'Between Clay and Dust has been my biggest challenge till date'
Musharraf Ali Farooqi's latest title, Between Clay and Dust, set in a sepia tinged era, traipses the lives of a wrestler and a courtesan as it revisits their glory days, and the choices that they make later, when everything is lost. Fiona Fernandez attempts to unravel the poignant imagery
Why did you choose a wrestler and a courtesan as your lead characters?
I started with the character of the pehelwan (wrestler) Ustad Ramzi. The idea was to investigate the relationship with his art, power, and strength. As I looked at the subject, everything around him began to roll in, gradually. I began to see the lives around him. I learnt that courtly arts were intrinsic to the princely states. There were sponsors and patrons for kothas. After Partition, these were abolished; there was no support for courtesans to continue their art since most kothas were attached to Maharajahs who had to give up their titles and other indulgences.
As the story developed, Ustad along with the other lead character, Gohar Jan, had to make the same choices. Both were devoted to their art and displayed complete integrity towards it; this was obvious in their demeanour, as well. When rules need to be followed, some choose to follow it leniently while others adhere to it in a strict manner. These two characters understand the same code of their arts. One chooses to be slack about it while the other is the opposite. The book tries to explain that choices are available to the individual. People choose to follow it or not isn’t because they don’t understand the implications but because there is a sense of ego that is involved.
Why did Between Clay and Dust take ten years to complete?
I began writing this book in 2000, and completed it in 2010. I struggled with the narrative style, and hence didn’t want to rush with completing it. In these ten years, I took on wrote other books, I was clear that if I inserted too many characters and details, it would distract from the focus of Between Clay and Dust. I didn’t want it to be written in a typical, predictable way.
How will today’s reader find a connect with your book and its characters?
As far as this book is concerned, I don’t believe that the subject will be a barrier for readers. It depends on how the story is rendered and how it develops, eventually. If the reader feels sympathetic towards the characters, it keeps him/her engaged. I’ve tried to do my best. The world won’t fall apart if the storyline doesn’t click with the reader. So far, the reactions have been positive where they’ve commented about being able to absorb and experience that era and its pathos.
Were any of the characters drawn from your personal experiences?
The names are historic. Especially Gohar Jan, who was quite popular in her time. Apart from these references, the story has nothing to do with their lives. The names were chosen to evoke a certain kind of character in the mind.
How do the two (Gohar Jan and Ustad Ramzi) deal with life when everything else is lost? What spurs them on?
Both were representative of a formal world, and were aware of what it brought with it. For example, the courtesan was prepared for a life of solitude, without a permanent relationship. However, she wasn’t prepared for the demise of the entire kotha tradition. Both had to find ways to keep busy, continue their existence. In such inexplicable times, one tends to question one’s art, and its existence. Both were faced with hard choices. It’s easier to experience such scenarios at a young age, risk-taking doesn’t hurt as much but it gets tougher when one is at the sunset of life. I’ll be revealing too much about their lives if I speak any more!
Your work straddles fiction, children’s fiction and translations; what has been your most challenging encounter till date?
This novel has been my biggest challenge because I struggled with it. I wanted to do a good job and didn’t see a point in rushing with the plot. I have no regrets in the decade-long wait for it to see light of day. After all, we write for the reader and for our own satisfaction.