Between Clay and Dust themes on subcontinent’s culture
ISLAMABAD: The selling point for Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s book in a conversation on Wednesday night was that it is not commercial.
Farooqi is one “unique Pakistani writer in English whose style and subject matter is not influenced by the imperatives of the market,” explained Raza Rumi, the moderator of the event, in his introduction of the author.
As part of a series of weekly conversations with scholarly personalities in an event titled Sudh Budh at Kuch Khaas, Musharraf Ali Farooqi discussed his latest novel Between Clay and Dust and explained his inspiration behind the novel as well as his affection for dastaans, writing children’s stories and translating classic Urdu literature.
And this penchant for classical Urdu literature and all things traditional reveal Farooqi’s heavy bent towards the strong cultural heritage that can be found in the sub-continental history – and also explains why he stays away from conventional commercial topics that make bestsellers today, i.e. fundamentalists, terrorists and bombs.
And thus what can be found in Farooqi’s writings is the plural and multicultural heritage that has existed and evolved in the subcontinent for thousands of years.
As Rumi summarised, “Farooqi brings forth topics and eras and subjects and characters that are not found or talked about in our mainstream writing and discourse, but continue to exist. Between Clay and Dust is one such novel with characters central to our ethos and evolved culture.”
And the kind of emotion and culture that Farooqi captures through his characters is as time worn and age old as the very culture and heritage Farooqi draws his inspiration from.
The plot of this novel, as Farooqi himself explained, is simple.
Based in the time right after partition and formation of Pakistan and India, a wrestler (phelwan) and a courtesan (tawaif), connected nothing more than their shared joy of music, find themselves suddenly at the helm of professions whose funding was suddenly drying up as their patron princes disappeared.
This novel, as Farooqi explained, is an exploration of how two people, set in their ways at the ages of 50-something, make decisions to deal with the radically new situation they find themselves in, and how those decisions shape their fates.
But even as exotic and romantic as the setting sounds, Farooqi denies that this is an exercise to revive affiliations with a past rich of deep culture and beautiful arts.
He maintained that the novel remained an intellectual exercise to explore how his created characters would behave thrown in such a unique situation that threatens their lifestyles.
“For me Ustad Ramzi and his decisions move the story forward. The culture is a secondary by-product, but that was not my intention – there was no ideological agenda, just a literary agenda,” he explained.
Farooqi’s previous novel The story of a widow is a similar exercise where neither the plot nor the setting makes the story unique, rather it is his curiosity about what his characters can reveal that moves the story forward.
And as the story evolves with the characters, different layers of complex human emotions are unraveled – miniatures that are universal as well as specific to the local context.
The evening was filled with interesting anecdotes of real life people Farooqi derived his characters from and drew inspiration from.
As he revealed, he had finished the first draft in 2000 but he let the story evolve until it was finally completed to his satisfaction by 2012.
Farooqi has also claims to fame as translator of Daastan-e-Amir Hamza and as a spontaneous narrator of Alif Laila whenever the audience is receptive.
More than anything, his passion for Urdu classics is inspiring and invites the audience to explore these almost forgotten gems of our past.