New Delhi: Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi's latest novel Between Clay and Dust opens inside the grimy walls of an akhara which clan leader and head pahalwan Ustad Ramzi protects with fierce pride.
In another part of the unnamed city's shaded alleyways is the 'kotha' of courtesan Gohar Jan renowned for her art and courted by the rich and famous. The destiny of the two artistes lies intertwined with each other in life and in death as the mellow pace of the fiction unfolds a world of rectitude and penance.
Set amidst the decline of familiar social morals after the Partition, the story of Ustad Ramzi is a poignant study of human nature.
The pages emit the smells of sweat and freshly churned clay and stays with you after you have read the last word.
Once a feared fighter known for both his skill and strength, Ramzi is struggling to defend his clan's honour against an onslaught of new money, corrupt promoters of the sport and the silent rebellion of a younger brother he has subdued and put under severe training to prepare him for higher responsibilities.
Farooqi's loving attention to the sport of wrestling is remarkably detailed especially since he has written the book in Toronto and has never set foot inside an akhara. He tells Gohar Jan's story with equal compassion.
A fiercely independent woman and a talented artiste, Gohar Jan comes across as the regal but coldly aloof mistress of a clan that is not dissimilar from Ramzi's men of muscle and rigour.
Her tragedy lies in her reluctant acceptance of her fall from fame and fortune and her delicate friendship with Ramzi, the only man, albeit celibate, who has recognised and appreciated her art. The Ustad-e-Zaman, or the retainer of the ultimate title of the champion, is as lonely and proud as the fallen courtesan.
The nostalgia-driven world of the old guards is fast unravelling with new challengers. Ramzi's convoluted relationship with his brother Tamami is beautifully etched. The younger brother whose self destruction is driven by his desire to gain the respect of Ramzi will break your heart.
This is a book whose pages will emit the smells of blood, sweat and freshly churned clay and stay with you long after you have read the last word.
Between Clay And Dust; Musharraf Ali Farooqi; Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2012); Price: Rs 450