The Dust of Distant Times
Business Standard, May 31, 2012, by Mihir S Sharma
There is a truth about recent novels from Pakistan that few are comfortable accepting. And that truth is that they are often novels of discovery, in which the authors – while professing a writerly disdain for any larger purpose – nevertheless set out to explain that troubled country. This is not an unsurprising aim, as these novels’ creators have lived and worked in literary and political circles in the West, drawing from there the questions that drive their plots and their own sense of their work’s audience. And, of course, this coincidence of wants partly explains the recent attention such novels have received in the West and in India.
If Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust does not receive the rapturous attention that it deserves, it will be because it breaks free of these restraints. It begins a decade after Partition, in the old part of a town somewhere in the northern part of the subcontinent. It seems an essential part of Mr Farooqi’s project that we do not know whether, in fact, the town he is writing of is in India or in Pakistan — since he attempts to tell of the passing of the composite, Urdu-speaking urban culture that Partition wiped off the map.
He chooses two characters, both invested in aspects of that vanished civilisation, as embodiments of its graciousness, its virtues and its flaws. Both are ageing, their eyes dimming as they look back towards a more brilliant time when royal patronage in an undivided nation allowed their arts to rise above commerce. One is a champion wrestler, who runs an akhara with meticulous attention to ritual and tradition; in spite of aching knees, he always kneads and scents the clay on which the bouts will occur himself. The other is a courtesan, who wakes up before dawn every day to sing her riyaaz to the rising sun. Both of them must confront the passage of time and the death of their art; one accepts it with good grace, and the other rages against it, making one poor decision after another. Both of them lose those they should have mentored — in a reminder that traditions die not just because the world changes, but because they are murdered by those who hew to them too closely.
This book is a pleasure to read. The first from David Davidar’s new Aleph imprint, it is perfectly produced, its thick, elegant, old-fashioned paper and monochromatic design satisfyingly complementing the story it tells. And Mr Farooqi’s language is never laboured or strained. Beneath the simple, rhythmic, formal sentences of his English it seems possible to detect the Urdu of which he a master, allowing you to believe, almost, that you are reading an excellent translation of a book you have read before in another language.
That this is by design, not accident, is revealed towards the end, when one character meets a municipal commissioner who delivers a short speech about the duties of a civic official. It jars — and not just because this entire book is about a more antiquated notion of duty than the bureaucrat is outlining. It jars because Mr Farooqi shifts register effortlessly for that passage into an English that is more recognisably the English of today’s subcontinent, of position papers and newspaper reports and public defences of private probity. Of course, to those familiar with Mr Farooqi’s previous work – translating the riotous Lucknowi epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, and writing a hilarious, mock-solemn interpretation of the cult Punjabi film Maula Jatt as a foot-fetishist’s Sholay – it will be doubly clear that the restrained style of Between Clay and Dust is consciously chosen.
That Mr Farooqi’s book is different from many others that have emerged from Pakistan of late is, perhaps, not unrelated to the fact that he himself has had a trajectory as a writer that is out of the ordinary. After dropping out of engineering school and starting a small literary magazine in Karachi, he emigrated to Canada at the time that city began one of the convulsions of violence it has suffered of late. In Toronto, he worked for over a decade in fast-food restaurants and packing factories, borrowing Urdu books from public libraries, writing and translating at night. This is a life story that gladdens a reader’s heart. It means that, as is so rare in today’s subcontinent, the writer writes because something within him needs to come out, and from devotion to his craft — the archaic principle, indeed, that Farooqi celebrates in this book. One is left wondering if such drive to create, such love of the subcontinent’s composite culture, is essential to write a Between Clay and Dust. If so, it is even more unique and precious.
Interview: M.A. Farooqi Wrestles with Big Themes, Emerges Triumphant in New Novel
May 30th, 2012 by Jeff Tompkins
For more than a month now, South Asian literary circles have been abuzz over a highly original fictional look at the subcontinent in the years following Partition that also doubles as a poignant study of life's transience.
Between Clay and Dust the third novel by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, is set in an unnamed provincial South Asian town post-1947 and traces the fortunes of Ustad Ramzi, an aging pahalwan or wrestler, and Gohar Jan, a local courtesan also facing the twilight of her career. The collapse of royal patronage has made walking anachronisms of both of these two proud individuals; how each of them tries to navigate a society that has less and less need of their special gifts is the basis of a story that achieves the force of tragedy in its concluding pages.
Recounted in a spare, understated idiom that makes its climactic scenes all the more moving, Farooqi's novel is an elegant heartbreaker — and marks an auspicious start for his publisher, the recently-launched New Delhi-based publishing venture the Aleph Book Company.
If Farooqi knows a thing or two about the virtues of classical storytelling, it may be partly a result of his other vocation, which is translating classic Urdu literature into English. He won worldwide acclaim for his rendition of the 900-page medieval Indo-Persian epic The Adventures of Amir Hamza in 2007, a feat he followed up with another Urdu epic, Hoshruba, in 2009 (the latter being the first of 24 projected volumes). As if all that weren't enough, the author also finds time to write children's books and maintains a lively Twitter presence that's recommended for anyone with an interest in South Asian literature.
From his home in Karachi, Musharraf Ali Farooqi answered questions from Asia Blog via email.
Between Clay and Dust takes place in a decaying, backwater town that is evocatively rendered but never identified by name. Did you have a specific location in mind that you chose not to reveal, or can we read the setting as a composite of communities all over Pakistan, or even in India, post-Independence?
In the novel the geographical identity of the Inner City was deliberately left vague. It does not belong to either of the two nation-states but to the one culture which they shared, and still do. I did not wish this to be a novel about any particular country because for me there is still nothing unique in the cultural life lived on the other side as seen from either land. Some might disagree with this idea and call it a delusory notion, but I am very happy with my delusions and would not like them to be disturbed.
One of the most vivid sequences in the book is the one describing the insane training regimen that Tamami, a younger wrestler, undergoes before a big match. How did you research those details — are there living pahalwans you were able to consult?
No, most of this research was done from a history of the wrestlers of the Indian subcontinent which I have acknowledged in my novel. The severe exercises and the prodigious diet sound incredible, but they are based on the actual diet and exercises of 20th-century wrestlers. These wrestlers also took some preparation of arsenic which acted as a growth stimulant, and allowed them to digest vast quantities of food.
It's clear that Partition — and, specifically, the abolition of princely patronage that sustained both Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan in their professions — is what triggers the events of the novel. But by the end of the story I also felt that Ustad Ramzi's pride, and his stubborn adherence to what he believes to be a code, could create the conditions for a disaster regardless of when he lived...
Very true. Ustad Ramzi's blind adherence to his code, an absolute deference to his elders, and the self-righteousness that it instilled; as well as the selfish streak that did not make allowances for anyone but himself, were all ingredients that would have created a troubled destiny for Ustad Ramzi regardless of the peculiar circumstances created by Partition.
Moving on to your work as a translator, I'm curious to know how much overlap there is between your two vocations. What can the old Urdu tales teach a 21st-century novelist about storytelling?
I think my translation work, especially from a classical oral literary genre such as the dastan — which is a repository of generations of storytellers' literary experiments and narrative devices — has immensely increased my consciousness of the idea of storytelling. Some of the narrative structures employed in Urdu dastan are very complex. As a reader I might never have become aware of them, but in the exercise of translation, where you spend a lot of time in intimate contact with a text, you begin to see underlying structures.
The experience of these underlying narrative streams is very enjoyable for a student of literature. I have written about this experience and explored some of these narrative devices in my two amateur essays on the poetics of the dastan. (Note: Both essays are posted on my website.)
Even in other ways my study of the Urdu dastan has been very rewarding. The said history of the wrestlers of the subcontinent, which was my main source for the research on wrestlers and their culture for the present novel, would have lain undiscovered by me, had it not been wrongly classified with the dastan volumes in the University of Toronto Library. The author of the book had used the word dastan in the title in the meaning of "history." I suspect the ghost of one of the dastan writers made it happen: Happy with my translation of his stories, he decided to throw me a bone. I'm still wagging my tail in gratitude.
A reader has no sooner congratulated himself on finishing the 900-page Adventures of Amir Hamza than he learns that the next epic you're translating, Hoshruba, is expected to total 8,000 pages in 24 volumes! For the benefit of the uninitiated, just how did these stories come to be so long?
The Urdu dastan is a genre of oral literature. The Dastan-e Amir Hamza, which I translated as The Adventures of Amir Hamza, exists in a number of versions. My 900-page translated version is one comprehensive edition which describes the entire legend of Amir Hamza — from his birth to his death. In another version, which extended to 46 volumes (each of them approximately a thousand pages long), were embedded many stories and fantasies imagined by the storytellers from the 16th century onwards. Keeping in mind the popularity in India of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, and the royal patronage this particular dastan enjoyed at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, they used this dastan as a vehicle to launch these stories.
The translation of Tilism-e Hoshruba, which I would like to term world's first magical fantasy epic, was a standalone fantasy incorporated into the legend of Amir Hamza using familiar characters. The entire history of how Tilism-e Hoshruba came to be written is a fantasy in itself.
Purity of purpose
The News International, June 03, 2012, by Rafay Alam
Musharraf Ali 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 people.”
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.
The Dance of Time
Newsline magazine, June 2012, by Muneeza Shamsie
Once upon a time, in the subcontinent, there existed a hierarchy of customs and cultures within which professions such as that of the pahalwan and the tawaif were patronised by the elite and governed by strict rituals, customs and codes. Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel Between Clay and Dust tells the tale of an aging, famed pahalwan, Ustad Ramzi, and an elderly and celebrated tawaif Gohar Jan. Both continue to live in the crumbling inner city of a nameless town which has seen great changes after Partition. The timeless etiquette and rules of a world known to them cannot cope with the confrontation with modernity.
Farooqi’s spare, tightly honed prose and the quiet unfurling of the plot resembles the seamless movements of a dance, in which sudden implosions of violence and unexpected denouements are reflected by a change in the dancer’s steps but are contained within the fluidity of the whole. This sense of physicality and grace is enhanced by a narrative where much is suggested through gesture and nuance. At the same time, Farooqi’s eye for detail vividly brings to life the two main protagonists and their respective establishments.
Both Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan belong to professions which exploit the human body, but the timeless disciplines and codes of honour provide an anchor which imbues their days with order, dignity and meaning. Ustad Ramzi’s craft glorifies the muscle power and strength of the male body, but he has made a vow of celibacy. On the other hand, Gohar Jan’s absolute dedication to her art as a singer and a musician, veils the sale of the female body that is implicit to life in the kotha.
In traditional society, the onset of old age would have meant that Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan would continue to earn by training younger apprentices to follow the traditions of their respective establishments. But in the modern day, they have become but obsolete vestiges of a lost world.
Ustad Ramzi, the head of a pahalwan clan, holds the title of Ustad-e-Zaman, which he had won 15 years earlier, in 1935, after defeating the defending champions – his clan’s long-time rivals. Daily, he begins the day by pounding clay in the wrestler’s akhara, of which he is a custodian. He is aware of the pain in his joints and other symptoms of deteriorating health. His brother Tamami, 20 years his junior, has no interest in the rituals his brother holds dear, nor offers to help. Tamami is also a reckless braggart. He taunts Imama, the champion of a rival clan, and challenges him to a match. Ustad Ramzi knows his brother is not ready for such a bout. He steps in to fight in Tamami’s stead. The preparations for the grand spectacle include plates of dried dates and pitchers of sardai “prepared with almonds, milk and herbs” for the spectators. Ustad Ramzi, dressed in a white turban and a coverlet “embroidered with Quranic verses,” is carried to the ground on the shoulders of the trainees, reciting auspicious verses. Farooqi describes the fight in wonderful visual detail, including Ustad Ramzi’s growing awareness of his own limitations and his near-defeat. Ustad Ramzi realises that Tamami is stronger than him, even if he does not have the requisite skills or discipline. Tamami gradually starts training other pahalwans of the clan. But Ustad Ramzi’s hopes and aspirations of creating in Tamami a worthy heir are shattered when he learns of Tamami’s increasing dependence on the insidious Gulab Deen, a professional promoter. Ustad Ramzi is outraged at Gulab Deen’s proposal to fix matches. As his relationship with his brother deteriorates, so does his hold on everything he holds dear, including the land and property his family has owned for generations, and which now come under the purview of the municipality as does Gohar Jan’s derelict home.
