Ustad Ramzi was once the greatest wrestler in the land, famed for his enormous strength and unmatched technique. Young apprentices flocked to his akhara to learn his craft, fans adored him, and rival wrestling clans feared him. The courtesan Gohar Jan was just as renowned. Celebrated throughout the country for her beauty and the power and melodiousness of her singing, her kotha was thronged by nobles, rich men, and infatuated admirers.
Between Clay and Dust was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. Set at the time of Partition, it opens with a glimpse of these extraordinary characters in the twilight of their lives. Their skills are no longer so formidable: New challengers have arisen and the adoring crowds are long gone. A catastrophe of history has laid waste to the country; its new inheritors and rulers have no time for the old ways and, stripped of their resources and their old powers, Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan must face their greatest challenge yet. The following excerpt is shared with the permission of the publisher, Restless Books.
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Early in his professional career, Ustad Ramzi had realized that the entanglements of married life would not let him devote himself fully to his art and its exacting discipline. He vowed to remain celibate to achieve perfection in his art and shut his mind to thoughts of women. He finally attained the rank of an ustad or master, and acquired such celebrity that the mere privilege of being his sparring partner conferred eminence on a pahalwan. Throughout this time Ramzi observed his vow of celibacy.
The news of his visiting Gohar Jan’s kotha in the courtesans’ enclave was therefore received with great interest.
Gohar Jan was an accomplished singer whose raga recitals were renowned. Once a celebrated beauty, she was known for her haughty airs and capricious treatment of her lovers. Like other prominent tawaifs of her time, she maintained her own kotha where trainee girls or nayikas received instruction in the arts of musical entertainment. Gohar Jan’s kotha in the inner city was the largest and most famed.
The young men frequented the kothas to learn the bearings of polite society, the older men to socialize, or rekindle the memories of their lost youth. Whenever one of them fell in love with a tawaif or a nayika, his affairs provided a spectacle and entertainment to the rest of them, until he was cured of his passion. Those who could not survive it did not return. A tawaif who fell in love had only two choices: she could either put an end to the association, or leave the kotha to pursue a life outside — if one was offered her. Implicit in the latter choice was the understanding that she would never be readmitted to the kotha if the promise of the new life failed her. There was a universe of failed unions, dreams, and abandoned hopes that started in the kothas and trailed off into the anonymity of the city’s dark alleys. It was said — with some justification — that only the fickle survived in the kothas, and only the pitiless prospered.
When people heard the news of Ustad Ramzi’s visits to Gohar Jan’s kotha, they thought that like scores of others, he, too, was lured by Gohar Jan’s physical charms. But there was another purpose to Ustad Ramzi’s kotha visits.
Ustad Ramzi had been taken by an old acquaintance one evening to listen to Gohar Jan’s mehfil of a raga recital at the kotha. That day, for the first time, he saw Gohar Jan as she entered with her nayikas and took her seat at the head of the ensemble of musicians. He saw her command her troupe quietly and imperiously, often with just a glance. That day, also for the first time, Ustad Ramzi felt the powerful meditative effect of music when Gohar Jan started a raga.
He had always struggled with a component of his discipline which stressed the need for meditation to focus physical strength. That chance visit to Gohar Jan’s kotha made Ustad Ramzi understand how music could quieten the aggressive humors of his soul. He later returned to Gohar Jan’s kotha and soon became one of the habitués of her mehfils.
Those who watched Ustad Ramzi for any signs of becoming infatuated with the tawaif were disappointed. At the end of the mehfil, he always left her kotha with others. Even after it was borne out that it was Ustad Ramzi’s fondness for music which occasioned his visits to the kotha, that fact was not accepted. People made all kinds of insinuations: that Ustad Ramzi’s endeavors outside the akhara did not meet with any success; that it is one thing to floor men, and another to contest the favors of a tawaif like Gohar Jan.
These comments inevitably reached Ustad Ramzi’s ears, too, but he never learned that some people attributed these insinuations to Gohar Jan herself. Those who knew the tawaif could readily believe that it would have provided endless entertainment to Gohar Jan to make a spectacle of someone as self-absorbed and sacrosanct as Ustad Ramzi. But whether Gohar Jan found the somber Ustad Ramzi too dull and uninteresting a quarry, or some other consideration hindered her, for some reason the insinuations ended there, and the gossip also died out.
For many years now Ustad Ramzi had regularly attended Gohar Jan’s mehfils. He never realized that his visits to her kotha had now become for him a need; he felt restive without attending her mehfils once every few days. Over the years, the ragas themselves had been suffused with Gohar Jan’s inflection and intonation; when Ustad Ramzi heard another’s rendition, it hardly stirred a thing in his breast. It was as if the ragas only existed embodied in Gohar Jan’s voice.
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Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, translator, and publisher. He was born in 1968 in Hyderabad, Pakistan. His critically acclaimed novel The Story of a Widow (2009) was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2010. He is the highly acclaimed translator of the Urdu classics Hoshruba (2009) and The Adventures of Amir Hamza (2007); contemporary Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed’s selected poetry Rococo and Other Worlds (2010); and Urdu writer Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s novel, The Beast (2010). His writing also appears on Livemint.com. He has just launched Kitab, a publishing house for children’s books in Urdu and English. You can find him on Twitter at @microMAF.