Staying in Pakistan, though admittedly with a complete shift in tone, today’s longlisted Man Asian Literary Prize novel is Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust, published by small Indian press Alpha Books. I don’t have a particular interest in sport novels, but then again, I read Chinaman and loved it, so I’m willing to be wowed again.
The old city, standing at the centre of the new city, is home to many people who have lived through a lot. One of the these people is Ustad Ramzi, well-known champion pahalwan, clinging to the old noble ways of wrestling. Another is Gohar Jan, an ageing courtesan, who is also hoping for a return to the old times. But the rest of society is moving past them, and together, they must weather the changes.
If Anjali Joseph’s novel is about the youth of today, then Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust provides us with a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. His characters are elderly and tired, having spent their lives in the service of their respective careers.
There’s probably little better in the world to act as a metaphor for fragility and ageing than sport. It doesn’t matter which sport it is—the idea of someone falling hard and fast from their physical and mental prime, falling from the ultimate symbol of (in this case) male strength and virility is a powerful one. In this case, Farooqi uses wrestling, complete with the trappings of culture and tradition that are inherent in these kinds of things to tell the story of modernisation, of young against old, of an old man realising he has no place in the modern world.
This is played out in the relationship between the two brothers that run the akhara. Ustad Ramzi, the older, has been reigning regional champion for many years, but he has come to realise that he can no longer handle the physical and mental demands of his chosen profession. But he cannot give the reigns of running the stables to his much younger brother, Tamami, who has spent his life living in the shadow of his much more successful older brother. And so Farooqi tells the story of an age-old tension—two brothers with different points of view and different agendas.
In many ways Ustad Ramzi create the Tamami he doesn’t like and cannot trust. He refuses to let his younger brother take over any duties or activities of the akhara, and so Tamami turns to acting out, to not taking wrestling seriously, as a way to kill time, or perhaps to attract the attention of his older brother. Neither trust the other to do what they want, because of the history between them. There is no easy way out for either of them to break this cycle.
But it is Ramzi who is the first to break. He allows Tamami to take the mantle of head fighter of the family stable, and there is a montage scene (because, what sporting story is complete without a good training montage?) in which Tamami bulks up in preparation for the bout against a representative of the opposing stable. Of course, Tamami loves the attention and the training he is getting, because he feels like he has deserved this for a long time. The ensuing fight is tough, and Tamami has been so trained, so conditioned to get angry when he fights, he snaps, and accidentally kills his opponent.
Ironically, it is Ramzi’s driving away of Tamami that causes the eventual collapse of the akhara, not the fact that Tamami is a new breed of pahalwan, willing to do things Ramzi might not once have been willing to do. His intense training for the bout caused his anger to rise, and he lashed out at his opponent. Wracked with guilt over what he as done, he turns to drugs, and so beginning a spiral to the bottom.
The sport itself is changing, too. There are promoters now, people trying to sell tickets and make the sport more exciting for those who pay good money for an evening’s entertainment. In many ways, it is no longer about the sport, but about the spectacle of the sport. People want to see something exciting, even if it means sacrificing traditions and long-held ideas about how the sport should be played. Gulab Deen sets up a stable of wrestlers willing to sacrifice some of the more traditional aspects of wrestling to make it more exciting, to have exhibition matches, to occasionally know the outcome of the match before it has even begun. Needless to say, Ustad Ramzi does not approve of Gulab Deen and his ways, but Tamami, someone willing to rebel against Ustad Ramzi in any way he can, finds himself a part of this merry band of wrestlers.
The side plot to all this is Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with Gohar Jan, the head of the local brothel—though that might be too strong a word. She, too, is finding her age catching up with her: as the world changes, she finds fewer people needing her services, or the services of her girls. Much of their relationship is left unsaid, but Ramzi finds solace in a woman he has known for a long time, and together, they enjoy traditional dance and music. These are nice scenes, and I would have liked to see more of this pushed throughout the novel.
It’s interesting to note that both main characters uphold what could politely be termed as traditional gender roles. Ustad Ramzi has spent his life riding on the fact that he is physically strong and imposing, using his masculinity to frighten others inside the ring, giving him celebrity and respect outside the ring. Meanwhile, Gohar Jan uses her femininity to make money from men looking for physical and emotional comfort.
Farooqi pulls these strands together in a very short novel(la). Many scenes are little more than a page long, lending the work a sense of control and precision usually seen in good short stories. But this is a full-length work, and Farooqi tackles his themes with aplomb. A small, but well-formed meditation on what it means to get old.