Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust does not receive the attention that it deserves, not least because his novel departs from the west influenced literary trend in Pakistan that has been in vogue in recent years. The book sets on the early post Partition years, in the old part of a town somewhere in the northern side of the subcontinent. The exact location of geography is blurred under the prominence of main plank which tries to recall the passing of the composite, Urdu-speaking urban culture that Partition tolled as relative loss.
Between Clay and Dust notes the changes in a confined plot, which too affected in the wake of bloody partition. Basically it investigates the change that made mostly disastrous impact on the precious possessions and beliefs of the people. Change antagonizes the value and existence of long living tradition, with escaping the truths that these things conventions hold prominence in personal and collective life. Between Clay and Dust establishes the rational in broadly defining, how to cope the changes to save the valuable tributes of tradition. But the change is not infact bad, only some of the endgames it leads appear like adversity.
The current literary genre of Pakistan is receiving high accolades in India and western countries, though most of the writings from that block lack the broader purpose in defining the trends and currents of change. The two prime characters of this novel appear like the successor of culturally rich civilisation, now on the wane under the wave of continental hate politics. Both are ageing and theirs nostalgia are for the patronage for creative works, which was actively prevailing before the partition in Indian subcontinent. Now the ‘patronage’ was a past practice and that was being substituted by the sense of high insecurity for ones art and life!
One among the characters is a champion wrestler, who runs an akhara with having high sense for ritual and tradition; the other is an accomplished courtesan performs riyaaz to the rising sun every day. Both the artists struggle with the passage of time and the extinction of their art; however the approaches are different-where one accepts it quite decently, and the other agitate against it. The most forceful revelation, these two characters feeds that the tradition dies not by itself or the changes but by the bearers of tradition, who forgets to act how it keep floating.
Between Clay and Dust resembles a fall-from-grace story, although that decline is more related with the characters than the overall phase of late fifties, on which the book is centered. The central argument of Farooqi states beyond the obvious and goes deeper to the unpredictable zone of human behaviour. Primarily, the author says that one’s weakness is part of being the controller of own action, in external sphere, the same person appears much dynamic and confident. Albeit here, the inner debate hardly defunct the existing social norms, neither it allows even a tint of room for pontification.
Between Clay and Dust is written in Farooqi’s favourite ‘restrained way’. Here he has followed the natural style of his earlier works-especially the translation of Lucknowi epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, and Sholay, based on iconic Punjabi film Maula Jatt. Farooqi goes the simple but elegant way with his prose, which addresses the concern related with the themes and the standard style of narration. Besides that, Farooqi’s keen eye for detail meticulously brings lively colours to the two main protagonists and their respective artistic and worldly existence.
Farooqi’s book is different from many others that have emerged not only from Pakistan but of south Asia, because of his natural urge to be in writing devoid the odds in his unusual career that began as dropout of an engineering college to turning later as petty restaurant worker to a sensible reader and translator of the rich Urdu literature. That sort of life is not so easy to lead; as Farooqi has did it before gaining credit of elite writer. His fiction is not solely imaginative, instead it’s culmination of long experiences that finally came out through this book, few writers going this way these days.
May be or not, this book will win the big prizes or popularity, but Farooqi has succeeded enough as a writer of sensible choice, hence even in conservative estimation, he will secure some fan among avid readers. Also, he should be happy being the first writer of Aleph, a literary enterprise run by the genius publishing brains. On the scale of design and editing as well, aesthetic presentation is superseding the optimum functionality. This work of fiction is worth of reading by the serious tribe of literary world, who may lately also think to add much needed constructive evaluation on such hard labored creative project. Most often, it lacks, so is this gentle reminder for greater common good!
Book Review: Fiction/Between clay and dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi , Aleph, 213 pp; Rs 450 (Hardback)
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist/ literary critic)