Zia Mohyeddin column
Farooqi’s new novel, Between Clay and Dust, begins in a nameless inner city
shortly after the Partition. Farooqi’s story could be any city passing
through an epochal moment, when change is imminent, inevitable.
Between Clay and Dust is
about change. It’s about what happens to people when their most cherished
possessions — their beliefs — come into contact with change. Change
questions the value and relevance of tradition; the things that defines us.
Farooqi’s theme stumbles
on the forces of change in our lives today. At Partition, ours was a rural,
pastoral land; we, an agrarian society.
Change has seen us, since then, harness the potential of our rivers
and soil and has seen through the transformation unmatched in its scale,
speed and dimension. Most
profound has been impact of our urbanisation.
The French philosopher
Henri Leferbve referred to an Urban Revolution as trajectory of a society as
it emerges from the rural past into the industrial modern.
Its epochal moment is when, for the first time, society has no
experience of its rural past to understand the change it faces. And
urbanisation — cities, the place of culture and triumph of human
civilisation — is, in many ways, the most powerful force of change of them
all. Cities are terrible
beauties, where all is changed, utterly changed forever.
Quite often, far too often,
we are regaled with stories of some mythical, wonderful past. And how this
wonderful past was destroyed by change.
But is change bad? Are we
misunderstanding what’s going on? As Farooqi puts it:
“It was not so much the
changing times that troubled her, but the worst they seemed to bring out in
Between Clay and Dust
begins in a nameless city and tells the story of Ustad Ramzi, “the head of
a pahlwan clan and the custodian of a wrestler’s akhara.”
The abolition of princely states after Partition means fewer patrons,
and we are made witness of the beginning of the end of the tradition Ramzi
fights to preserve and prolong.
His efforts seem cursed, at
every step. With retirement
looming, Ramzi’s younger brother and heir apparent, Tamami, constantly
disappoints. The frustration of
the two brothers, unable to communicate with each other and held back by
decorum and Ramzi’s seniority, growsand Ramzi finds some relief in the
kotha of Gohar Jan, a prominent but aging tawaif.
Farooqi also spends time
describing Gohar Jan’s life, and for nearly half the work, spins a
remarkable story of Gohar Jan and her nayika, Malka, whom she took in as an
infant and raised, but offered no love.
Gohar Jan also faces change. The
violence of Partition meant the migration of tens of thousands and the
dwindling of her clientele. It
means having to close down parts of the kotha and accepting the inevitability
of an end.
Farooqi, who, by his own
admission, does not know much of the sport of wrestling, nevertheless manages
to capture in the pahlwan’s grips and holds, a language of tactics and
strategy. As Ramzi manages to
fight off a challenger and retain his clan’s primacy, Farooqi essays the
sport and gives us insight into the fighter’s and character’s mind.
In Farooqi’s description of Gohar Jan’s relationship with Malka,
whom she arranges to be married out of the kotha with some haste, we also
learn of the richness of language represented by the tawaif’s silence
rather than her words. When asked why she let go of Malka, Gohar Jan replies:
“How could I impost a
destiny on her, or tie her to the kotha with any bonds? Don’t you realize
she was given to me in trust…If she returned, Banday Ali, she could have
what is not allowed any tawaif in the same circumstances: she could have the
life she thought she wanted.”
Farooqi’s prose is
sparse. Between Clay and Dust is driven by its story.
But from the first page on, the reader becomes suspended in the world
so lightly sketched. Farooqi
harnesses this sparseness and the casual observations stand out more starkly.
One keeps on coming across sentences like this one:
“Water, which had united
elements in the process of construction, now aided disintegration.”Making
you stop and go over them again and again.
They don’t lose their tenor or strength. As if they convey something
far deeper than the paper they are written on.
As Tamami falls further and
further foul of his elder brother, we see the appearance of Ghulab Deen who,
in a sense, represents the changing world Ramzi so resists.
It involves fighting for money rather than the honour of the clan.
It means pandering to a crowd rather than maintaining the dignity of
the akhara. Ghulab Deen passes
in and out of the narrative with his experience with a new team of wrestlers
appearing as the new world that change will bring.
Farooqi’s strength is
taking these different but connected stories and bringing them together for,
in my opinion, one of the tightest endings to any novel I have read.
