Farooqi is a hard man to catch in the weeks leading up to the announcement of
the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012. With a host of literature
festivals making demands on his time, he’s travelling between countries.
His exquisitely written book, Between Clay and Dust, takes us back to a time when life was more quaint, more dainty, and more principled than today. Ambiguous in its setting, it looks at the slow disintegration of the arts at a time when two new nations were bulldozing their collective memories, their sentimental pasts, in a frenzy of infrastructural progress.
The author, who divides his time between Toronto and Karachi, wears many hats—he’s the writer of several books for children, with names as enticing as The Amazing Moustaches of Mocchhander the Iron Man and Tik-Tik, The Master of Time; he’s the translator of Urdu epics, including Dastan-e-Amir Hamza and Tilism-e-Hoshruba; and he’s the writer of novels that are as subtly poignant as they are humorous. In an email interview, he discusses his latest book, the two-nation theory, the patronage of arts, the trickiness of writing a research-based novel, and more.
The crumbling of edifices is a primary concern in Between Clay and Dust – the wrestling akhara, the tawaifs’ [courtesans’] enclave, and the arts they represent...what was it that brought home the ugly waste, the decay that Partition brought with it, to you?
For me Partition called into question a historic consensus among our ancestors that the people of India are one people and that differences of faith allow members of a society to live a richer, more harmonious cultural life. Once this consensus was called into question, tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness, and so on were all called into question. We are now living the consequences of this unravelling of our society. It is not fully done yet. Its effects will be felt in decades and centuries to come.
Partition called into question a historic consensus among our ancestors that the people of India are one people and that differences of faith allow members of a society to live a richer, more harmonious cultural life.
There’s a very
poignant line in the book, in speaking of a courtesan’s response to a maulvi’s
attitude to her donation to the mosque—“It was not the changing times that
troubled her, but the worst they seemed to bring out in people”. Your novel
never looks directly at those people, you only look at the impact of their
actions. Could you comment?
It is because this novel deals with the inner lives of people. It is the impact of actions that is felt in the inner lives.
What was it about Partition, do you think, that made these arts collapse, when they had survived even the most Puritan era of British missionary zeal?
In the case of wrestling, the abolition of princely states directly affected the fortunes of wrestlers who were traditionally attached to the courts or supported by them. And in the case of the kothas too, that kind of disposable income was not longer available with the patrons of the kotha that allowed them to support these establishments to the same degree. The violent upheaval that ensued with Partition may have also destroyed the kotha culture because it grew from a certain refinement in the society.
I do believe that tragedy can contain redemption within it. I do not consider Between Clay and Dust a story where redemption is impossible or beyond reach. The end is tragic, yes, but it also brings redemption, or redemption as I would describe it
Had you visited India before writing the book?
The reason I ask is because, though you don’t identify the setting, or even whether it’s in Pakistan or India, the geography of the place you describe is very much like Old Delhi. Was this description something you inherited from family stories?
The Inner City was a city imagined from the description of old cities of India I had read. But the place could equally be Lahore, as some friends have pointed out.
You began your career writing children’s fiction and fables. You've spoken about how you’re drawn to them. What spurred the instinct to write books for adults?
I think it happened when I began thinking about my first novel, Salar Jang’s Passion. It was a novel for grown-ups. But I will continue writing for children.
You mention Akhtar Husain Sheikh’s Dastan-e-Shehzoraan in your acknowledgments, and speak of how the tomes helped you understand pahalwans and pahalwani culture. Was it hard for you to restrain yourself from telling the reader all about that culture—sort of lecturing them, summarising it? It’s an immediate instinct to share what one has just learnt, or even put it down to lay it out for oneself. Did you cut any such descriptions out of earlier drafts?
Yes, there is always that temptation. Those volumes are full of colourful characters and the details of their lives, and it would have been easy to incorporate that into the story and make it a 500-page novel. But I had to focus on what my novel was about: the moral implications of certain decisions made by a man.
In the Dastan, were there individual stories that you were drawn to? Or any particular character, or incidents, that you carved Ustad Ramzi’s life out of?
There was a historic character named Ustad Ramzi pahalwan and I used the name because it sounded right for my character. But the character of Ustad Ramzi in the novel has been imagined.
