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The first couple of dozen pages of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s novel Beyond Clay and Dust bring to mind the film The Wrestler. An aging pahalwan, long past his glory days, seems to be suffering an emotional crisis as the gifts that defined him slowly wither away. Anyone who has suckled at the Hollywood teat could be excused for assuming that the story of the wrestler, Ustad Ramzi, will progress in an exhilarating feel-good fashion as he gears up for one final redemptive fight.

But Farooqi isn’t a writer who is interested in the kind of Rocky-style redemption that the movies love presenting to us. His character is a realist who understands that his fighting days will soon be over but a romantic who doesn’t want the declining pahalwani culture to disappear altogether or even bypass his clan.

The core of Between Clay and Dust lies in the fraught relationship between Ramzi and his younger brother Tamami, the heir apparent whose devotion to the pahalwan lifestyle is limited to its perks and privileges. This deceptively simple tale of sibling tensions explores moral dilemmas that transcend the pahalwan culture Farooqi writes about so evocatively. For Ramzi, the title of ustad carries with it responsibilities that others may consider menial, like assiduously cleaning the akhara every morning. Such daily chores serve as a reminder that an honorific, once bestowed, must be continuously re-earned. That is a lesson Ramzi tries to pass on to Tamami and it is one that seems to be beyond the abilities of even the most able wrestler in the land.

Tempting though it may be to paint Ramzi as the wise saint, Farooqi is too shrewd an observer of human nature to fall for that trap. In Tamami’s silent stewing at the training he is being forced to endure we see that Ramzi may be guilty of seeing his younger brother not as a separate human being but as an extension of his hopes and desires. In one finely-observed set-piece, Ramzi gets cross at Tamami for taking too long to win a fight. Tamami replies, “I was just trying to see what he knew.” This is a problem with Ramzi: he is too devoted to his own life to consider the perspective of others.

In accordance with pahalwan culture as he sees it, Ramzi does not allow himself any aesthetic pleasures other than regularly attending the performances of courtesan Gohar Jan. Like Ramzi, Gohar Jan is struggling to accept that her profession may no longer hold the same cultural allure it once did. Her kotha is slowly becoming more decrepit and it is only a matter of time before she is forced to shutter its doors for good. The relationship between Ramzi and Gohar is always romantic but never sexual. The parallelism of their situations is obvious and it is this that draws them towards each other. Both respect the talents of the other, leading Gohar to continue performing for Ramzi even after her looks have faded and she no longer appears in public for her other former fans.

In their unlikely friendship we see the pull cultural traditions continue to exert on their practitioners. Both find it difficult to adjust to a world where their value has depreciated even if they deal with it in different ways. Ramzi is continually disappointed in his brother while Gohar treats her ward, Malka, with far greater sympathy. She trains Malka in the arts of music and dance but never tries to impose it on her, even though Malka has an eagerness and passion for this life that Tamami never hinted at possessing.

In telling a story so fraught with emotionality, a writer may succumb to the temptations of melodrama. Farooqi, however, is too unhurried and serene in his prose to let that happen. While it is clear that Farooqi’s focus, and perhaps even sympathies, lie with the aging protagonists, he is acutely sensitive to all his character’s motivations. Although no relationship in Between Clay and Dust is completely fulfilling, we understand why the lives of these people make that so. Glum though the novel may be, it is never self-indulgent and doesn’t put characters through their paces simply for the sake of unearned drama.

Farooqi also resists the temptation to use history as a crutch. There is an early reference to the “changeful decade” after Partition that led to the decline of both the pahalwan and courtesan cultures but neither the era nor the setting dominate the universality of the themes Farooqi is truly interested in exploring.

Between Clay and Dust may be a fall-from-grace story but that decline is thrust upon the characters. In the eternal debate between fate and free will, Farooqi does not take sides but prefers showing how we deal with matters beyond our control. We may not be able to direct every contour of our existence; still we should not use that as an excuse for despair and inertia. Ramzi’s and Gohar’s responses may not be perfect — pride and ambition are among their many failings — but Farooqi is entirely successful in showing us that we still retain the power, if not to shape our destinies, to at least react to our waning fortunes with a contradictory brew of emotions that range from despair to forbearance. And that, more than anything else, is what makes us human.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist

Between Clay and Dust (NOVEL) By Musharraf Ali Farooqi Aleph Book Company, India ISBN 8192328015 216pp. Rs895