In the end, a broken man, Ramzi pays a last debt owed to Gohar Jan
and, cleansing himself of his sins, turns to the change and accepts it.
The very end of the novel
introduces change in the form of the municipal corporation.
Both Ramzi and Gohar Jan find that the new plans for their city
cruelly exclude them. As if the
master plan of the future didn’t have room for them.
This is the story of cities around the world today— characterised by
underdevelopment where there was once vibrancy and by slums that exclude the
poor from the rich.
Between Clay and Dust ends
by raising questions of how we, today, should face and deal with the changes
we face. Not all change is bad, for change is a process.
What is important, what sustains our life even when what we know has
passed, is the constant that is purity of purpose.
It isn’t very
easy to talk about the merits of a book that deals with the brain as its
literary metaphor. It can be totally interesting or totally crazy as a book.
Dogs at the Perimeters’ language for one become a bit tricky to handle but
one must praise Madeleine Thien of holding the reader’s attention despite
the neuroscience that creeps into the book. Equally easily, it can be said
that the themes of the book actually necessitate the language tone and
Dogs at the
Perimeters is a book of personal history that becomes the object of fiction,
mainly the history of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia and as Thien is Canadian,
the book becomes the personal history of two places, Cambodia and Canada.
interestingly, explores the history of all the characters she creates by
looking at them through the eyes of a brain surgeon. The novel carries
metaphors of neuroscience, meant to explain links between brain cells and
memory, between personality and its relationship to images that we carry in
our memory cells. If one loses those images, it is another personality that
emerges, which we may or may not recognise.
fascinating thing is how Thien transports this fantastic connection to the
pages of the book. A person does things out of character. Where exactly in
his brain does a wall of memory give way? Thien builds a whole collage of
images and other characters, and with surgical precision keeps inserting them
into the narrative; creating that wall of memory and then destroying it at
the same time. What she achieves in doing in Dogs at the Perimeters is to
show that through personal histories, political histories are created and
through personal histories, human beings are destroyed becoming mere shreds
of their real selves. Thien’s characters become ghosts with the burden of
images that they carry. But it is difficult to say if the shedding of images
is a good thing or a bad thing. Who can say what the real self is, the one
with the experience of memory or the one without the experience of memory.
The political provides the personal and vice versa. And out of this
interaction a sequence of experience is born: a series of images accompanies
it; creating the new personal. These new personal histories are the
characters around which Thien builds her story.
Dogs at the Perimeters has
a very interesting structure which despite being very modern in technique is
not inorganic. The novel picks up pace a bit slowly but that is not really a
demerit. The slow start gives the reader the opportunity to see how the novel
knits itself together, moving like a vehicle for creating a whole story with
its characters and their brain-memory histories. With a fractured start at
the beginning, and bits of discourse thrown in sideways, the novel pick up
its threads and then quickly becomes a riveting account of a personal
The way that we are
introduced to Khmer Rouge, the genocide, millions of people disappearing and
the juxtaposed images of chaos succeed in depicting the Khmer rouge like a
disease of the brain. Where history is being altered, where a country cannot
recognise itself any longer and where people carry on living with their ghost
like selves until they break. Khmer rouge seems like a disease of the brain
itself which is eating away at the body, the nerve synapses are collapsing in
society. With the society in the throes of such chaos, genocide takes on
significance. Since fates of one’ siblings might be unknown, so there is
hope in thinking that they might be safe. The missing persons’ narrative
that runs in the book is also a phenomenon that keeps the reader entangled in
mystery. What happened to the missing people and how did they become missing
from the narrative is a question that the reader wants answered. A Red Cross
doctor lost in Cambodia, a brother missing since the genocide, these are
never fully people, they are enticing fragments of memory that are introduced
to the reader and one keeps reading on hoping that these people will emerge
from the narratives of other memories and show us theirs.
Both books are available at
The Last Word
popularity often stands in the way of a critical appraisal of his works. His
contribution to our language and culture needs no endorsement from me. Faiz
may have had some detractors as a poet, but as a person he has had the rare
distinction of having no enemies. He radiated what can only be described as
“plain goodness”. He had a tranquil and temperate disposition. He
remained, throughout his life, the embodiment of patience and forbearance.
His warmth, his humanity
touched all those who came in contact with him. Whether they knew him well
enough is neither here nor there; people warmed up to him. He had a
remarkable knack of making you feel that you had known him all your life.
