Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Between Clay and Dust - Musharraf Ali Farooqi

This is a classic too. Rarely does one come across a story that is told with such brevity, such clarity and such purpose. Musharraf Ali Farooqi impresses right away with his sparse and direct tone, the short chapters that do not go beyond 4-5 pages and no unnecessary flourishes in the language. A story must be told and nothing compromises that in 'Between Clay and Dust' and it is this feature that I loved about his work the most. It is very visual too and makes you see and smell the story as it moves along at a rapid pace. Another thing that I really liked was the way his characters rise above the ordinary, despite their ordinariness, and show glimpses of how our lives could be too if we gave in to that part of us. In these times when we celebrate mediocrity, such high paths and thought are rare, welcome and must be celebrated.
Aleph Books, 213 p, Rs. 450

It is the story of champion wrestlers. Ustad Ramzi is the title holder of Ustad-e-Zaman. He is proud and devoted to the art, and keeps it going in the traditions he was taught and beliefs he was brought up on. But he is now old and needs a successor to defend the title and also take over the akhara's management. His brother Tamami is a strong wrestler but of the newer generation, not so much driven by the passion to the art as much as the vanity of being the title holder. But his older brother does not relinquish the title in his favour, sensing the immaturity and irresponsibility of his younger brother. Tamami craves for his older brother's, his hero's, approval but gets none. In his life devoted to wrestling Ustad Ramzi never marries and in his older and lonelier years finds solace in the music of Gohar Jan and her kotha. She, in return finds a sense of purpose that wears off from the older, brooding and purposeful Ramzi. As the frenzy increases from challenges to the brothers, fixed fights, Tamami's rise to fame and infamy, his sinking into drugs and the old Ustad's uncompromising values the story takes us through human strength and fallibility, love and hate in their weird shades, but mostly of lives lived and lost with passion.

There were a couple of moments in the book when I thought Farooqi could have turned its course and made it something much bigger. A fight between Tamami (who is built up so well as a prize fighter) and their natural enemies, that could have killed all the demons between him and his older brother, perhaps a moment of truth between the lonely Gohar Jan and Ustad Ramzi that could have given them both some peace, would have raised it all towards the climax into something of epic proportions. Even Malka goes away without any resolution - too many similarities between Ustad Ramzi and Tamami's relationship with Gohar Jan and Malka's to let go so easily. Perhaps that's just the filmy type in me that craves such endings but I suddenly felt cheated at the way Tamami recedes when there was so much potential. But then, all stories need not resolve themselves happily and there are mistakes to be made and lessons to be learned.

It's a brilliant book. It's a story well told. After so long have I read a book that leaves you with the same feelings as perhaps a great movie does, it's that good in its story telling and clarity. There is never any confusion about what happened and to whom and why and where unlike most books where you don't remember the who, why, what, where and how and all you are left with is beautifully written prose. I suspect that the story will remain in its pristine clarity in my mind for eternity. I loved it for more than one reason. It's in a way sports fiction too, which makes it even more fascinating. Farooqi's descriptions of the wrestling bouts are picture perfect and take you right into the akhara, into the clay and dust, the sweat and fear, so good is he. And it's such a quick and pleasurable read that you can do it all in four or five hours. Do read it.

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