The interplay between Ustad Ramzi and the courteous Gohar Jan provides a foil to the ustad’s increasing enmity and distance with his violent, foul-tempered brother. Gohar Jan holds regular mehfils in her music room. There Ustad Ramzi discovers the power of music to calm and soothe the spirits. These gatherings entail a strict etiquette. Bolsters are placed on the white floor covering, hookahs are filled by servants and Malka, a beautiful young nayika, welcomes the guests with paan. At the centre of it all, is the commanding presence of Gohar Jan, a woman once renowned for her “stately and austere” beauty, who is still famous for her voice and her music, in the best classical tradition.
Gohar Jan is aware that after Partition many of the nearby kothas have closed down and young trainee nayikas have left the district to enter the film industry and other professions. Gohar Jan’s kotha includes the 23-year-old Malka, who was found on Gohar Jan’s doorstep as a baby. Malka enjoys a rather privileged position, though Gohar Jan shows her little affection. Her attitude towards Malka perplexes her old retainer Banday Ali. He perceives Malka as an important source of income for the kotha in the future. Instead, Gohar Jan negotiates Malka’s marriage to an infatuated newcomer in the music room in fulfillment of a vow that Gohar Jan had made long ago. Thus Gohar Jan implies that a life of respectability, whatever the cost, is always a preferable option to the kotha – a statement which echoes that of Mirza Ruswa’s famous heroine, Umrao Jan Ada.
The income from Gohar Jan’s kotha continues to dwindle. Soon her mehfils end too, unknown to Ustad Ramzi. He arrives one day at the music room at the usual hour, only to find no one there. Gohar Jan is too polite to send him away. She insists on playing for him – a performance which not only re-unites her with her music, but with her own self as well.
“Even though it felt strange for her to play for her lone audience, Gohar Jan experienced a familiar joy upon touching, after many days, the well-seasoned wood of the sitar. The fingers of her hand glided over the wooden neck of the instrument, curled over the wooden neck of the instrument, curled around the frets, caressed the strings, and with their touch breathed warmth into the wood. She felt she had recovered a part of herself as her hands held the instrument. Playing it gave her a sense of completeness.”
The unlikely friendship that develops between Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan is also a comment on both as artists and their commitment to their art. Their silent understanding of each other and their respective heroic struggles, against all odds, to cling to their sense of self, impel the plot, Meanwhile a new breed of men – among them government officials and municipal inspectors – draw up new plans for the dilapilated, flooded, inner city.
Between Clay and Dust is a fine novel; it never loses tension nor wastes a word and, above all, it is replete with a spectacular imagery that recreates Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan’s dying world.
Time's Winged Chariot Hurrying Near
Dawn, Books and Authors, June 10, 2012, by Nadir Hassan
The first couple of dozen pages of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s novel Between Clay and Dust bring to mind the film The Wrestler. An aging pahalwan, long past his glory days, seems to be suffering an emotional crisis as the gifts that defined him slowly wither away. Anyone who has suckled at the Hollywood teat could be excused for assuming that the story of the wrestler, Ustad Ramzi, will progress in an exhilarating feel-good fashion as he gears up for one final redemptive fight.
But Farooqi isn’t a writer who is interested in the kind of Rocky-style redemption that the movies love presenting to us. His character is a realist who understands that his fighting days will soon be over but a romantic who doesn’t want the declining pahalwani culture to disappear altogether or even bypass his clan.
The core of Between Clay and Dust lies in the fraught relationship between Ramzi and his younger brother Tamami, the heir apparent whose devotion to the pahalwan lifestyle is limited to its perks and privileges. This deceptively simple tale of sibling tensions explores moral dilemmas that transcend the pahalwan culture Farooqi writes about so evocatively. For Ramzi, the title of ustad carries with it responsibilities that others may consider menial, like assiduously cleaning the akhara every morning.
Such daily chores serve as a reminder that an honorific, once bestowed, must be continuously re-earned. That is a lesson Ramzi tries to pass on to Tamami and it is one that seems to be beyond the abilities of even the most able wrestler in the land.
Tempting though it may be to paint Ramzi as the wise saint, Farooqi is too shrewd an observer of human nature to fall for that trap. In Tamami’s silent stewing at the training he is being forced to endure we see that Ramzi may be guilty of seeing his younger brother not as a separate human being but as an extension of his hopes and desires. In one finely-observed set-piece, Ramzi gets cross at Tamami for taking too long to win a fight. Tamami replies, “I was just trying to see what he knew.” This is a problem with Ramzi: he is too devoted to his own life to consider the perspective of others.
In accordance with pahalwan culture as he sees it, Ramzi does not allow himself any aesthetic pleasures other than regularly attending the performances of courtesan Gohar Jan. Like Ramzi, Gohar Jan is struggling to accept that her profession may no longer hold the same cultural allure it once did. Her kotha is slowly becoming more decrepit and it is only a matter of time before she is forced to shutter its doors for good. The relationship between Ramzi and Gohar is always romantic but never sexual. The parallelism of their situations is obvious and it is this that draws them towards each other. Both respect the talents of the other, leading Gohar to continue performing for Ramzi even after her looks have faded and she no longer appears in public for her other former fans.
In their unlikely friendship we see the pull cultural traditions continue to exert on their practitioners. Both find it difficult to adjust to a world where their value has depreciated even if they deal with it in different ways. Ramzi is continually disappointed in his brother while Gohar treats her ward, Malka, with far greater sympathy. She trains Malka in the arts of music and dance but never tries to impose it on her, even though Malka has an eagerness and passion for this life that Tamami never hinted at possessing.
In telling a story so fraught with emotionality, a writer may succumb to the temptations of melodrama. Farooqi, however, is too unhurried and serene in his prose to let that happen. While it is clear that Farooqi’s focus, and perhaps even sympathies, lie with the aging protagonists, he is acutely sensitive to all his character’s motivations. Although no relationship in Between Clay and Dust is completely fulfilling, we understand why the lives of these people make that so. Glum though the novel may be, it is never self-indulgent and doesn’t put characters through their paces simply for the sake of unearned drama.
Farooqi also resists the temptation to use history as a crutch. There is an early reference to the “changeful decade” after Partition that led to the decline of both the pahalwan and courtesan cultures but neither the era nor the setting dominate the universality of the themes Farooqi is truly interested in exploring. Between Clay and Dust may be a fall-from-grace story but that decline is thrust upon the characters. In the eternal debate between fate and free will, Farooqi does not take sides but prefers showing how we deal with matters beyond our control. We may not be able to direct every contour of our existence; still we should not use that as an excuse for despair and inertia.
Ramzi’s and Gohar’s responses may not be perfect — pride and ambition are among their many failings — but Farooqi is entirely successful in showing us that we still retain the power, if not to shape our destinies, to at least react to our waning fortunes with a contradictory brew of emotions that range from despair to forbearance. And that, more than anything else, is what makes us human.
By Supriya Nair
Published in LiveMint, May 4, 2012
Musharraf Ali Farooqi dedicates his new novel to Afzal Ahmed Syed, the Urdu poet who writes, in The Secret History of a Republic (not incidentally in Farooqi’s own translation), “Brought under the hammer/the Republic was declared destitute and ill-starred/Except for well-cared-for hunting fields/and/love-play couches of kept women/which attracted the highest bids.”
Much of the action of Between Clay And Dust alternates between sporting arenas and women’s rooms, in spaces which we tend to think of as repositories of our memories, rather than our histories. Perhaps this accounts for the power of this small, spare book, a novel which fulfils the most novelistic of purposes—to refract history through the prism of memory, and to tell us its secrets and doubts.
Between Clay And Dust opens in an unnamed city, in the austere confines of an akhara. The ageing pehelwan, Ustad Ramzi, worries about how to preserve the glorious ascetic tradition of wrestling in which generations of his family and disciples have been brought up. His life of rigid principle has left him ill-prepared for change outside the akhara, and the ways in which that change intrudes into his own world, through his young, impetuous brother and heir Tamami. We guess that this story is set some time after Partition, but not exactly when, or on which side of the India-Pakistan border. Yet, beyond the atmosphere Farooqi creates for his story, this becomes immaterial to our reading. Ustad Ramzi’s dilemma, the struggle of the very disciplined in an undisciplined world, is timeless.
The ustad has one escape from worldly turmoil, the music of the courtesan Gohar Jan, who is also an artiste from a fading world. The mansions of thetawaifs (courtesans) are closing fast as the story opens, prey to new construction and new morality. Gohar Jan, a graceful, remote woman, has dedicated her life to her music. But while Ustad Ramzi’s art is founded on ideas of social and moral purity, hers lies outside the boundaries of propriety altogether. So Gohar Jan, perhaps circumstantially, becomes a foil to Ustad Ramzi; as a woman and something of a pragmatist, she sees, forgives and accepts changes that he cannot. As her street grows dark and silent, and her own disciples leave her halls, it occurs to her “that among the many men who frequented her kotha, Ustad Ramzi was the only one for whom she remained only a voice. It was strange that at the end of her career he was the only person with whom she shared her deep relationship with her art.”
They must both come to a reckoning in the end, and Farooqi traces the unravelling of their world with near-uncanny attentiveness. Gone is the air of suppressed hilarity that pervaded his last novel, 2008’s The Story of a Widow. But the careful tread of that story through the inner lives of its characters is echoed here too. Farooqi’s narrative voice is cool and hypnotic, almost impassive in its patience.
The Story of a Widow had admirers comparing him both to Jane Austen and Vikram Seth. But while his talent for social observation—the basis for that praise—remains as keen as ever in this book, Farooqi does something far too original here to make those comparisons useful.
His Gohar Jan remains, at the end of the story, something of an unknown quantity, in spite of the time we have spent with her. That may seem befitting of such a private character, and we are not left dissatisfied. But Farooqi’s true victory in this book is Ustad Ramzi, a patriarch who evokes both our sympathy and our discomfort. His sins may seem smaller than those of a society rushing headlong into the future, but Farooqi’s writing is too wise and too elegant to make this a romance instead of a tragedy. As in Syed’s poem, we are left with the notion that every history is underwritten by the minute, private failures of human beings.
Ballad Of A Broken String
A post-Partition torpor marks time for the sole occupants of a kotha and an akhara. A work of crisp magic
By Sunil Sethi
Published in Outlook India Magazine, May 07, 2012
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel is the literary equivalent of an artfully executed miniature painting. In its meticulous planning and circumscribed space, a cast of vigorously modelled characters and their subtle movements and emotions leap into life; the fluency of the narrative and unfolding of the story owe something to the conventions of dastangoi, the Urdu art of storytelling. This is not a coincidence. Among his many accomplishments, the 43-year-old author is the acclaimed translator of Urdu epics such as The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba.
Between Clay and Dust, however, breaks from convention in its controlled brevity. Told in short, tight chapters, the prose, in the words of publisher David Davidar, whose first offering it is from his new imprint, is “spare and lush at the same time”.
