An aging pahalwan left with memories of a glorious past, a sense of duty towards his clan and not much else. A tawaif, once the cynosure of the city’s rich and powerful, performing for a thinning crowd, wistfully remembering days that were. And the ruination of the inner city as new settlements come up around it.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust is about two extraordinary characters, now in the twilight of their careers, looking for the last hurrah, even as the place they inhabit – an allegory to their once-glorious lives – caves in.
Ustad Ramzi, champion wrestler, head of a pahalwan clan and the custodian of an akhara, is no longer the fighter he was. The purity of his art and the honour of his clan has been his life’s mission. But the time has come to pass on the baton and Ramzi finds his younger brother, the frivolous and indisciplined Tamami, wanting.
How long can Ramzi hold on to the title that younger, more powerful wrestlers from other clans covet? Tamami secretly desires his elder brother’s title and sees in himself a worthy successor, but Ramzi holds back. Is it because Tamami is callous about his duties, or is it Ramzi’s naked ambition of remaining Ustad-e-Zaman till his end?
Ramzi confronts his demons after he lets Tamami take on a challenger to his crown. Tamami, over-trained and unguarded, fights to kill. In his darkest hour, Ramzi deserts his younger brother and Tamami sinks into a world of drugs and depression – eventually dying without the glory of the title that his elder brother never lets him have.
It’s only after his brother’s death that Ustad Ramzi takes a hard look at himself. ‘He could no longer avoid answering the questions which had haunted him since Imama’s (the challenger) death, and had subsequently taken on new meaning. Did the essence of his art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force? ....The base passions that he had detected in Tamami lived inside himself: in his anger, ambition and pride.’
Running parallel to the Ramzi narrative is the story of Gohar Jan. The most sought after tawaif in town once, Gohar has to contend with advancing age and the wave of new morality that threatens to destabilise her kind.
There’s hope in her young protege, who could have taken over from her and saved the kotha. But Gohar chooses to marry her off instead, holding fort till the last customer leaves and the authorities decide to demolish the kothas.
Broken by fate and their own pride, these two unlikely people reach out to each other. Will Ramzi, a man of austere habits and frugal speech, give Gohar Jan the dignity that has been denied to her?
Will the title remain with the Ramzi clan and can the kothas be saved?
Between Clay and Dust is a moving narrative of passion and pride, and of unflinching ambition. Of one last shot at fame. Because winning is a habit, even when the game gets over.