Between Clay and Dust
On a late afternoon, we caught up with writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi who flew down to India from Karachi to introduce his new novel, Between Clay and Dust, recently published by Aleph Book Company. A poignant tale of a pahalwan (wrestler) and a courtesan, the novel explores the delicate bond shared between the two aged characters who find themselves at the fringe of society, grappling with memories of a celebrated past. The backdrop, explains Musharraf, is one which is ‘not set in a particular Pakistani city or an Indian city. The novel investigates the culture which is shared between the two countries – a culture which is common to us, but was disturbed during the partition.’ With rave reviews and praise coming in from all corners of the country, Musharraf tells us more about the novel which took him almost 12 years to write.
What is the significance of the title, Between Clay and Dust? Between Clay and Dust is a period: from the time a human being made of clay comes into this world to the time he becomes dust.
What led you to spin a narrative around the lives of a wrestler and a courtesan? The institutions of wrestling and courtesan were both dependent on patronage for existence. Post-partition, the patronage died down and the institutions were abolished. My characters find themselves at a period in their lives when the environment which at one time gave a meaning to their existence no longer exists. So they begin to question their existence, but since they are at an older stage in life, they have no option but to accept the situation. Both of the characters were celebrated in their respective arts and had seen the peak of their profession.
Before I began writing the novel, I imagined writing a possible story on a wrestler and the particular life he leads – one with a strict discipline. I also thought about the nature of power, physical strength and control he would had. It was a very abstract plot in my head which I wanted to explore. When I started to read about pahalwans, I began to visualize these characters in that particular culture, the possible relationships they had with others and slowly the whole world emerged. The courtesan just happened to be one of the elements of that culture, and that’s how the story developed.
You offer a remarkably magnified picture of the pahalwan sport as well as what the life of a courtesan was like. What degree of research and study did you do to etch out your characters’ art with such precision? To be honest, I’ve never stepped into an akhara or a kotha. I was in Toronto where I wrote most of the novel. All my research is a based on a particular book which I solely referred to and I’ve acknowledged the book in Between Clay and Dust’s last page. The book shared the history of the pahalwans, the different rigorous exercises they had to perform and their discipline. And of course, the lives of pahalwans and courtesans are etched in our cultural memories – we know what a kotha is like, what an akhara is like and how things are conducted there, but I physically never visited the grounds to study or talk to them. However, I don’t believe much of my story would have fundamentally changed if I had visited an akhara.
What’s next in the pipeline for you? Well, the next book I’m working on is called, A Heroine of Our Time and the title is based on the famous novel, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. I did this because Lermontov’s novel plays a great part in my story.
Read an excerpt from Musharraf’s next novel here.
By: Radhika Iyengar