life story that gladdens a reader’s heart. It means that, as is so rare in today’s subcontinent, the writer writes because something within him needs to come out, and from devotion to his craft — the archaic principle, indeed, that Farooqi celebrates in this book. One is left wondering if such drive to create, such love of the subcontinent’s composite culture, is essential to write a Between Clay and Dust. If so, it is even more unique and precious.

Naseeruddin Shah

  • "A privileged peek into the mind of the pahalwan and courtesan, the subcontinent's most intriguing symbols of romance. Storytelling at its best."

Sunil Sethi in Outlook India

  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel is the literary equivalent of an artfully executed miniature painting. In its meticulous planning and circumscribed space, a cast of vigorously modelled characters and their subtle movements and emotions leap into life; the fluency of the narrative and unfolding of the story owe something to the conventions of dastangoi, the Urdu art of storytelling…. This is that rare novel where gesture, nuance and suggestion underscores, and often takes precedence, over dialogue and dramatic action…. Decline and disintegration are inevitable, Musharraf Ali Farooqi suggests in this novel of parable-like luminosity that took him ten years to finish, as nascent ruins overlay the old.

Faiza S Khan in Caravan Magazine

  • This is the most poignant, the most subtle, the most moving novel I have read in the past few years from this, or any, region. A natural storyteller, Farooqi imagines a world we thought we were familiar with and then pulls the rug out from under our feet… While it is a slender book, the tradition it borrows from most is that of the Victorian novel—employing a restrained realism, speaking of everyday events, and using a rational but flawed protagonist whose personality changes as the story arc progresses, culminating in his painful deeper understanding of both the changing world around him and, necessarily, also himself. more

Basharat Peer in OPEN Magazine

  • Between Clay and Dust is a haunting meditation on a man’s fanatical attachment to his art, status and power, and its fallout on his relationships… [A] moving, wise, and an incisive glimpse into our souls. It is also a great movie waiting to be made.

Afia Aslam in Papercuts Magazine/DWL

  • 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. 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.

Trisha Gupta in The Sunday-Guardian

  • There is a bell-like clarity to Farooqi's delineation of his characters, his slow unraveling of their motivations and desires. Instead of doing anything as indignified as building towards a crescendo, Farooqi maintains a deliberate even tempo. Even the most dramatic events are described without drama... This is a quietly affecting book, with a profound understanding of tragedy: that what happens to us is as much a function of how we respond to events as the events themselves. more

Nawaid Anjum in The Asian Age

  • 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.