In an unnamed inner city after Partition, two celebrated performers from another age are eking out their last years: Ustad Ramzi, once the most famous of wrestlers, still prepares the clay at his akhara for daily practice and personally sweeps the adjoining graveyard where his clan’s ancestors lie buried; at the other end, where “the inner city still intoned its past splendour in broken whispers”, sits the courtesan Gohar Jan, in a music room from which the grandeur of late night mehfils and dalliances has fled. Her kotha once rang with the notes of her superlative melody but, now, the quiet is “broken sometimes by the sound of a string snapping”. Gohar Jan’s retinue of alluring tawaifs have either migrated or joined the movie business. The ineptitude of Ramzi’s feckless younger brother threatens to heap dishonour on the ustad as he prepares to fight a last bout with an old rival before a dwindling audience.
The counterpoint of akhara and kotha, as parallel arenas of public performance, are resonant with allegorical references to change and decay: the dying of the old arts, the languishing life of inner cities, and the capriciousness of audience tastes that dictate transient ideals of beauty, power and fame—in this case of musical merit and spectator sport. Yet these allusions hover in the distance, like delicately drawn landscapes and subsidiary characters in a miniature meant to convey the passing seasons or reactions to the principal players in the foreground.
What concerns Musharraf Ali Farooqi are the inner lives of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan. What drew the devoutly celibate and austere pahalwan to the beauteous and supremely gifted tawaif’s gilded rooms? How did their association grow? And despite the series of estrangements, betrayals and humiliations they suffered that set into motion the powerfully poignant denouement—what, in the end, was the singular motivation that governed the lives of these two applauded figures of the past?
This is that rare novel where gesture, nuance and suggestion underscores, and often takes precedence, over dialogue and dramatic action. Conversations occur, and things happen in Farooqi’s swift-flowing narrative. But the protagonists, although often in proximity, barely exchange a few words. The paramount paradox of this short, superbly crafted piece of fiction is that, although accustomed to the pains and pleasures of the flesh, the wrestler and courtesan are never physically intimate. Gohar Jan touches Ramzi just once, lightly, and in rejection. This is when, as her lone audience, he tries to leave his customary payment and she turns it down, imperiously adding, “Ustad Ramzi...you will be our guest from today.”
In terms of literary lineage, it may seem easy to establish a connection between Farooqi’s novel and well-known classics by Urdu writers such as Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Adaand Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. In fact, the author’s acknowledged debt is to the Japanese modernist Junichiro Tanizaki, in particular his novel The Makioka Sisters, the story of four daughters of a rich man in Osaka during World War II, whose personal tribulations hardly reflect the larger tragedy around them.
In Farooqi’s last novel, The Story of a Widow (2009), the predicament of a rich widow (with married daughters) who falls in love is an exploration of interior lives within domestic confines. The city of Karachi is but a distant drumbeat. Similarly, the catastrophic after-effects of Partition are sensed rather than seen in Between Clay and Dust.
Decline and disintegration are inevitable, Musharraf Ali Farooqi suggests in this novel of parable-like luminosity that took him ten years to finish, as nascent ruins overlay the old.
With Souls and Elbows
An evocation of the subcontinent’s past that avoids both elegy and melodrama
By Faiza S Khan
Published in the Caravan Magazine: May 01, 2012
THE FIRST MASTERSTROKE, one of many in the novel Between Clay and Dust, is the setting. It is the subcontinent a few years after Partition, but it isn’t necessarily Pakistan. The city is a nameless character, like the second Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. One hopes that the unspecified locale will spare this fine book the obligatory critical appraisal of the English fiction of Pakistan as the infamous “window to a troubled nation”. It is an appraisal that magnifies the ‘tortured artist’ theory to a national scale: Pakistanis were writing because it had been the year of living dangerously, and apparently strife produces great art. Whatever derailed the Bosnian literary boom, one may well ask, not to mention the fact that turbulent times tend to produce reporters and not necessarily writers of fiction. Why people experiencing greater levels of strife than Pakistan’s comparatively privileged elite weren’t the ones producing these novels also failed to dent this romantic supposition. In fact, it was inconvenient, if not downright confusing, for international readers that social distinctions existed at all. The Pakistan of the global imagination was terror firma, bloodied, bearded and exotically backwards—but for a few people producing literature of international standards.
An exploration of the human condition, if emanating from Pakistan, is received as an exploration of the human condition of Pakistanis, with the idea that it may be a more broadly shared sentiment dismissed. It appears that when literary output from beyond the West began to be read more globally, the idea of universalism, ironically, went straight out of the window. As Orhan Pamuk said at the Jaipur Literature Festival last year, “When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can’t love be general?”
Though the prolific and prodigiously talented Musharraf Ali Farooqi has not yet garnered due attention in the slew of largely hyperbolic pieces on the (fictitious) Pakistani literary boom—which refer to seven or so authors publishing in English in recent years—Between Clay and Dust shall be, I’ll wager, the novel to change that.
SET IN A PAHALWAN'S AKHARA in the 1950s, in a city that could just as easily fall on either side of the border, Between Clay and Dust is the story of two brothers, the elder Ustad Ramzi, “the head of a pahalwan clan and the custodian of a fighter’s akhara”, and his brother Tamami, who is 20 years younger than him. The strict codes which pahalwan clans have abided by for generations appear to be slipping away and the city is no longer famed for its beauty but for the memories and echoes of it. It’s a brutal rather than natural transition: “Links binding old and new neighbourhoods were either never formed or broken at the start.” The city’s fading glory and the beginnings of disjointed new neighbourhoods speak of a past that has not led the way to the future, where the latter has instead rudely encroached upon the past’s territory, and where little hope can be had for both states to live in harmony.
Middle-aged Ustad Ramzi, a former champion and current title-holder, is past his prime and feeling the effects of time in his aching joints. His previously indomitable strength is on the wane, a decline accelerated by his pahalwan’s diet and the use of arsenic to digest it. Ramzi sees this fundamental shift reflected too in his much younger brother Tamami, who suffers from the “modern” ailment of wanting the fame of the championship title without appearing to possess either the rigour or the discipline to earn it.
Still, changes shan’t be allowed to creep their way into the akhara, not on Ustad Ramzi’s watch. Quietly determined, sober of temperament and profoundly aware of his responsibility to his art and to the “hallowed place” which his forebears entrusted to him, Ustad Ramzi is the keeper of the flame. In spite of his body’s increasing resistance, he does not delegate even the most physically demanding tasks to his trainees or his brother, as “one had to first prove oneself worthy”. A lesser man would insist on sharing the burden, but Ramzi is too proud to pass on duties on account of pain and weariness alone. While he is frustrated by Tamami’s cavalier attitude to what Ramzi considers sacred—the land of the akhara, the titular clay that is the “essence of his creed”—he is still hopeful that the boy will someday understand the significance of their calling.
Tamami, on the other hand, feels slighted by his brother’s lack of trust. It seems that he can get nothing right. He is confident and playful with his friends and with the akhara trainees, but shrivels in the presence of his elder brother. When Tamami puts himself forward for a tournament, his brother rages at him, and he slinks off shamed and confused. Ramzi is fearful that Tamami’s lack of training will lead to a humiliating defeat and so, in spite of his rheumatism and his deteriorating strength, takes it upon himself to train his brother. And when Tamami is finally entrusted with the duties of running the akhara, in the hope that he may learn on the job, he performs them with his usual carelessness, letting the place lapse into disorder for the first time in generations, much to his brother’s disgust.
Ramzi sets Tamami a gruelling regime as his day in the sun draws near. In spite of onlookers commenting on his body and mind’s inability to cope, Tamani endures it all: “His intense and punishing training regime was not only transforming his physique, it was also building up a fierce rage inside him.” The reader senses disaster but is unsure of when it will erupt or what form it will take. The writing is as taut as a wire, and reminds me, if comparisons must be made, of Ian McEwan’s neat trick of bringing the reader to the edge of their seat and somehow keeping them there throughout the duration of an entire novel. It is the tantalising foreshadowing of eventual disaster that both McEwan and Farooqi have down pat: “Tamami’s body became tense and the expression on his face hardened. His eyes were fixed on Imama’s. He resolved to show his brother how quickly he could eliminate his adversary.” In Ramzi’s day, the akhara alone determined who fought and when, but as the profession begins to slip from its ancient and noble perch, commercial exhibition tournaments organised by promoters in order to keep an interest in the art alive become more commonplace—but not without altering the form from art to sport. Tamami, Ramzi feels, is being led astray by one such crass mercenary, Gulab Deen, whose complaint in turn is, “Everyone thinks I am after money! But what’s wrong with that, you tell me? If I don’t make money I go hungry!” The promoter, however, is the only person willing to offer Tamami a semblance of a livelihood after his brother expels him from the akhara, a decision, it seems, not taken out of cruelty so much as self-abnegation: “With a final effort he shut his heart to Tamami.”
One of the few pleasures of Ramzi’s ascetic existence is music, and for this purpose he visits the kotha of Gohar Jan, a courtesan celebrated more for her classical recitals than her now-ebbing beauty. Celibate in deference to his art, Ramzi shares a great deal more with Gohar Jan than either of them suspected at first meeting. She too feels “despair at the snapping of the thread that connected her past, present and future”. She is graciously and heroically holding on to all the good in a world giving way to something uglier, and while she and Ramzi have similar outlooks, there is a vital difference in how they treat their loved ones. Of the characters who people this story, Gohar Jan is perhaps the one who understands her predicament most fully and succumbs to it with true nobility. She does not try to rail against the growing religiosity around her, evidenced by the new maulvi—clearly an opportunist (though a benign amateur when compared to those who will follow)—who refuses to accept her donation towards the restoration of the local mosque. Yet, even Gohar Jan, a woman who prepares for every eventuality, finds that she has failed to anticipate the final blow her faith will deal her.
WHILE NOSTALGIA FOR PAST SPLENDOUR is a fairly universal sentiment, it amounts to a fetish in South Asia where, if the past had been as idyllic, as honourable and as faultless as it is imagined to be, the present would presumably have found itself in better shape. This book, however, doesn’t succumb to the lazily romanticised concept of the ‘good old days’. On the contrary, it turns it on its head. In fact, Between Clay and Dust turns entirely, like a sonnet, about two-thirds of the way in. And it does so with such manifest skill. The novel is not an elegy on the past, as one would suspect: It is a level-headed mapping of both the good that’s been lost and the bad that one is better off without. Change, especially when brought about by seismic events like the Partition, can be brutal and frightening, but the only thing more painful than change is no change at all, for when one celebrates the dead past, one is too often celebrating all the rigidity it adhered to.
It is the fashion among critics nowadays to throw the word ‘devastating’ about like birdseed, but it belongs here, to Between Clay and Dust. This is the most poignant, the most subtle, the most moving novel I have read in the past few years from this, or any, region. A natural storyteller, Farooqi imagines a world we thought we were familiar with and then pulls the rug out from under our feet. It is a testament to his craftsmanship that he does this without resorting to that other South Asian specialty, melodrama. He has staved off melodrama in large part due to his choice of lean language that has not an ounce of fat, and by creating characters that live and breathe as we do, with “souls and elbows”, as they say.
The acrid smell of the wilted jasmine flowers in the copper bowl, and the sight of the perfume-soaked cotton plugs in the glass bowl reminded Gohar Jan of Malka who used to arrange them for the mehfils. Something told her she was not to return. Gohar Jan had foreseen Malka going away from her life and was reconciled to it when it occurred. With her decision never to attach herself to any one man, Gohar Jan had also prepared herself for a life of solitude. She had assumed that it was not given to her to find satisfaction in a relationship. She found it instead in a discipline that needed a similar degree of tending and self-sacrifice.
