June 02, 2016

Of Wrestlers and Courtesans: Musharraf Ali Farooqi's Between Clay and Dust is good enough for a quick read

This review will probably my laziest review to date, and that’s because this book was incapable of rousing any emotion in me. I read it the way one flicks through a magazine while waiting at a dentist’s office: you might stumble across an interesting article, and there might be something that might catch your eye, but at the end of the day you willingly leave it behind you when your name is called.  

Probably the reason for this book’s failure to engage is in its inability to dig a little deeper, to give more complexity to issues just begging to be discussed. Musharraf Ali Farooqi writes from a distance, and the short chapters, lack of extended dialogues and overall aura of aloofness in the writing does the setting a disservice

It was not so much the changing times that troubled her, but the worst they seemed to bring out in people.

And this aloofness is a damn shame because on the surface this book has got some really cool stuff going on. It’s some time after partition, and while it remains unclear whether we are in India or Pakistan, the extraordinary part of the story is that it doesn’t seem to matter. For all the obsession in post-partition literature with the creation of two separate, distinct states, Farooqi renders them both the same, marking with one swift stroke one of the most repeated points about the subcontinent’s partition: that even with all the animosity between the two countries, we are really still the same.

Nobody expected that in Partition’s wake would follow a slow disintegration of values that would unravel the inner city.

The partition is recent, the city is in turmoil, and our two main protagonists, a pahalwan (wrestler) called Ustad Ramzi from a famous wrestlers’ akhara, and the tawaif (courtesan) Gohar Jan from an equally famous kotha, are slowly coming face to face with the realization that their days of glory are ending. Most of the story focuses on Ustad Ramzi’s conflicted relationship with his younger brother Tamami, whom Ramzi believes is unable to understand what he calls the sanctity of the akhara.

Ustad Ramzi was disappointed by his brother’s disregard of what his elders held a sacred ritual of their creed. He told himself that if Tamami failed to realize the important and purpose of those humble rituals, he would never understand the essence of the creed.

Most of Ramzi’s single-minded determination to preserve the holiness of the art of wrestling was lost to me, because for god’s sake, it’s just a game. But try saying that to my brother when he yells at the TV screen when the referee makes a wrong decision and I get a very different response, so clearly games aren’t just games to some people.

Funnily enough, the discussions about the wrestling preparations and the intricate details of how wrestlers ate, lived and breathed are what actually lend this book its air of authenticity. Musharraf Ali Farooqi has done his research, and it’s fascinating to read about the ridiculous amount of food Tamami eats in preparation of one of his bouts, or the almost religious fervour with which wrestling matches were treated.

Much less fascinating are the going-ons at the kotha, which is supremely disappointing since there was so much potential there. The female relationships, the complexity of the power feminine allure wielded in that time, the cultural relevance: there was so much material to work with, but Farooqi barely touches it, choosing to focus more on the wrestlers and less on the females in the story.   

Gohar Jan did say once that in this world a tawaif’s identity is the only one allowed to women like her.

In fact, the basic premise of the story, that of the friendship (or romance? Is there a romance?) between the two main characters is so entirely flimsy that it’s hard to remember what it’s supposed to be about. Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan are accidental acquaintances, barely passing each other by, with no interesting conversations to keep us invested. It’s hard to understand why we root for their relationship, or even what their relationship is supposed to be based on. Why does Ustad Ramzi keep going to Gohar Jan’s kotha after the mehfils have stopped? Why does Gohar Jan go out of her way to ask a favour of the mayor when Ramzi’s akhara’s cemetery gets flooded with sewage water during heavy rains? I have literally no idea, because there’s no sense of connection.

Those who watched Ustad Ramzi for any signs of becoming infatuated with the tawaif were disappointed. At the end of the mehfil, he always left her kotha with others.

This idea of keeping the reader at a distance finds its way into the historical representation as well. Musharraf Ali Farooqi does exactly what Kamila Shamsie did in Burnt Shadows, but to lesser effect. Like Shamsie’s book, he takes a large-scale event (in Shamsie’s case, the atomic bomb, the partition, 9/11, and in this book, the creation of a new state) and brings it down to the human, the personal, but it’s hard to decide whether it was an exceedingly poor attempt or if it was done so well that I missed it entirely. There’s a sense of things crumbling and falling apart, but there’s no urgency, no tension in the text, which leaves one only remotely concerned about the lives of these characters.

He remained there in the growing silence, as darkness fell over the inner city.

On a parting note, the one thing that really endeared itself to me in this book was the lack of pandering to a western audience. Musharraf Ali Farooqi writes with authority for a reader who knows, in a manner that seems to encourage those who don’t to ask more questions, to remain curious and interested. There are no long winded explanations shoved in as side notes or awkward sentences that explain what a kotha or an akhara is. In this book, context explains everything, and that is as it should be.

Recommendation

When a friend asked me whether she should read this book, I told her why not, because it’s not that long. Now ideally that’s not the best recommendation one can give. It’s like saying ‘you might as well, because it’s not that big a waste of your time’, but on the other hand I did think it was worth reading, even if only once. Musharraf Ali Farooqi writes well, the setting is fascinating, and where else would you get to read about wrestlers and courtesans within one, singular text? When you’re lazy and in the mood and can’t find anything else to read, I say give this a go.