Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust is microscopic examination of a mood. The mood is nostalgia or if that word evokes more negative connotations, wistfulness.
Then Ustad Ramzi’s attention wandered away. He could not tell how long his mind was blank. When he regained his attention, Gohar Jan was saying:
‘A girl’s face is the only memory I have of our family. She may have been my sister, younger than myself, for I remember her following me around the house. I don’t know if my father was around, but I can feel the presence of my mother. It surprises me sometimes that I do not recall her features. My sister’s face is all I remember. I wonder if she remembers me still. It is a harsh sentence to know that somewhere, someone who was a part of you and whom you will never see, perhaps still lives. The thought has not left me since the day I was separated from my family. (p. 183)
The novel largely comprises the story of two men – Ustad Ramzi and his younger brother Tamami – who are wrestlers in an un-named north Indian city in the immediate aftermath of Partition. Gohar Jan, a singer and courtesan, is the third protagonist – though her sketches are limited.
The novel is about ruin. One part of this ruin is about a place (the falling roof of Gohar Jan’s ‘kotha’), another about the body (Ustad Ramzi’s knees, Gohar Jan’s voice) and more about practice (wrestling or singing): “She thought about the furrowed faces of old tawaifs sitting idly in their dark kothas waiting for their lives to end” (p. 75). But ruin is also a process affecting the novel, and remembering it.
Many years have passed since G. E. von Grunebaum examined early Arabic poetry and concluded that nostalgia for the lost place and contemplation of the deserted was a central motif of the literary register – and along with it, a discussion of ruins. Here, in the mid eleventh century, the poet discusses the ruins of al-Andalus palace (Madīnat al-Zahrā): O Paradise such that the wind of separation has blasted it and its people so that both have been destroyed…/O dwelling place on which and on whose inhabitants the bird of separation has alighted so that they have decayed and have become unknown…/1 This motif of nostalgia remains a central literary trope and one can point to infinite examples – mostly resting on the cityscapes of Spain or the deserts of Najd.
The sack of Baghdad, the fall of cities in Iran, the many sacks of Delhi all contributed robustly to the poetic imagination and the heralding of times past and glories lost; but perhaps the greatest effluence came in the aftermath of 1857 and the end of the Mughal State in Delhi. In the latter half of nineteenth century, in the hands of stylists such as Sharar, Shibli and Azad – the Perso-Urdu ashraf class – the lament for the past reached its apex. Sharar’s Guzishta Lucknow (Past Lucknow), written between 1910-20, being one exemplar. Sharar’s register is the detached, passive voice, tinged with both sorrow and pleasure, as it describes the rich ethnographic and social detail of Lucknow’s past. The many novels, memoirs, literary histories produced around sites such as Delhi, Lahore, or Lucknow or about personages attached to ghazal or nawabi created a rich imaginative tapestry into which any reader, and most writers, could breathlessly place their own particular nostalgia.
Ruin is, of course, the present state of nostalgia. Partition created its own epistemic ruin across northern and eastern India. A great many memoirs written after 1947 dealt with cities before Partition or lives interrupted by its violence participated as well in the function of nostalgia. The discussions of lost Lucknow or Delhi or Lahore were always discussion of lacks and lags in the present of Lucknow or Lahore. What is notable is that these productions were not concerned with anything outside of the literary register – since nostalgia works precisely on freezing time, it cannot show change except as a discontinuity or disruption.
Nostalgia is also a claim on the future. It argues against the present to push a possible return (the hipsters call it ‘retro’) to the golden age. This act of standing outside of time, to contemplate the past and make an argument for the future, is also a political act. The politics of nostalgia, however, is the least remarked upon aspect in the voluminous work on the practice and procedure of understanding memory. The detachment of the nostalgic gaze from the politics of the present is one aspect, but another is a comment on the politics of the present.
Farooqi’s nostalgia – in which the novel participates fully – is a comment on the present. Though Farooqi manages to freeze in his minuscule observation the destruction of presentist violence on the past, the past remains supra-real. While Farooqi’s triumph is in showing that the disruption is not without its own logic and that Ustad Ramzi is himself a ruin merely participating in nostalgia – the past is stripped from the weakened hands of Ustad Ramzi by the effort of his own vanity, his own blood, his own followers and his own town; the question remains, what does the novel bring to the discussion? How does one say anything new, or explain the present, while participating fully in a genre – this is a question that has bedeviled the likes of Rumi and Hafez, not to mention Mir Dard.
The small moments – such as the conversation between Gohar Jan and Maulvi Hidayatullah or Ustad Ramzi and Kabira – where Farooqi plays upon the ways in which the internal logic of the past is disrupted (not because of the arrival of the ‘new’ or the ‘army’) are the best bits in a novel for me.
There are also some discordant bits: the voice of the text is over-the-horizon omniscient (“The crowd silently witnessed the struggle without fully comprehending the situation”) and severely interior (“In that silence Tamami heard his heartbeat and Ustad Ramzi’s breathing which maintained a broken rhythm.”) in the same paragraph (p. 68). This causes some discomfort to the reader; as does the broadly passive construction which contributes an air of predestination to the happenings. “Powerful and conflicting emotions always made Tamami take the avenue of self-repraoch whenever he attempted to reflect on the events of that fateful day when Imama was felled by his hand” (p. 123). While I understand that language is itself a tool for telling of tales and Farooqi’s work as a translator of Urdu epics and a reader of Urdu canon is clearly the influence for his choice of writing voice, it lends the novel itself as an object for the subject it participates in.
Furthermore, the character of Gohar Jan remained to me unexplored – though Farooqi puts a lot in her limited appearances – and I wonder what happened to Malka. (This would be the Gender Question).
In that vein, the laudatory press on the novel seems, to me, functioning in ruinophilia as well. It lauds the novel precisely because the language, the tone, and the relationship to the real, allows the desi readers access to the long literary tradition of nostalgia without fully questioning the structural and plot choices of the novel.
The greatest strength of the novel is its razor-sharp focus while the background goes blurry. The quote I opened being one primary example, and perhaps a clear coda for the whole work. It is the pain of memory which also has to acknowledge its own fallibility in remembering.———
- as cited in Julie Meisami’s Between Arabia and Al-Andalus: Nostalgia as an Arabic Poetic Genre” (2003) [↩]