Farooqi’s writing is a stark and welcome contrast to the many subcontinental novels that practically haemorrhage excess description, usually to make the exotic locale do half the writer’s work. Between Clay and Dust is so pared down that not a detail makes it without good reason. “The acrid smell of the wilted jasmine flowers in the copper bowl” is ostensibly the description of a room, but also serves to reaffirm the sense of decay, of dying beauty, barely preserved.
While this may be Farooqi’s most ambitious novel to date, he is by no means new to this gig. His The Story of a Widow (2009), which was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, is a small, quiet and immensely subtle novel which lost out to HM Naqvi’s more brazen Home Boy. Mona, a recently-widowed mother of two, is befriended by her neighbour’s tenant, Salamat Ali. The glamour of romance rears its head, causing Mona to reconsider her first marriage, her belief system at large and what she can reasonably expect from life. While the setting and characters are entirely dissimilar, The Story of a Widow, like Between Clay and Dust, looks behind the surface of respectability and isn’t entirely blown away by what it finds.
Farooqi is perhaps best known as the translator of the epic The Adventures of Amir Hamza (originally, Dastan-e Amir Hamza), which was an enormous undertaking. When he started writing fiction, he was drawn to fables and fairytales. “I like writing stories for children. I never did prefer the adult of the species...” he said to me in an interview. His children’s fiction is grounded in the strong storytelling tradition of fables and folktales but breaks away from the school of thought that insists children’s stories be morality tales. In retelling the folktale ‘Monkeyshines’, published in the collection The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories (2011), he went so far as to replace the original moral. “In the original Urdu folktale the monkey turns away from all mischief after the beating,” Farooqi said. “From personal knowledge I know a monkey would never ever turn away from mischief. So to have let the original moral stand would have gone against Nature. Furthermore, I am against reforming monkeys. So my personal politics also intervened.”
This is playful, subversive writing in the tradition of Roald Dahl. But it is also uniquely Farooqi’s own. His children’s fiction does not have any particular locale, and the worlds in his retellings are geographically neutral—to not rely on his environment to do half the writing for him goes to prove his storytelling prowess. In The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories, a character named Snotbog is found a few pages from another character named Moochhander. Written for an international market, and published successfully in South Asia, where it was shortlisted for the 2011 Comic Con India Award in the ‘Best Publication for Children’ category, it has not yet found a publisher in the West. Farooqi says that Western publishers find it difficult to categorise his children’s fiction; they look at his past work translating Urdu language classics, then look at the stories of piglets and ogres, try to find a common thread, and draw a blank.
Between Clay and Dust belongs to yet another genre. While it is a slender book, the tradition it borrows from most is that of the Victorian novel—employing a restrained realism, speaking of everyday events, and using a rational but flawed protagonist whose personality changes as the story arc progresses, culminating in his painful deeper understanding of both the changing world around him and, necessarily, also himself. While the concept of the Pakistani literary boom is dodgy at best, this novel undoubtedly marks the arrival of a major new player.
Subtlety in Times of High Drama
By Mahvesh Murad
Published in the Express Tribune: May 14, 2012
“I have never stepped into an akhara or spoken to a professional wrestler,” confesses writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi talking about his new book Between Clay and Dust. “[A]ll my knowledge of pahalwans and the pahalwani culture is from books,” he says, though that is hard to believe considering the perfectly textured nuances of his new novel. In an “effort to imagine a man’s relationship to physical power and self-control”, Farooqi has written a thoughtful and emotionally articulate story about people whose lives are changing beyond their control.
Between Clay and Dust is about a wrestler and a tawaif, about two art forms that no longer hold the glory they once did. Set somewhere suggestive of post-partition Punjab, albeit in an area left ‘unscathed’ by ‘the ravaging winds of Partition’, the narrative is quiet, thoughtful and centred: no references to current trends of South Asian Literature here, for Farooqi is clearly not interested in them. “Human emotions and human relationships have a universality to them,” he says, choosing to focus instead on the microcosms of Ustad Ramzi’s akharaand Gohar Jan’s kotha.
Both Ramzi and Gohar Jan are heads of their ‘clans’, both have had their worlds shaken by the ‘abolition of the princely states whose nawabs and rajas had traditionally patronized’ these arts, and both are struggling to accept their own limitations as they age. Ramzi must hand over duties to his younger brother and Gohar Jan must eventually shut down her kotha. But the story of Between Clay and Dust is more Ustad Ramzi’s than Gohar Jan’s; she is his perfect foil, the archetype of the whore with a golden heart whose every action reminds the reader that there are reams left unwritten about her.
In fact, the same can even be said about Ustad Ramzi’s character. Though Ramzi is far more developed than Gohar Jan is, Farooqi’s treatment of all his characters is sensitive and subtle. This is a story of uncertain, unfulfilled relationships and lives where what is not said and not done is as important, if not more, than what has been said and done. The tone of the novel is reminiscent of folklore stylistics, as is some of Farooqi’s earlier work as well, such as The Amazing Mustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man. With this particular folkloric narrative, Between Clay and Dust retains a constant sense of a quiet unfamiliarity, never burdened with turgid prose even when there is high emotional drama involved.
Farooqi has told a story in a setting that may be unfamiliar and even quaint, to an urban English reading population anywhere in the world. Will Between Clay and Dust make as much of an impact in a world tuned in to high drama? It should, because as Farooqi explains: ‘the experience of the emotional life of a character is always eminently accessible to readers from other cultures if a writer is able to express it in his work …I do not feel that I have to make the caricature of a character and his or her emotional life to make that character understandable to a global reader.’ And with Between Clay and Dust, he does just that.
Between Pre-modern and Modern Times
The adventures of Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who quit his job as a journalist in Pakistan to work in a packaging factory in Toronto and then at a fast-food joint, and translated and wrote books late into the night
By Basharat Peer
Published in Open Magazine, April 28, 2012
The early nineties were a terrible time to be living in the Subcontinent. Kashmir was torn asunder by militancy and counter-insurgency, and riots and bombs killed thousands in Bombay and large swathes of north India. Across the border, in Pakistan’s largest and most interesting city, Karachi, ethnic violence between Mohajirs led by Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) and various ethnic and political groups of Karachi was intense. Between 1992 and1994, the Pakistani military launched a brutal crackdown, ‘Operation Clean Up’, which largely targeted the MQM. Between 1994 and 1995, around 5,000 people were killed in Karachi, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “It was a time when bodies would be found in sacks on the streets of the city,” novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who was working as a journalist at The News newspaper in Karachi in 1994, told me.
Farooqi’s parents migrated from north India to Karachi in 1947. He had dropped out of an engineering college to pursue reading and writing. One of his first literary attempts was a parody he wrote to impress the foremost satirist of Pakistan, Mohammad Khalid Akhtar. “He liked it,” Farooqi smiles in reminiscence. As his city was being ruined, Farooqi steeled himself to follow his passion, and founded an English language literary magazine, Cipher. “We were thinking of a quarterly.” Cipher had some short stories, a spoof on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an essay imagining the secret history of the flying carpet, and some poems.
Farooqi didn’t want to make politics the subject of his writing. “I was interested in human relationships and fantasy,” he said, “I wasn’t going to change what I wanted to write because MQM had been formed.” He never reads political books. “I follow politics. I read the newspaper and make my decisions for the day: is it safe to step out? Do I need to store water and milk?” Yet, violent politics was to impinge on the graph of his life. Cipher lasted two issues. A co-founder emigrated to Australia. Farooqi was married to Michelle, an artist, who came from a Christian family. “Everything was so uncertain those days,” he says. They migrated to Canada.
The Farooqis knew the New World wouldn’t be easy. Having dropped out of an engineering school, he didn’t have a basic degree that could earn him a place in the knowledge economy. They prepared to barter the professional security of journalistic life in Karachi with odd jobs in peaceful Toronto. Musharraf and Michelle began their new life as workers on the assembly line of a packaging factory, filling boxes with styrofoam pellets, day after day of toil. Then Farooqi moved from the factory to the kitchen, working at Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Harvey’s Burgers—the Canadian McDonald’s. Four years later, in 1999, he became a Canadian citizen; his work situation improved marginally. His shift was from 8 in the morning to 5 pm. After a tiring day, Farooqi would head home or to the Toronto University library and read the classics. The library was well stocked with classics of Urdu literature, and Farooqi immersed himself in high literature in Urdu and English. Charles Dickens was his favourite. “I read everything Dickens wrote.”
One winter evening, the metro in Toronto shut down. Farooqi had left the fast-food kitchen and was wandering the streets, hoping to find a way to get home. He walked into a coffee shop to kill time. “The music in the café was very good,” he said, “When I returned home, my memories were that of the café and music, not the kitchen.” The café became a buffer between the kitchen and the desk. He returned home fresher and wrote at night—working on several stories and novels.
In 1998, Farooqi found a translation of some pages of the great Indo-Islamic epic, Dastan-e Amir Hamza or ‘The Adventures of Amir Hamza’. A sample of this translation by an American university professor left him bewildered, disappointed. Farooqi had no formal training in translation, but had been translating the poems of his friend and one of the foremost contemporary Urdu poets, Afzal Ahmad Syed. He ordered a microfilm of Dastan-e Amir Hamza from the British Library. The epic of Amir Hamza, which describes the magical, action-filled adventures of Amir Hamza, an uncle of Prophet Muhammad, has its origin in the oral tradition of Arabia and medieval Iran. It follows the campaigns of Hamza in service of Naushervan, the Persian emperor who worships fire and whose half-Chinese daughter, Mehr-Nigar, Hamza pines for. Aided by a trickster, Amar Ayyar, Hamza battles, among others, an evil giant, Zamarrud Shah, who features as his arch enemy. Apart from its fantastical tales, demons, flying objects, dragons and fairies, what is striking about this medieval Muslim epic is its irreverence towards religion and orthodox clergies.
It was immensely popular from Iran to Turkey to Malaysia, Indonesia and Mughal India, where dastangos (storytellers) would perform it on the steps of Jama Masjid in Delhi, in the bazaar of storytellers in Peshawar, and at the Mughal court. In India, it gained new elements, characters, sub-plots. Ghalib, the great poet, was enthralled by theDastan-e Amir Hamza and hosted performances at his house. Its biggest supporter, however, was Emperor Akbar, who commissioned an illustrated version of the epic, which took 14 years, and, apart from the text, included 1,400 full pages of Mughal miniatures.
The epic was published in an Urdu edition in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and revised by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871. A more exhaustive version came out in 1917 from the famed Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow: 46 volumes of around a thousand pages each. The microfilm that Farooqi received from the British library was the 1871 version compiled by Abdullah Bilgrami. “It took me a few months to translate the first 20 pages. Its Urdu was heavily Persianised, but slowly I found a rhythm.” How would this sound in English? Farooqi continued to ask himself as he laboured in the evenings. Seven years later, he had an almost thousand page translation. He had found a literary agent, who sent it to an editor at the prestigious Modern Library. In 2007, The Adventures of Amir Hamza was published to great acclaim; its ravingNew York Times review was titled, ‘Eat Your Heart Out, Homer!’
He followed that up with a more ambitious translation project, aiming to translate a 19th-century Urdu dastan writer from Lucknow, Muhammad Hussain Jah’s magisterial fantasy, Tilism-e-Hoshruba, which again features Amir Hamza and Amar Ayyar fighting the good fight against arch-evil Afrasiyaab. He set up his own publishing house, Urdu Project, and published the first volume of Tilism, but had to stop for want of funding. “It will take me eight more years. I have to translate 23 more volumes of Tilism,” Farooqi told me.
