Between Clay and Dust: Less is More with Austere Language & Narrative Restraint

I started reading this novel here in Lahore, on my iPhone, using my Scribd subscription. If I understand correctly, the story is set around (or right after) partition, the turbulence of which has negatively affected a tawaif. Initially, I didn’t look up the word tawaif, which the author did not explain, but later I satisfied myself with a definition from Wikipedia: “A tawaif was a highly successful entertainer who catered to the nobility of the Indian subcontinent, particularly during the Mughal era. The tawaifs excelled in and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theatre, and the Urdu literary tradition,[1] and were considered an authority on etiquette.”

Gohar Jan is the novel’s tawaif, but Ustadh Ramzi is the protagonist, Ustadh-i-Zaman, the (best) wrestler of the time, a duty-bound, sober, celibate man who treats as a sacred trust his responsibility to protect his title from challengers and to guard the legacy of his multi-generational wrestlers’ family against desecration.

The author did a good job rendering the relationship between wrestler Ustadh Ramzi and his younger brother, Tamami, and the other wrestlers of their school, and their counterparts in a rival group. The promoter Gulab Din and manager Kabira were convincing, too. Decent element of suspense as well. Maybe the author chose not to delve deeply into the relationship between Gohar Jan and the young lady she adopted — Malka, if I recall the name. I might have opted for more complexity in its rendering for the sake of balance and symmetry in the parallel narratives, but maybe that’s not what the author wanted. Having finished the book now, his handling of Malka’s character makes more sense to me than it did initially.

The language used to narrate the story is definitely austere, I would reckon by most standards, and this austerity is maintained from start to finish and seems to reflect Ustadh Ramzi’s characteristic sternness. When Gohar Jan smilingly assures Ustadh Ramzi that the authorities will pump out his flooded property, towards the end of the book, the effusiveness of her emotional expression, a mere sentence or two, stands out in stark contrast with the rest of the narrative. The spare images of roses that appear at the beginning and towards the end of the story offer another instance of high contrast.

The repeated descriptions of Ustadh Ramzi’s inviolable routines and rituals of the clay wrestling ground give the book its earthiness. The narrative never strays far from this restricted boundary, within the inner city (modeled on old Lahore, perhaps, where I accidentally discovered a wrestlers’ training area next to the Badshahi Masjid in winter 2021). Tamami’s growth as a wrestler is described with admirable skill, and the bouts are convincingly and briefly described as well. Besides the wrestling school of Ustadh Ramzi (known as an akhara), the only other locale described in any detail is the home of Gohar Jan, elsewhere in the inner city, where she performs her own daily routine of musical recital with instrumental accompaniment, which the author merely gestures to a few times without describing, except briefly perhaps on one occasion.

Unexplained subcultural terms unknown to me like tawaif (entertainer, as mentioned above) and nayika (close in meaning to “heroine” it seems, in the context of a dramatic romance), I initially didn’t look up. But then, incidentally, my family took me to the Shalamar Gardens here in Lahore as a Father’s Day surprise. There, a security guard pointed out to me how the terraced landscape included a platform for a certain kind of entertainment, involving music and women, and I was forced to confront a possibility (assuming the guard’s words were true) that I had never before sought to verify, that the cultural practices of the heads of the Mughal polity had at times been at variance with Islamic tradition. But that’s not what this novel is about.

I recall one reference made in passing to the partition of the subcontinent, a complex, monstrously large historical event, and how it had negatively impacted the entertainment business of which Gohar Jan is a part. More explicit, in the narrative foreground, is the strong and growing sense of the highly aged, lugubrious, and perhaps increasingly unsafe residential building that she cannot now afford to maintain, and the risk of its being wrested away by the authorities or covetous real estate developers.

The spare language and constrained but highly charged filial conflicts of characters whose desires are rendered with clarity and an almost athletic economy manifest an identity for this novel that seems authentically bound to the inner city traditions and locale it depicts. Where global novels by Western-educated Pakistani authors writing in English impress reviewers with their multifarious, worldly elements and knowing international perspectives, this book shows how less is more in a way that should be of interest not only to readers but to fiction writers (interested in applying such a credo to narrative form).


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