The splintering tragedy of a kotha and the akhara
Reviewed by Robin Gupta

Between Clay and Dust 
By Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Aleph Book Company
Pages 213. Rs 450

Between Clay and Dust Farooqi has woven an exquisite tapestry portraying the disintegration of Lahoreís Shahr Androon (although the novelist chooses the anonymous title of the Inner City) in the wake of Partition and the disappearance of values and a gracious way of life. The city walls have been stripped of turquoise-coloured mosaic panels for construction by builders who, in cahoots with governmental agencies target the akhara and the kotha, the two columns of the city that have enriched its culture before memory was scripted. Central to the book is the strong and silent love between the celibate Ustad-e-Zaman Ramzi and the beautiful tawaif Gohar Jan. Ramzi, who had won the highest title in 1935, is head of an illustrious clan of pahalwans who have held sway for five generations. Ramzi is a man who does not accept the futility and emptiness of life, trying continuously to give it meaning; for him the akhara is a sacred place where man, made of clay, comes into his essence. He lives up to the pahalwani pledge to strive for perfection of the body and with fatalistic decisiveness continues worshiping the soil and trimming the rose boughs of his ancestorís cemetery which is caricatured as the elephantsí graveyard, a mythological spot in the forest to which elephants retire at the approach of death.

Gohar Jan, a celebrated beauty and an accomplished singer is a renowned tawaif who maintains the largest of three remaining kothas on a splendid scale, quietly selling her gold to offset the frugal reflexes of the new world since the kothas, "A universe of false unions, dreams and abandoned hopes where only the fickle survive and the pitiless prosper," are dependent upon aristocratic patronage, the extravagant flaunting of wealth and fine taste. After 1947, the mehfils ended in most kothas with their drapes drawn and the quiet of the music room broken sometimes by the sound of a string snapping. Farooqi gives a penetrating insight into traditional pahalwani culture, the strict ettiquette and aesthetics of kothas and middlemen, preying mantis, who would upturn a settled way of life.

The deep`A0`A0compassion of Gohar Jan in rearing Malka, an orphaned foundling, for 23 years, training her in the classical arts, disallowing her male company and ensuring that she escapes from kotha life into matrimony; making anonymous donations for upkeep of the masjid and exerting her influence with the government to save the pahalwansí cemetery from inundation rather than retaining her kotha, as well as accepting Ramzi without conditions, holding music recitals for him, after the kotha has been shut down, contour the graceful acceptance of disaster by a doomed Empress, willing to consecrate to time, its due. Ramziís younger brother Tamami, proves unworthy of succeeding him, as he lacks humility and adherence to pahalwani ethics. With a wavering mind he falls prey to a conniving match-fixer Gulab Deen, allowing his violent temper to lead him into the thinly concealed murder of an elder pahalwan, thereby striking at his brotherís high repute. Tamami is driven out of the clanís akhara and dies of drug addiction.

Ramzi disallows his burial in the family cemetery. For solace, he attends Gohar Janís evening mehfils regularly captivated by the meditative silence of music. Predictably, the kotha and the akhara are zoned-off for development and face closure. Ramzi and Gohar Jan cannot grasp the emerging power of lucre and face the end, each, without an inheritor.

When Gohar Jan dies, despite her great influence in the city, she is denied burial in the municipal graveyard owing to her profession. Ramzi buries her in the clanís cemetery; himself leading the Namaz-e-Fateha amidst the boughs of the red rose sent to the cemetery by Gohar Jan, to honour Ramziís ancestors. Farooqi powerfully comments on the hypocrisy of religion, a Kafkaesque governmental machinery, illusory societal arrangements and modern development.

Between Clay and Dust, holds the reader enthralled in a gripping experience.