Between Clay and Dust is longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, so I read it for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury (SMALP). It’s the first book I’ve ever read that features wrestling!
Would I have read it if I were not a Shadow Juror? Probably not. With rare exceptions such as Ron Elliott’s Spinner: A Novel (see my review) and Stephen Carroll’s The Gift of Speed, I’m not interested in books that involve a sporting focus, especially not if they involve so-called sports which rely on hurting someone else to win. What’s more, this one begins with references to all kinds of unfamiliar cultural terms that forced me off to Wikipedia because I couldn’t work them out from context. It was not a good start.
However, my interest perked up when I realised that Ustad Ramzi,  a wrestler past his use-by date, and Gohar Jan, a past-her-prime courtesan with whom he has a platonic interest, are looking back with nostalgia on the days before Partition.
Their nostalgia is partly about the frailties of age, but more about the loss of power. Ustad Ramzi is too old now to perform some of the physically demanding ceremonial duties that are attached to his role as Master of the Akhara , and so he has to ask his feckless younger brother Tamami to take over and of course he doesn’t do it satisfactorily. It’s not just that the way he does things is not up to standard, it’s also that his sloppiness is linked to the decline of the akhara and the contemporary lack of respect for it. The abolition of the princely states means that there are no longer patrons who in the past had supported a thriving industry of rival wrestling clans. Ustad Ramzi’s entire identity is contingent on his akhara, it’s where he believes that man ‘made of clay’ comes into contact with his essence (presumably when he takes a fall and lands in the dust on the ground). But the writing’s on the wall, and not only is Ustad Ramzi a has-been, but the ancient traditions are not valued in the modern post-Partition world where fixed fights are enacted for money-making.
The tawaif  Gohar Jan on the other hand has wrinkles to content with. Ustad Ramzi has been visiting her because listening to the ragas  at her kotha  help him with meditation, an aspect of the wrestler’s discipline that he had difficulty with. But others have been visiting Gohar Jan because she was beautiful and like many another woman living in a society where women are devalued, she has used that ephemeral beauty to become a courtesan and to exercise power. Which now, of course, is declining.
Her carpets are getting musty, her musical instruments are getting warped by the humidity and apart from the foundling Malka, her nayikas  have abandoned her mehfils  to pursue careers elsewhere. There is also an ageing retainer called Banday Ali who documents the declining fortunes of the kotha and smokes opium. There is a potentially interesting relationship between Gohar Jan and Malka, for while on the one hand she had certain privileges denied to the other girls (who had mostly been sold to the kotha), on the other hand, Gohar Jan is inexplicably cold and dismissive towards her, even when she is the only one left and the obvious successor to Gohar Jan. But this sub-plot about Malka seemed a bit opaque to me. Maybe I missed something.
Tamami has similar expectations of taking over as celebrity wrestler from Ustad Ramzi. Denied the opportunity to fight the challenger Imami, Tamami is torn between feelings of envy, rejection and compassion for his brother. It seemed to me that as Tamami gains in strength, the struggle for dominance between them symbolised not only the tension between the old and the new but also the dangerous rivalry between India and Pakistan, a rivalry which now – to the alarm of the international community – is expressed in terms of nuclear capability. The brothers’ mutual assumptions about one another and the eventual severance of ties between them seemed not unlike the mutual hostility and contempt that poisoned the triumph of independence and led to Partition. But then events transpired which made a mess of my hypothesis …
Whatever about that, the long passages about wrestling bouts and Tamami’s exercise routine and ritual stuff didn’t interest me at all. People who play sport are always investing their game with arcane symbols and rituals to give it more importance than it warrants, and what went on in this book seems no different to me. I hope I’m not being terribly rude about ancient cultural traditions but I read them with that sense of irritation that comes when one feels that the boring bits must be read in case there is something important to the story which needs attention…
The nostalgia for patronage from the wealthy that underlies the plot of this story surprised me somewhat. The novel shows that these people had very restricted lives and yet has nothing positive to say about a different kind of future. Ustad Ramzi is bound by rules which require him to be celibate, and Gohar Jan could flirt but never marry. It is not until her business has collapsed that Gohar Jan questions the emptiness of her life. It is not until he is alone and suffused with self-reproach that Ustad realises that his single-minded obsession with the values of the akhara have deprived him of other important things. But the way the present is characterised as corrupt, shallow, and shabby seems rather hollow to me. Of course there are going to be rapacious developers everywhere and the sporting industry is plagued by drug cheats but modernity has brought literacy, improved standards of living and choices to many people in developing countries, and although there are still many problems to overcome, nostalgia for the past seems a bit misplaced to me.
Many thanks to fellow SMALP juror Mark Staniforth from Eleutherophobia for providing me with a copy of this book for review.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury. To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.
These definitions derive from Wikipedia:
 Ustad is a wrestling title meaning ‘master’.
 In Hinduism, Akhara (also akhada, literally ‘wrestling arena’) is an organization of the different sects of Sadhus Vairaghis yogis or Hindu Renunciates.
 tawaif: a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia.
A raga is a melody constructed from five or more musical notes in Indian classical music.
 A kotha is a classy establishment set up for the entertainment of men, with musicians and dancers somewhat like the geisha houses of Japan. The novel doesn’t make it clear whether it was actually a brothel or not and Wikipedia suggests that tawaifs were not under any obligation to offer more than song and dance. Accusations that Gohar Jan was a prostitute may have been part of the campaign to humiliate her, or it may have been that her decline meant that people could speak the truth at last.
 Nayikas are performers, musicians and dancers, and presumably in the context of this story, also courtesans.
 A melfil is a salon, a gathering or evening of courtly entertainment of poetry or concert of Indian classical music.
Author: Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Title: Between Clay and Dust
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2012
Source: Mark Staniforth.