Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 16, 2012

Between Clay And Dust (2012), by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Between Clay and Dust

Shadow Man Asian logo 2012

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, [1] 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 [2], 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 [3] Gohar Jan on the other hand has wrinkles to content with.  Ustad Ramzi has been visiting her because listening to the ragas [4] at her kotha [5]  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 [6] have abandoned her mehfils [7] 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.

For other (more enthusiastic) reviews see The Tribune,  fellow SMALP juror Mark Staniforth  or IbnLive.

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:

[1] Ustad is a wrestling title meaning ‘master’.
[2] In Hinduism, Akhara (also akhada, literally ‘wrestling arena’) is an organization of the different sects of Sadhus Vairaghis yogis or Hindu Renunciates.
[3] tawaif: a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia.
[4]A raga is a melody constructed from five or more musical notes in Indian classical music.
[5] 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.
[6] Nayikas are performers, musicians and dancers, and presumably in the context of this story, also courtesans.
[7] 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
ISBN: 9788192328010
Source: Mark Staniforth.


  1. “It’s the first book I’ve ever read that features wrestling!” So you’ve never read John Irving? He always includes a bit of wrestling (since it’s ‘his’ sport) but it has not yet become the focus of any of his books (which makes me glad!)

    I think I’ll give Between Clay and Dust a pass. Thanks for the thoughtful review.


    • No, I’ve never ever read John Irving…
      *pause, consulting shelves at Good reads*
      I see from 1001 Books I Should Read that yes, I should read some John Irving. Perhaps I can skip the wrestling bits!
      All the best for the festive season, Debbie:)


  2. There are so many books now that are either nominated , listed, or whatever, for a plethora of prizes, that values have tended to decline. One is no longer assured of a good read under such criteria.
    That is why your review is so valuable in providing perspective.
    As a result I would not be interested in buying it – although I can imagine others might.


    • Thanks, Ken – all the best for the festive season!


      • Thanks Lisa, and you also. Have a great Christmas.


  3. Hmm. A fascinating review. Believe me, as a sports journalist, I completely accept that “People who play sport are always investing their game with arcane symbols and rituals to give it more importance than it warrants”. I’m just not convinced that’s the case in this case – you yourself mention its “ancient cultural traditions”, and that’s how I regarded the wrestling in this case – I mean, I wouldn’t dream of calling it a sports novel. And while I agree that he is perhaps excessively nostalgic at times, I understood it to be more for his lost youth (and authority) than specifically the halcyon days of the wrestling. On a superb MALP list this year, it’s not my favourite, but I must say I liked it a lot.


    • Oh dear, *blush* how did I not know that your journalism was sports journalism? I’m sorry, I hope I haven’t offended you!


  4. Not at all! Being in the profession makes me agree with you more! It’s very cynical, no matter whether you’re the athlete or the person writing about the athlete. But I just don’t think this necessarily is.


    • The wrestling in the book is certainly not sport as it is today, which is a commercial form of mass entertainment often with betting on the side. But (hamstrung by not wanting to give out spoilers) the tribal nature of the akhara is just like tribal football teams and the machinations of who plays whom and why is surely more or less the same as it is today?
      Of course the book is about more than that, mainly a nostalgia for how things used to be, the implication IMO that the sport/the kotha were somehow purer in the past – when really, IMO they were both ways of setting people apart in castes – castes invested with social and symbolic fripperies which implied power but which prevented caste members from living full lives, used them and then cast them aside when they were no longer able to fulfil their function.
      Societies in transition to democracy often have this problem. There are winners and losers and those who’d had power (at whatever tier of society) are often nostalgic and snooty about nouveau riche types accessing power they didn’t have before.
      I think this could have been a more interesting book if (hamstrung again) we could have seen Malka maybe in a position of power and living a different kind of life. More could have been done with the women…


  5. I loved this but I think it is a very male read myself great view of family and sport ,all the best stu


  6. […] –         Between Clay and Dust – Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Pakistan) (see my review) […]


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