This cannot be said about many other men of letters in the context of the
It is perhaps not known
widely that Faiz was an extremely clear-headed writer of English prose. He
wrote precisely and simply. Pakistan Times, came into being at about the same
time as the country itself. Faiz was its first Editor-in- chief and remained
so for the first five years. (This English newspaper might not have seen the
light of day had Faiz not agreed to take up its editorship). Under his
tutelage, the newspaper gained a tremendous amount of prestige and dignity.
Faiz’s editorials bear witness to the quality of his prose.
Faiz was extremely
fortunate. Unlike other creative geniuses, he didn’t have a painful
childhood. He was brought up by loving parents in a well-adjusted, happy,
caring home. There were no demons lurking in the skeleton of his family
cupboard. He did not have to seek metaphors to break through the constricting
walls of tortuous relationships with an overbearing father or an over
possessive mother. He chose to align himself with the deprived and
downtrodden classes even though nothing in his childhood and adolescence
prepared him for this course of action. It was not a rebellious gesture; it
was a conscious, intellectualised decision on his part.
At a time when young poets
(and some not so young) would go on about the ineffable radiance of a comely
maiden, Faiz would take a different path. He would begin by paying his homage
to the time honoured metaphor of “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s
Day”, but he would soon circumvent into a grimmer, starker image:
Of all the modern Urdu
poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz stands out as unique if only because — unlike his
contemporaries — he did not give up the traditional poetic diction.
Faiz became a leftist as a
young man and remained one all his life. He believed, passionately, in
changing the social order. He envisioned a world in which man would no longer
exploit man. He must have been disillusioned at some stage but he never
allowed doubt and despondency to creep into his poetic works. Loyalty was a
paramount value in his social and philosophical make-up.
Faiz has the knack of
touching commonplace sensibilities. His tone never becomes strident. His
motto is “Love” — and “utter, if you dare, the word of truth.” He
speaks to us gently; he caresses our vulnerabilities, our doubts and, more
often than not, whispers affable sentiments into our ears. His voice is so
gentle, that we cannot help being swayed by it. It is only when he stops that
we realise that what he was uttering was not sweet nothings but a cogent,
well thought-out message. His affable expression conceals the sorrow and
anguish that he feels for the human condition.
The most unusual aspect of
Faiz’s poetry is that even when he talks of the need for bringing sweeping
changes in the established order, he employs a language that is couched in
religious symbolism. I can think of no other poet, in our language, who draws
so much from the prolific store of Islamic credo. (Josh Malihabadi comes to
mind but Josh has a high falutin diction which mesmerise us with the panoply
of its verbiage) Faiz adopted this manner almost as a stylistic device.
There is nothing abstruse
in Faiz’s poetry. Indeed, at times, his verse is alarmingly simplistic,
almost in the mode of a writer of hymns (
I’d like you to bear in
mind that Faiz’s use of phrases that evoke an ever present fund of
religions references is a subtle device to articulate his abiding passion for
equality and social justice. When you hear him say
he not only reminds us of
the history of certain events — events deeply embedded in the psyche of
Muslims — he also makes a valid justification for protesting against the
inequities that exist in our society.
Islamic culture and its
parables, its fables and its symbols, assume an aesthetic quality in Faiz’s
poetry. Faiz’s diction often transcends even the ideological goals that he
had set himself. His thinking was always a little more refined, a little more
chiselled than his creed. His upbringing, his mental conditioning, his
cultural growth was soaked in the Islamic tradition.
I am not suggesting that
Faiz was an Islamic poet in the sense in which we call T.S. Eliot a Christian
poet. What I mean to say is that Faiz’s imagery remains traditional — and
like all traditional classical poets (Urdu & Persian) it is ensconced in
Islamic symbolism. He was particularly fond of Sauda and Mushafi and you can
detect shades of these two poets (particularly Mushafi) in his ghazals, but
Faiz was his own man and he created his own stamp, his own seal, and this
seal was culled out of scriptural and doctrinal terminology. The major
difference is that into this terminology, Faiz wove a deeply humane and an
intensely mellow message of love and good fellowship. You do not find any
rancour or bitterness in his verse. He believes in a cause but remains
tolerant to those who didn’t. It is this tolerance (exquisitely crafted
into his diction) that has endeared him to millions of people in his own land
— and many who live beyond.