His enviable, single-minded devotion to literature continued. Farooqi completed work on a Jane Austenesque novel of social mores set in Karachi, The Story of a Widow, published in 2009. The novel’s protagonist, Mona, is a widow living in a genteel Karachi neighbourhood, a watchful portrait of her husband hanging in her living room. A mysterious widower, Salamat Ali, moves in as a tenant next door. Mona is attracted to him, but has to restrain herself. Farooqi describes the non-verbal communication, watchful of matters of propriety in masterly detail. Salamat sends a proposal for marriage, and Farooqi builds up the great joint family drama with finesse, leading to their eventual marriage and its own dramatic rites of passage.
Around the same time, his homeland Pakistan was going through some of its most troubled times: the war in Afghanistan, terrorist strikes throughout the cities of Pakistan, 20-hour power cuts, and long lines outside immigration counters. “My father was unwell, and because of his condition we could not stay in Canada,” says Farooqi. He moved back to Pakistan, where they live in a middle-class area of Karachi. His relationship with politics remained unchanged. He still read the newspapers to check whether it was safe to step out, and ignored the plethora of Af-Pak books. There, he also reworked the draft of a new novel.
Between Clay and Dust, published this April in India, is a haunting meditation on a man’s fanatical attachment to his art, status and power, and its fallout on his relationships. Set in an unnamed city which could be either Lucknow or Karachi, the book follows the fortunes of Ustad Ramzi, the greatest wrestler of the land, who is fanatically devoted to the purity of his art and honour of his clan. It plays out through the Ustad’s difficult relationship with his younger brother Tamami, callous in his duties as a wrestler and eager to succeed his ageing brother’s title, Ustad-e-Zaman. Ustad Ramzi, blinded by his self-love and puritanical attachment to the codes of wrestling—from preparing the soil of the akhara (pit) to the schedule of exercises, to the display of strength—doesn’t see in Tamami a worthy successor.
As the ageing Ustad faces challenges from stronger rivals, he puts Tamami through a rigorous regime of training, whereupon a violent streak is unleashed within the younger wrestler as he becomes aware of his fatal strength. Ustad Ramzi castigates him all along for his lack of discipline and purity, eventually chasing him away into the arms of dubious promoters and drugs, while failing to recognise his own attachment to power.
Farooqi’s evocation of the relationship between the two brothers is heartbreakingly beautiful and cinematic. When Tamami, excommunicated by Ustad Ramzi from the akhara and their home and wasting on drugs, is about to fight his last wrestling match, he turns restless for his brother’s presence, insisting on delaying the fight till the Ustad arrives, his eyes turning to an empty chair, as if his lost strength would recover with the Ustad’s forgiveness. The Ustad never arrives. ‘Tamami’s voice choked up as he spoke. He did not seem to address anyone in particular: “I will go back to the akhara if I win. I will ask for his forgiveness. He will forgive me.’’’ Tamami loses his fight and kills himself with a drug overdose. The Ustad is left with his title alone, yet forbids his students from burying Tamami in the ancestral graveyard, shouting, “He was expelled for desecrating the place! These grounds are hallowed! He cannot be buried here! Take him away! Take him!” Tamami is buried elsewhere; Ustad Ramzi stands rigid in his place, seeing in Tamami’s death an end to further disgrace to the honour of his clan. The loneliness and sorrow that envelops the Ustad despite himself is evoked masterfully in a single, direct, and terrifying sentence, ‘…he had recurring dreams in which he saw his brother’s dead body lying without a winding sheet at his feet.’
Ustad Ramzi’s few moments of reprieve are in attending music sessions at the house of the master courtesan, Gohar Jan, who represents the other dying art in the novel. Gohar Jan also evokes the other unselfish relationship with art, allowing her brightest protégé to marry a man of means, using her influence with the authorities to save, not her kotha (courtesan’s house) set for demolition, but Ustad Ramzi’s ancestral graveyard imperilled by a flood. The final moments of the novel describe the broken old man, conscious of his failures, making his last bid at regaining some sense of dignity by allowing the burial of Gohar Jan, who has been refused a grave elsewhere, in the very graveyard of his ancestors that he had denied his brother. Between Clay and Dust is moving, wise, and an incisive glimpse into our souls. It is also a great movie waiting to be made.
Demons Within Gods
By Afia Aslam
Published on Papercuts/DWL blog, May 15, 2012
They had cleared the debris from the field and sprinkled the grounds with water to settle the dust. The akhara clay had been turned several times to remove lumps, and later kneaded with turmeric and aromatic herbs.
It was the sport of gods. The mythical Rustum, whose name is still synonymous with herculean power, was a warrior and a pehlwan (wrestler). In Zoroastrian tradition, when Zarathustra was readying himself to fight his nemesis (the Ahriman or ‘destructive spirit’) he referred to pehlwani as a divine gift. The Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, spoke of the wrestling prowess of Bhima and the god Hanuman.
In the enclosure Ustad Ramzi put on his fighting drawers. A white turban fumigated with incense was tied on his head by an elder of the clan and his shoulders were draped with a coverlet embroidered with Quranic verses. Tamami and the trainees carried him to the exhibition ground on their shoulders, reciting the qasida burda to solicit an auspicious outcome.
The scriptures tell us that man was made from clay, and must eventually turn to dust. Between these two states he has moments of divinity and instances of terrible failure. It is this atmosphere of destiny and struggle that surrounds the inhabitants of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel,Between Clay and Dust (Aleph, 2012). The book follows the fortunes of two brothers, Ramzi and Tamami, who are trained in the art of kushti (Indian wrestling) and who are forced to face their inner demons in their divergent pursuits of greatness. Their struggle takes on an added significance against the backdrop of Partition – a time of great opportunity and merciless change in the subcontinent at large, but particularly for the ‘inner cities’, where the old traditions still survived.
Location is an important factor in this story. While Farooqi does not let on which city the novel is set in, the characters are firmly rooted in their familiar spaces. In fact, in the rapidly shifting socio-political climate following Partition, they almost cease to exist outside of these spaces. Ustad Ramzi, the older brother, lives between the akhara and the pehlwans’ ancestral graveyard (once again, between clay and dust). Outside of that, his influence – one might even argue, relevance – is greatly diminished. The only other location where he establishes some legitimate space for himself is in the kotha of Gohar Jan, the courtesan. She, in turn, is also inextricably attached to the courtesans’ enclave – we almost never see her move out of her kotha, and the need to stay in ‘her place’ becomes all the more evident as her relationship with Maulvi Yameen, the local cleric, deteriorates. Between them, these three spaces (the akhara, the kotha and the masjid) represent three pivots on which Farooqi makes the life of the inner city spin.
The architecture of this novel is thus simple, but it is an artful and deliberate simplicity. Farooqi is not out to change any paradigms or to teach his readers anything new. He is simply striking a match where there is already fuel for fire, and he draws liberally on existing social constructs to do this. The book seems in parts to romanticise the past (for example, the beginning reads like an elegy for the pre-Partition era) and the reader is asked to accept a rudimentary view of historical change, in which there is a stark divide between the old and the new. Even in characterisation, Farooqi does not try to rock the boat; he focuses instead on layering the characters so as to make them as real and as familiar as possible. For instance, the reader finds herself rooting for the good courtesan and riling up against the overzealous cleric. This is predictable, but there is no doubt that it is happening because the story is hitting a real nerve somewhere.
Indeed, Between Clay and Dust seems to pull its characters out of the very hearts of its readers, to dust our denial off them and to put them out in the open sans any pomp or ceremony, with all their strengths and their faults plain to see. This is the extraordinary strength of this novel: it could be anyone’s tale. The characters, right down to the masterfully crafted fight-promoter, Gulab Deen (a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting player), will keep reminding readers of someone they know.
In many ways, this is a book about faith – faith in people, in principles, in society. It is also a book about human nature and how it betrays the same people, principles and society. By choosing two siblings as his protagonists, Farooqi eliminates the white noise of a sexual relationship and is thus able to cut directly to the basest human emotions and to explore the insecurities that plague us all at a more primal level.
It is the age difference between the brothers that makes the relationship more complex (one is old enough to be the other’s father) and that in turn saves this from becoming a classic Kane and Abel drama. The power equation is skewed from the very beginning, and yet the battle is inevitable. One of the beautiful ironies of the book is that it is set in an akhara – a pehlwan’s battleground – but the real tussle takes place outside of the arena, between the hearts and minds of the two brothers.
This is one book that ought to be judged by its cover. The stirringly beautiful cover image shows two hands frozen mid-motion as they vigorously rub clay on a wrestler’s head in preparation for a match. Amidst the flurry of movement, all that is visible are disembodied hands at work with clay. It could be a depiction of the creation of Adam just as much as the ceremonial grooming of a pehlwan.Between Clay and Dust is easily one of the best-looking volumes to have emerged from the English fiction scene in South Asia, and the surreal divinity of its cover echoes the soul of the novel.
Despite the melancholic historical tone of the book, its observations on human nature will strike a chord with any reader in any era. It has all the makings of a classic and is likely to go down as one in the canon of South Asian literature.
Of Rectitude and Penance
By Rituparna Chatterjee
Published on IBN Live website, April 14, 2012
Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi's latest novel Between Clay and Dust opens inside the grimy walls of an akhara which clan leader and head pahalwan Ustad Ramzi protects with fierce pride.
In another part of the unnamed city's shaded alleyways is the 'kotha' of courtesan Gohar Jan renowned for her art and courted by the rich and famous. The destiny of the two artistes lies intertwined with each other in life and in death as the mellow pace of the fiction unfolds a world of rectitude and penance.
Set amidst the decline of familiar social morals after the Partition, the story of Ustad Ramzi is a poignant study of human nature.
Once a feared fighter known for both his skill and strength, Ramzi is struggling to defend his clan's honour against an onslaught of new money, corrupt promoters of the sport and the silent rebellion of a younger brother he has subdued and put under severe training to prepare him for higher responsibilities.
Farooqi's loving attention to the sport of wrestling is remarkably detailed especially since he has written the book in Toronto and has never set foot inside an akhara. He tells Gohar Jan's story with equal compassion.
A fiercely independent woman and a talented artiste, Gohar Jan comes across as the regal but coldly aloof mistress of a clan that is not dissimilar from Ramzi's men of muscle and rigour.
Her tragedy lies in her reluctant acceptance of her fall from fame and fortune and her delicate friendship with Ramzi, the only man, albeit celibate, who has recognised and appreciated her art. The Ustad-e-Zaman, or the retainer of the ultimate title of the champion, is as lonely and proud as the fallen courtesan.
The nostalgia-driven world of the old guards is fast unravelling with new challengers. Ramzi's convoluted relationship with his brother Tamami is beautifully etched. The younger brother whose self destruction is driven by his desire to gain the respect of Ramzi will break your heart.
This is a book whose pages will emit the smells of blood, sweat and freshly churned clay and stay with you long after you have read the last word.
A Book to be Savoured Like a Fine Single Malt
By Sumana Mukherjee
Published in Forbes India, April 30, 2012
It is a truth rarely acknowledged that subcontinental society has a peculiar predilection for marginalisation. It celebrates the mainstream and pushes out of sight all those who don’t fit in. The triggers can be multifarious and arbitrary: Gender, profession, age, wealth (or, more correctly, the lack of it) can all contribute to a gradual irrelevance as times and trends change. The silences of the sidelined contain rich pickings for a novelist attuned to the nuances. With The Story of a Widow (2009), Musharraf Ali Farooqi showcased his remarkable sensitivity to the unspoken; the same keen empathy permeates every page of his slim new novel Between Clay and Dust.