In both The Story of a Widow, and Between Clay and Dust, the contemplative tone is misleading—as readers, we think of them as somewhat brooding novels, but there is also redemption in each. Even in the case of Gohar Jan, she doesn’t have to suffer the pain of seeing everything she built crumble. Do you believe that is what happens in people’s lives – fate tends to give something back after taking something away? Or is it a general sense of optimism?
Yes, I do believe that tragedy can contain redemption within it. I do not consider Between Clay and Dust a story where redemption is impossible or beyond reach. The end is tragic, yes, but it also brings redemption, or redemption as I would describe it.
Your second novel for adults needed you to get into Mona’s head—a widow who’s past the... umm, shall we say, first blush of youth? How did you climb into her head? And how successful do you think you were, looking back at it?
It is not for me to judge how successful I was. One tries one’s best. Sometimes one is successful. I will only say that if I were not satisfied with what I had done, I would not have published it.
I always listen to advice but my decision to act is guided by how useful it is to the idea and aesthetics of the story I am trying to write. People are free to imagine what they please. It is not the writer’s job to provide justifications.
There is one lovely scene where Mona comes back from a shopping spree, and imagines her dead husband disapproving of the extravagance, from his picture on the wall. How did that scene strike you?
Funny and true. Men in our society like to control the lives of women even when they are dead. I know a few cases.
In Between Clay and Dust, your focus is a lot more on the male characters. You dwell in Ustad Ramzi’s head for a long time, as you do in Tamami’s, and Gohar Jan is often seen through Banday Ali.
I think Gohar Jan has a very important role (juxtaposed with Ustad Ramzi), because with the example of her spiritual strength and moral courage a reader truly gets the real measure of Ustad Ramzi’s weakness.
Is this Gohar Jan fictional, or is she the same singer who used to negotiate with the British and charge up to ₹ 3,000 a recording?
Between Clay and Dust is a work of fiction. As with Ustad Ramzi, the name is historical but the characters are fictional. There were many women called Gohar Jan and many men named Ramzi.
When you have to do a lot of research for a book, as you must have had to for Between Clay and Dust, does it frustrate the creative impulse in you, which wants to get ahead with the story, facts be damned?
No, as a writer of fiction you do need to read up on the subject you are writing about.
You wrote a hilarious piece on which of the two male characters from The Story of a Widow was based on your own self. In that piece, you say you called up all your friends before making your decision about which version of the manuscript you would send in to publishers. Is this true?
I write fiction.
But as a writer, how much does the opinion of other people matter—those close to you, as well as those unsolicited?
I always listen to advice but my decision to act on advice is guided by how useful it is to the idea and aesthetics of the story I am trying to write.
Back to serious business, your writing tilts towards the farcical every now and again, but there’s always a sense of empathy, a consciousness of society and how it bends people and things to extremes. In Between Clay and Dust, this struck me especially with regard to the character Tamami. Do you think this is the case— that society can make caricatures out of people, or force them to become caricatures of themselves?
Absolutely. Sometimes people allow society to do it to themselves.
There are several little misunderstandings that have far-reaching consequences in this book. We see what it does to the relationship between Ustad Ramzi and Tamami. There is another mentor-protégé relationship in the novel—between Gohar Jan and her foundling Malka. But while you see the first story through to the end, we don’t know what happens to Malka. Do you have a theory about her, and what she felt about Gohar Jan?
Malka’s absence from the story was noticed and commented on by many. But there is a reason why Malka is never heard from again: to make the reader feel the emptiness in Gohar Jan’s heart after she left her and the kotha forever. I used her absence as a device to show Gohar Jan’s suffering.
The relationship between Gohar Jan and Ustad Ramzi is very intangible, in many ways, undefined. Do you think they were friends, twin souls, or lovers? How do you view their relationship?
It is for the reader to form the relationships between characters in his or her mind. I just tell the story.
Most writers tend to put elements of themselves in various characters, sometimes use incidents from their own lives. Does it annoy you when people—especially those who know you, or who think they know you—read this as you, or your life, and don’t see the larger fabric?
People are free to imagine what they please. It is not the writer’s job to provide justifications or explanations after writing a work of fiction.