If the 2009 novel centred around a modern 50-year-old upper middle-class Karachi woman who rediscovers her sense of selfhood after her husband’s death, in Clay and Dust, Farooqi focusses on a whole inner city civilisation threatened by Partition and its consequent upheavals. That endangered social order is embodied in two fading professionals, champion pahalwan Ustad Ramzi and redoubtable courtesan, Gohar Jan. In the twilight of their lives, suddenly rendered insignificant by changing fashions, the two forge an unworded alliance of pride, dignity and compassion as they separately battle common concerns about their legacy, their homes, their relationships with their nearest and, yes, with hardlining religion and endemic corruption.
Farooqi’s spare prose, his deliberate understatedness makes his work as much about what it doesn’t say as what it does. Like Widow, it could be considered almost banal in its narrative and stylistic simplicity, but that would be a gross miscall: The book works like an ache in the heart, evoking cultures and values that, while not necessarily perfect, represented something larger than the self; their replacements, by contrast, are small and mean.
Triumphantly for a Pakistan-born author, Between Clay and Dust is not defined by Lahore’s Heera Mandi or the city’s wrestling pits; the events that unfold here could well find a home in Delhi, a typically low-key Farooqi reference to the huge cultural heritage shared, and frequently ignored, by the two countries. Though Between Clay and Dust wears its research lightly, the investigation of the two streams of art in their sunset days is never found wanting: The pages come alive with the grunts of the trainee pehelwans and capture the last echoes of Gohar Jan’s sitar. A story that purports to be about decay resounds with the stuff of life. This is a book to be savoured like a fine single malt.
A last word about the cover art: In an area of Indian publishing that has seen consistent improvement, this book, one of Aleph’s first productions, just raised the bar higher with its matte dun colours and evocative visual.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi's first novel, The Story of a Widow (2009), was the delicate, understated tale of the middle-aged but still wooable Mona Ahmad, whose disciplinarian husband's sudden death leaves her in possession of an independent fortune and a desire to experience the freedom she's been denied all her adult life. One of the things that made that novel unusual, at least in the context of South Asian writing in English, was Farooqi's choice of protagonist: a woman who is no longer young, someone who has assumed that the pattern of her life is set forever, but now finds that she is a position to make changes.
Masterful Rendition of Two Worlds Ebbing Away
Musharraf Ali Farooqi has written a wonderful, quiet novel about how traditions and lives can decline into unmeaning
By Trisha Gupta
Published in The Sunday-Guardian, April 29, 2012
The recently-released Between Clay and Dust also features older people being forced to grapple with unexpected change. But unlike Mona Ahmad, these characters are indisputably in their twilight years. The crumbling, once-grand domains of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, both barely surviving the post-Independence transformation of popular tastes, are a far cry from the comfortably-off Karachi in which Mona leads her cosseted existence. The end of princely patronage has sounded the death-knell for both Ustad Ramzi's akhara, once the focus of an unending stream of admiring fans and would-be pahalwans, and Gohar Jan's kotha. The great pahalwan and the celebrated tawaif must deal with a harsh new world, governed by the market on the one hand and an impersonal bureaucracy on the other.
But even as he describes lives that are increasingly affected by such unseemly things as municipal inspections and leaking roofs, Farooqi manages to retain a distant, otherworldly air. If his present-day Pakistan, as one grateful reviewer of The Story of a Widow pointed out, displayed a "complete absence of dictators, diasporas and post-9/11 traumas", his 1950s inner city has managed to remain unscathed by the "ravaging winds of Partition". Not for Farooqi the burgeoning historical canvas of an Amitav Ghosh, or even the unobtrusive (but omnipresent) detailing of a Vikram Seth. What we get instead is a setting that's left deliberately unidentified, the aim of the words less to recreate a known geography than to evoke a mood, distill an essence.
The elegiac mood is created as much by the inevitably tragic ebb in the tides of its protagonists' lives as by Farooqi's choice of language. There is an old-world quality to his prose that some might think teeters on the verge of purple — "The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation" — but that, if read with the cadences of an imagined other language echoing behind the English, feels exactly right.
There are moments, though, when this feeling of 'translatedness' begins to extend its welcome; for instance when Farooqi writes, "He always experienced a deep sense of harmony in that place" — rather than simply "there", or "turquoise-coloured mosaic panels" – rather than simply "turquoise" (my italics). Sometimes the awkwardness is just the outcome of sloppy editing: "his life, too, would have conformed to that of his elders' existence and become part of it". Other curious linguistic choices include the repeated use of 'raga recital' for Gohar Jan's evening mehfil, 'nayika' for tawaif, and words like 'ewer' and 'mattock' where the Hindustani equivalents or at least less archaic English words might have been less jarring. But none of these linguistic stumbling blocks can quite divert one from the pleasures of a tale well told. There is a bell-like clarity to Farooqi's delineation of his characters, his slow unraveling of their motivations and desires. Instead of doing anything as indignified as building towards a crescendo, Farooqi maintains a deliberate even tempo. Even the most dramatic events are described without drama.
In this carefully laid out world, balance is everything. Farooqi's arrangement of figures is almost perfectly symmetrical: if Gohar Jan's life is tied to her kotha, Ustad Ramzi's heart lives in the akhara — and in the graveyard of his ancestors that is attached to it. Ustad Ramzi's tumultuous relationship with his brash younger brother Tamami has as its counterpart Gohar Jan's complicated connection with the young tawaif Malka. The Malka episode — which I won't give away — hinges on the way a tawaif's life swings between freedom and necessity. And balance is also key to wrestling: as Ustad Ramzi's tragic epiphany goes, "Did the essence of his art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force?"
It feels somewhat unfair, then, that Farooqi decides not to balance the attention he gives his primary protagonists: Ustad Ramzi — and the world of the akhara, its pitchers of sardai and two-kilo-mutton breakfasts — gets far more space than Gohar Jan, who despite all her potential complexity, ends up playing a mere foil to Ustad Ramzi, yet another version of the golden-hearted courtesan we know only too well.
This is a quietly affecting book, with a profound understanding of tragedy: that what happens to us is as much a function of how we respond to events as the events themselves.
Muscular Story of a Wrestler and Courtesan
By Nawaid Anjum
Published in The Asian Age, April 11, 2012
The hands of two wrestlers frozen in a near clasp, one (of the vanquished?) buried in sand, the other (of the victor?) nestled above it, amidst a carnival of soil and dust. The wrinkled hand on top, half-hidden, half-visible, tells you the wrestler isn’t young any more.
If you were to judge a book by its cover, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s third novel Between Clay and Dust, after the Kafkaesque Salar Jang’s Passion and the Austenesque The Story of a Widow, is tantalising enough to command a read.
Between Clay and Dust, one of the first three books to be published by David Davidar’s Aleph Book Company (Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto and The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Murari are the other two), is a short, but muscular and moving story of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, a wrestler and a courtesan, a pahalwan and a kothewali, who have left their eras of eminence behind and are entering the twilight of their years. But, instead of choosing to go gently into the good night, they burn and rave, in their own subdued and quiet ways, at what seems to be the beginning of the end of their heydays.
In keeping with the book’s overarching theme, the story begins with ruin. In detailing the ruination of the “Inner City” in a chapter titled exactly that, Farooqi is subtle and sparse.
The opening chapter, like the 41 others that follow, is short but admirably adequate. These chapters are like the strings of a musical instrument; together they weave melancholic melody out of the similar vicissitudes of its two key characters and the similar destinies that await them. The novel underlines that fame and fortune and life’s little tragedies and triumphs are but transient, and all of us have to return to the dust eventually.
The novel dwells on two great souls, whose spirits remain indefatigable to the end, and who, caught in the inexorable march of time and the strange changes it engenders, remain resolute in their days of reckoning, steadfast even if faced with greatest of challenges in the fleet of months preceding their retirement.
But let’s talk about the opening riff first. We are initiated into the Inner City, which has been left “unscathed” by the “ravaging winds of Partition: “The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls hadn’t touched this quiet habitation.” But the cleaving of the subcontinent had caused a “slow disintegration of values”. Devoid of its old inhabitants, the Inner City lies in a state of utter abandonment. But its worn stones “still intoned past splendour in broken whispers”.
Part of the Inner City’s past splendour were Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan. Ustad Ramzi, the custodian of a wrestler’s akhara, once held the highest wrestling title in the land, Ustad-e-Zaman. The title lay at the root of a long struggle between Ramzi’s clan and its rival; while the former had taken pains to defend it, the latter left no opportunity to snatch it away. But Ustad Ramzi’s world, as well as that of his rival, had been irreversibly shaken with the abolition of princely states whose rajas and nawabs had patronised and promoted the wrestling arts. Ramzi’s younger brother, Tamami, who aspires to the coveted title, has little luck with winning the consent of his elder who views the young wrestler as an unworthy heir. Tamami once accepts a challenge for a bout with rival clan’s Imama and loses it. But to acquire the title of Ustad-e-Zaman, Imama must fight with Ustad Ramzi. But before that happens he meets an unexpected end on the akhara at Tamami’s hands who gets violent while fighting yet another bout with him.
Soon after, Ustad Ramzi disowns his sibling, who can’t handle his “humiliation” and takes to drugs. Ustad Ramzi could save his brother from going downhill. But he remains puffed up with pride even as his brother fights his battles alone, hoping that some day his elder brother would forgive him. But Ustad Ramzi remains a prisoner to his own sense of propriety and pride.
When Tamami is gone, Ustad Ramzi, on a day of silent reckoning, wonders about the life he had given up and how “one association had brought to naught all his probity and care in the calibration of human relationships”.
Gohar Jan, the intriguing courtesan, has an unlikely admirer in Ustad Ramzi, who has been so loyal to his field of activity (wrestling) he chose to stay celibate. Ustad Ramzi takes a shine to Gohar Jan’s raga recitals and frequents her mehfils. While it is his love for music that brings Ustad Ramzi to her kotha regularly, we discover towards the end that Gohar Jan looked upon Ustad Ramzi as an “anchor”.
Between Clay and Dust is a tale that wrestles with the themes of rectitude and retribution, pride and redemption, grief and guilt, love and loss. It is about the commotion of souls and the moral and emotional wherewithals that nobler souls among us possess to withstand time’s ravages, leaving behind robust and sturdy foootprints on its sands.
In ‘Between Clay and Dust,’ Little Difference Between India and Pakistan
By Nida Najar
Published in The New York Times, India Ink blog, April 12, 2012
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s novel, “Between Clay and Dust,” technically takes place in a town in post-partition Pakistan, but you might not realize that when reading the book — and that’s what the author intended.
“I didn’t want to portray the boundaries of any particular nation-state, either Pakistan or India,” said Mr. Farooqi, who just made his first trip to India from his home in Karachi to promote the book. “This is not a novel about a country; this is a novel about a culture which is shared between countries.”
The book explores the lives of two characters, a pahalwan, or wrestler, and a courtesan, both dependent on ways of life that were destroyed by independence, both nearing the end of their lives in a city that is rapidly deteriorating. Aleph Publishing, the company started by David Davidar, is launching the book at a New Delhi party this evening.
Mr. Farooqi’s insistence on a fluid sense of place in his fiction might reflect the itinerant patterns of his own life — his parents were born in India and migrated to Pakistan after independence, where he was born. He left Pakistan in 1994 for Toronto, and recently moved back to Karachi. He writes in English, and even admits that he thinks in English, but Urdu was his first language. He also translates Urdu literature, which he says has added depth to his writing.
“The lives of these characters are lives that are expressed in a language which is not English,” he said. “So it was important to me to capture the cadence of the original language, to have a kind of parallel expression for that in English, without it sounding odd.”
Though Mr. Farooqi travels back to Karachi on Sunday, he is open to his next location, even hinting that he would be happy to settle in Delhi in the future.
“My parents were both born in India, so it’s my parent’s home,” he said. “And how could it be anything but that for me?”
This is a gem of a book and the author is a real find. At last the subcontinent can rejoice in having acquired its own avatar of the iconic Jane Austen who, with a mere half-a-dozen novels to her credit, introduced the world to a new style of literature rooted in the seemingly mundane, but breathtaking in its insights and delightful in its humour. Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an able successor in this genre. Here is the same keen observation of social mores, the sympathy for human foibles, the rapier-like wit that makes one laugh aloud and the simple, elegant prose in which it is all expressed.
The eponymous widow of the tale is Mona, a 50-something woman in Karachi with two married daughters and a comfortable financial independence after the death of her husband, which releases her from the frugalities she was compelled by his miserly nature to practice during his lifetime.
`Shocked to find out how much money Akbar Ahmad had left behind ... it took Mona some time to become accustomed to the idea that she had ready access to that money and no longer had to consult her conscience or ask Akbar Ahmad`s permission to spend it.`
Despite beginning to feel rather badly done by during her 31 years of married life, which were dictated, she realises in hindsight, by Ahmad`s petty tyrannies, Mona nevertheless follows convention and hangs up her late husband`s portrait in the living room, from where it gazes down at her with varying expressions of disapproval, annoyance, rage - and sometimes even unseemly glee at her failure to cope with the situation caused by the third part of her marital triangle, Salamat Ali, the tenant from next door and the most unsuitable suitor for a woman of principle such as Mona certainly is.
This love triangle - or more correctly, love tangle - sets Mona at odds with her family: her daughters Tanya and Amber and their respective husbands, her sister and brother-in-law, Hina and Jafar, and the uncle who raised her after her own parents died, Sajid Mir, whose acidic wife, Aunt Aneesa has never forgiven Mona for being prettier than her own daughter of the same age, the still-unmarried Rubab.
The calm rhythm of Mona`s life is upset as she unceasingly questions her own heart and motives, trying to balance her misgivings regarding the wickedly funny but also often impertinent Ali with the wild delight she finds in his frank admiration of her as a sexually desirable woman. During the trials and tribulations that follow upon Ali`s marriage proposal to Mona, the nuances of family relationships are minutely explored, culture and tradition impartially observed, and hypocrisies exposed by Farooqi`s profoundly perceptive eye. In true Austenian fashion, the action takes place in drawing rooms, at dinner tables, during birthdays and anniversary celebrations and other social get-togethers, but so varied is the emotional canvas that there is never a moment of claustrophobia for the reader; indeed, one wishes to get to know the characters more closely and regrets the loss of their companionship when the story ends. The conversations are true-to-life and there is a glorious set piece in which Mona, goaded beyond endurance, takes on the obnoxious Aunt Aneesa in a verbal battle reminiscent of that between Elizabeth Bennet and the insufferable lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice. Bravo!
Wedding Pictures from Tehelka Magazine, May 16, 2009
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s new novel is a wry and kind tale of a woman emerging out of marital deep-freeze, says ARUL MANI
CLAIRE BOYLAN once set out on a bunch of conversations with other writers on how they wrote their novels. Boylan’s book, titled The Agony and the Ego, has writer after writer revealing that her novel grew out of an image that arrived by accident, rather than out of a considered idea or plot. Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s novel began in such serendipity. He found an octogenarian acquaintance enjoying his third marriage under the benign gaze of the portrait of his wife’s first husband, and learnt that leaving the picture on display had been a precondition for the marriage. Farooqi acknowledges his debt to this moment of fascination in the form of a similar portrait in the novel, and allows it to lead a fairly interesting life.
Mona Ahmed lives in a large Karachi house peopled by servants and the portrait of her departed husband. We learn that Akbar Ahmed required his wife to organise shaving-water, office clothes with the socks on top, and a folded newspaper on the right side of the breakfast table every morning, and follow it up when he returned with a hot towel, tea poured after exactly three minutes of steeping, and a dinner table laid to a precision that came down to three small toothpicks and a hand-towel near his plate. Mona’s widowhood is initially a time of thawing out into unimagined leisure and financial independence, while Akbar’s portrait undergoes barometric shifts of expression in the background.
Her neighbour acquires a new tenant, a glistening peacock named Salamat Ali who immediately makes overtures of friendship. Mona suffers much indignation over the impropriety in Salamat’s determined attempts at breaching her dowagerly reserve. When his overtures don’t quite succeed, Salamat writes her a letter proposing marriage. News of this proposal reaches Mona’s extended family, and the air grows thick with their speculations even as they subject her to cross-examination and unsolicited advice. The familial commotion only convinces Mona that marrying Salamat would amount to doing something for herself and she writes him a letter stating her conditions.
Salamat is not without charm; he combines the gift of verbal mischief with an attentiveness that starts Mona’s rediscovery of laughter and desire. He has many moments in the book; we will allow him to be defined by one, where he follows Mona up the stairs with a gleam in the eye and stops to make “vulgar gyrations of the hips” when he meets the stern gaze of the portrait. Mona soon discovers that there is more to Salamat than the jollity, and this only accelerates her emergence from the deep-freeze that her thirty years with Akbar Ahmed have been, into a tentative but real selfhood.
The scale of the novel and its style are in stark contrast with Farooqi’s previous effort, a translation of the monumental Dastan- e Amir Hamza. The author writes a prose so carefully understated that the impatient reader will hear nothing other than the machinery of the plot. His measured cadences hold a wry good humour and a warm sympathy for human frailty that are revealed only on dwelling with the book.
In the telling of his tale, Farooqi joins issue unobtrusively with those who see the novel as a vehicle for either easy ethnography or cultural exceptionalism. Karachi is thus a vague blur that occasionally resolves into traffic jams, or a Chinese restaurant with continental desserts. This vagueness is perhaps also a marker of the rigour with which he applies himself to creating Mona’s world view — one that is decidedly much smaller than the city. The author applies himself to remembering something far more intangible than faraway place or lost language — the contrariness of the family ties that the individual experiences. The novel is grounded in the ordinary transactions that define such ties and devotes itself to showing that they are endowed with mystery and beauty, and that they are of the world than of any one people.
Karachi Adagio from Outlook India Magazine: May 18, 2009
A charming tale from Pakistan. It has no sex, no violence, and no cultural or political angst, writes IRA PANDE
Just as one despaired of ever reading an old-fashioned novel with a credible story and characters and an uncluttered style, comes this charming tale from Pakistan. It has no sex, no violence, and no cultural or political angst. In short, none of the mandatory prerequisites of contemporary fiction. There is just Mona, a pretty young widow of means, who lives in a genteel Karachi neighbourhood and a bold widower, Salamat Ali, who wants to, and does, marry her. The first half of the book is an amusing account of their courtship and eventual wedding, with ugly cousins as in the Cinderella tale, conspiring aunts, resentful daughters and the dead husband’s portrait in the cast. The second half has darker shades: Mona begins to wonder whether she has been conned by a clever fortune-hunter.
Farooqi, whose translation of the Hamza Nama won praise, now tries his hand at a Jane Austen-like tale with great finesse. With few young people in the cast, Farooqi is able to explore the mannered life of Karachi’s genteel classes at a pace that is leisurely but tightly leashed, and graceful but perceptive, and in a language so exquisitely nuanced that nowhere can one forget that this is Karachi, not Delhi or Dubai. This facet gives the novel a quality of comfort with the story, something often lacking in the writing of those clever young novelists who like to show off rather than just show. Perhaps Urdu has an innate elegance that makes Farooqi’s ‘two inches of ivory’ comparable to that ultimate miniaturist: Jane Austen.
A Matter Of Propriety from Daily Dawn: January 04, 2009
Last year, Musharraf Ali Farooqi published to great acclaim his 900-page English translation, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, of that great Urdu classic Dastan-i-Amir Hamza which was regarded as a truly remarkable literary feat. Now, in marked contrast to the rambunctious Urdu tale, Farooqi has written a witty, spare and elegant English novel titled The Story of a Widow which is set in modern Karachi and tells of a woman's buried emotions, her thwarted dreams and her struggle for self-empowerment.
The novel revolves around the widowed Mona. The certainties of her life and the bounds of respectability which she has observed always are suddenly threatened. She finds herself inexplicably attracted to Salamat Ali, the man to whom her friend and neighbour the elderly Mrs Baig has rented the upper floor of her house.
Mona's awareness of Salamat Ali, her constant need to interpret his every utterance and gesture, before the two of them even strike up a proper conversation, is built up with great sensitivity and skill. The elderly, well-meaning Mrs Baig encourages Mona to consider the possibility of remarriage. Mrs Baig brings a proposal of marriage from Salamat Ali in a letter couched in terms of utmost propriety. Mona is thrown into turmoil, but before she can make a decision her aunt, Aneesa, and uncle, Safdar Mir, her two daughters, Amber and Taniya, and her sister Hina all enter the fray.
All them have advice to offer, often motivated by self interest rather than any concern for her, Mona believes. Her aunt and uncle behave as if it would be a great scandal for her to re-marry and would reflect badly on her family. Her uncle wants to have Salamat Ali arrested. Her aunt tells Mona that she is too old for Salamat Ali but tries to get her own daughter married to him instead. Her sister Hina thinks that Salamat looks rather crude and does not dress properly; she tries to divert Mona's attention by pairing her off with Imad, an architect. All this impels Mona to make a decision.
The finely observed details and the subtle, understated humour of The Story of a Widow say much about the role imposed upon women, as mothers, wives and widows, through the gradual unfolding of events which reveal Mona's intricate family relationships particularly during her two vastly different marriages to the late Akbar Ahmad and then, Salamat Ali. Mona begins to think back on the years she had spent as the self-abnegating wife of Akbar Ahmad. She had played the role of dutiful wife and mother so well that neither of her married daughters had ever suspected how she had suffered. Her late husband, a parsimonious, tyrannical bureaucrat, had allowed her to spend so little money, that when he died, she was amazed to discover that he had left her quite rich.
In marked contrast, Salamat Ali is quite unconventional. He has a sense of humour and fun. Sometimes he surprises Mona with unexpected, generous gifts. He also has unreasonably propriety attitudes and resents Mona conversing with an ex-suitor at a party and he becomes suspicious if she has a private conversation with her sister. Mona is mortified when an inebriated Salamat Ali disgraces himself at a gathering.
Mona's desires and her awakening sensuality are portrayed with a quiet skill, as is the mystery surrounding Salamat Ali. He had told Mrs Baig that he was in the 'paper distribution industry' and is always talking about contracts and complex business dealings. At times, he returns home late at night quite drunk. Mona does not question any of this. When hiss business runs into difficulties Mona offers him a loan.
The withdrawal of such a large sum from the bank causes much consternation in her family. Amber, Taniya and Hina interfere. The narrative cleverly compresses entire worlds in its portrayal of the three women and their lives and thus the complexities of Mona's relationship with each of them. Mona's daughters, particularly Taniya, have great difficulty in coping with the fact that their mother has remarried and has developed a new vibrant personality that they can hardly recognise.
But Hina sees in the transformed Mona, the sister she once knew, before her marriage to Akbar Ahmad. The combination of sibling rivalry and sibling affection between Mona and Hina is brought out very vividly; their bond as sisters acts as foil to that of the gentle Amber and the acquisitive, unhappy Taniya.
Hina insists that Mona should confront some home truths about herself and Salamat Ali. Mona refuses to be manipulated or pushed into hasty decisions. Instead she decides to take matter in her own hands and determine the course of her future and her marriage.
In this graceful novel Musharraf Farooqi reveals himself to be as skilled a writer of English fiction, as he is a translator of Urdu prose.
Charmingly Simple from Newsline Magazine: JULY 21, 2010
By SAHAR ALI
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s arrival on the literary scene was like the man himself – quiet but phenomenal. One day there was nothing and the next, a voluminous and meticulous translation into English of a literary classicDastan-e-Amir Hamza in 2007 and then, two years later, came the first of what is to be a 24-volume translation of Tilism-e-Hoshruba.
In comparison to his ambitious, larger-than-life portfolio of translated texts, Farooqi’s repertoire of literary fiction is somewhat modest – two books for children and his first novel, The Story of a Widow.
It is the latter about which I have been asked to write. Still waters run deep, they say, and so it is with Farooqi. Quiet, unassuming, almost shy and yet beneath that surface lies a master translator with the endurance, commitment and talent to render an epic tale written in the flowery poetic language of the royal courts of Persia and India into the everyday language of the modern reader. To attempt to draw into the spell of the Dastan and Tilism, a new generation of readers whose daily reading diet is a series of text messages in a truncated tongue that is barely recognisable as a language, is a brave effort indeed.
Farooqi’s own writing, by contrast, is austere and sparse. In The Story of a Widow, he presents us with an almost skeletal story of, well, a widow. It’s really as simple as that.
The recently widowed Mona is just beginning to settle into the rhythms of life as a wealthy, independent woman after 31 years of marriage to the somewhat stern, unromantic Akbar Ahmed. Her married life had revolved around her duties as a wife, mother and homemaker. It was a life in which she had neglected her own needs and desires, but without any resentment as is the wont of women of generations of yore.
When she is widowed, she finds that her husband has left her financially secure and with both her daughters married, she has little to do except to keep herself busy and look after her own needs. This is something Mona is trying to get used to as we are introduced to her in The Story of a Widow.
And along comes Salamat Ali, a single man who takes up residence across the street as her neighbour and friend, Mrs Baig’s tenant. He begins to shower unwanted attention on Mona. At first she resents it, but Salamat Ali eventually reawakens her womanhood.
Any further details may be a spoiler for those of you who may want to read this book. The charm ofThe Story of a Widow is its stark simplicity. It is totally unselfconscious writing, which for a first novel is refreshing indeed. There is no attempt to add flourish through language or drama through plot. The story is simple, almost predictable, at times annoyingly so.
It has a slice-of-life subtlety and lack of complexity that, in the beginning, feels somewhat frustrating for any reader. If one is accustomed to reading literary works, then Farooqi’s spare, almost starved, prose and his unimaginative style of writing is exasperating. If one is a fan of the bestseller variety, then the absence of adventure, intrigue and excitement can leave one bored and frustrated.
But if you let go of such lofty expectations, indeed any expectations whatsoever, and allow yourself to go with the flow of this simple narrative, the story’s unobtrusive charm grows on you. And soon enough, the very simplicity which you initially resented becomes the most alluring characteristic of this tale.
If I were to use an analogy from food, The Story of a Widow is like pound cake and we, the readers, have become used to tiramisu and crème brulee. Readjusting our tastebuds to a simpler taste will take time and effort. But it is worth trying, because it reminds you of a time when you delighted in the pleasure of a loaf of pound cake, fresh from the corner bakery. Golden on the outside, pale yellow on the inside, moist with butter, fluffy with beaten eggs, fragrant and flavourful with the essence of vanilla.
If you are nostalgic for a time when life really was this simple, let The Story of a Widow take you there.
A tricky portrait of comfort and disdain from Indian Express: Express Buzz: July 26, 2009
By NEELIMA P
Romance, some say, is one element that can only remain dormant — not die. And Mona could be a good example. The middle-aged Karachi woman, at one stage finds herself in an emotional vortex after the death of her upright husband Akbar Ahmad. Mona retains his portrait in her living room; the least she can do to preserve the memory of a man with whom she spent 31 years and raised two daughters. The portrait becomes Mona’s psychological barometer — it comforts her when she dons the role of ‘respectable widow’, and despi ses her when she forgets that role.
Musharraf Farooqi deftly exposes how widowhood is really a role that must be played. Mona learns that she must consider the honour of her family and the welfare of her two daughters first. Her happiness is, ideally, secondary. Yet she comes across as a feisty sort, proud of her appearance and hot-tempered. The author deals with her emotional nuances with an ease that warrants the comparison with Jane Austen.
A year after Akbar Ahmad’s death, Mona realises she has an enormous amount of wealth at her disposal. Slowly the truth comes out — Mona was miserable with Akbar. He did not let her spend money on the little things she loved. Mona’s revelation emerges in elegant clipped prose: “The more she pondered it, the more it appeared to her that she had had two children with a stranger — and now the stranger was gone.”
Mona toiled dutifully as a wife and leaned on her extended family for support. Her sister, Hina, and her unreasonable daughter Tanya are well etched and have their share of sparkling dialogue. An element of farce comes in with the ruthless Mrs Kazi and hapless Aunt Aneesa. Farooqi’s politics lies in the intrigues that come with extended families and his violence comprises the psychological onslaught that attachment brings.
All families have their ‘characters’, as we may call them. Salamat Ali is, however, the biggest character of them all, a regular Don Juan. It seems strange that a woman such as Mona Akbar Ahmad could fall for a buffoon like Salamat Ali. In spite of his impertinent and uncouth ways, or perhaps because of it, Mona is wooed silly by Salamat Ali, the antithesis to Akbar Ahmad.
Salamat may not seem to be a nice man to live with but he knows a little more about what women want than the Akbar Ahmads of the world. Hina and Tanya refuse to completely accept a man who knows little of how to dress, behave and whose finances seem shady. Mona, however, questions the idea of a conventionally good husband — Salamat Ali gave her back ‘a quiet happiness’ — a buoyant feeling that she had almost forgotten.
Farooqi examines other relationships as well, that of a mother with her daughters, for instance. Mona is outspoken with her daughters; she is unable to accept Tanya’s filial defence.
A woman caught in a mid-life crisis seems to be far from independent in a place like Karachi, or anywhere for that matter, in the subcontinent.
Everyone in the family has a say in how she must conduct herself in society and freedom is a choice for which one must pay a price.
Farooqi plays on how absences can penetrate the human psyche more than a continuous presence: “Mona found it ironic that Akbar Ahmad seemed a greater part of her life now than when he was alive.” In his restrained, spars ely textured prose, Farooqi succeeds in building an entirely plot-driven tale devoid of any complications other than those of the humdrum. Within those barricades, he captures a widow’s metamorphosis into a woman.
Thinking long and hard before the crucial plunge from Deccan Herald: May 31, 2009
Extremely readable, is what I’d exclaimed rather too spontaneously. With this novel clutched tight in my hands, lying curled up on the ageing sofa, I read through it. At one go. Well almost, giving those occasional breaks to the fatigued eyes but then, even with my eyes shut during those minute-long breaks, I kept visualising those descriptive passages that author Musharraf Ali Farooqi has so well laid out, webbed and inter-webbed the happenings, those turns and twists... well, so well written that at times you feel the very tale is unfolding in front of you. No, nothing dramatic or contrived but those mundane, everyday happenings that could confront you and me.
On the face of it, it’s a simple tale. Revolving around a middle-aged widow Mona who after her husband’s untimely death gets quite settled in her new life. Till about the time her neighbour’s tenant Salamat Ali, who happens to be a widower seems to get attracted to her... well, apparently so attracted that he sends her a marriage proposal. Old fashioned romance, with letters and the rest of the frilly formalities doing the rounds. Therein starts the build-up. Leaving Mona not just confused and rattled, but also heaped with conflicting views.
There is ongoing play of heavy emotions, for though she is living all by herself in an independent house but has two married daughters and a rather dominating sister. All residing in the same city, Karachi. In the backdrop there’s also the burden of our ever inquisitive so-called society, that lurking trauma of what people would comment on her re-marriage. And the one rather offbeat feature to this tale is that though Mona’s first husband is long dead and buried, his presence hovers around.
As Farooqi offloads in the ‘author’s note’ — “The portrait that inspired this story hangs in a house in Toronto. My wife Michelle and I saw it when visiting an octogenarian gentleman and his third wife, whose first husband had died for many years; his portrait hung directly above her current husband’s rocking chair. She told us that when getting married she had made it clear that the portrait would stay and that her husband-to-be happily consented. While he was telling us of his many adventures with women, the portrait surveyed the room with a magisterial air, and I wondered what kind of relationship existed between the two gentlemen: one in the chair and the other in the frame. My thoughts soon became the story of the widow and her new husband.”
Anyway, against odds, Mona decides to remarry the widower Salamat Ali. And with that the tale takes a new turn. In fact, the author has tried to portray the contrast between Mona’s first husband and the second, that is the freshly acquired one. The first was a civil servant, rather tight with his emotions and passion. The second is shown overflowing with uncontrolled passion and want. Not just the subtle contrast between the two husbands, Farooqi also highlights the two sides to Salamat Ali’s personality. Ample relays and several incidents which portray him to be affectionate and romantic, but somewhere in between those ugly patches stand out. Till there is a total crash — Salamat Ali is not just in debt but a habitual gambler, some sort of a trickster and more along the strain. And with that, no happy ending for this marriage.
It’s a tale which has been so well put together that the reader gets that feeling of being involvement, of getting sucked in the flow. And it’s a tale which leaves you in an introspective mood. For one, no relationship ever dies. And above all, it’s a tale which forewarns. Singletons should think hard before taking that plunge. This particular set of sentences carry forth the very crux — “Even the best of marital relationships, she knew , did not offer that liberty. Independence was something that she wished to maintain; moments of loneliness were a small price to pay.
When Mona met Ali from Hindustan Times: June 27, 2009
It ’s a truth universally acknowledged that a beautiful, middle-aged widow with an independent fortune must be in need of a husband.” How easily the opening line of Pride and Prejudice can be tweaked to fit Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Story of A Widow! And I am not the only reader seeing the ghost of Austen here — Mohammad Hanif’s slightly over-the-top commendation on the jacket ends with the line, “If Jane Austen had grown up in a Karachi suburb, this is what she would have written.”
Much as the idea of a burqa-clad Austen boggles the imagination, I can see Hanif’s point. Marriage is Farooqi’s focus, domestic interactions his preoccupation, and satire his manner. Like Austen too, Farooqi confines the world of his novel to a few families, not caring — at least on the face of it — to make explicit the connections between this microcosm, and the larger world, in this instance, of political uncertainty, religious fundamentalism, economic turbulence.
Farooqi’s Lizzy/Marianne then is middle aged Mona, caught between two men — one, her dead husband, the stolid bureaucrat Akbar Ahmad, and the other, her suitor Salamat Ali, the rather crude, yet attractive no-gooder (remember Wickham, Willoughby, et al?) — and muddling her way to self-realisation. Should she, the mother of two married girls, pursue her own happiness in the face of vehement opposition from her daughters and their husbands? And, more important, does her happiness lie with Salamat Ali, about whom she knows very little, and who everyone suspects is really after her money?
Mona’s dilemma between her resurgent vanity and her prejudices against her husband, between her own desires and the dictates of her family, forms the core of The Story of A Widow.
This is a story told with psychological insight, a little sentimentality and — thankfully — a light touch that does not lose sight of the slight ridiculousness of a 50 year old woman in the throes of girlish passion, and beginning her connubial life in full sight of an enlarged portrait of her first husband hanging in her living room.
Apparently, it was one such portrait that Farooqi claims he saw in a house in Toronto, of a dead husband surveying the room with a “magisterial air” from its perch over the rocking chair of the present husband, that set him off on the train of thought that resulted in this novel. “I wondered what kind of relationship existed between the two gentlemen,” he writes.
As it turns out, it’s the comic potential in the relationship between the wife and the man in the portrait that seems to have interested Farooqi more — the repressive, insensitive, penny-pinching Akbar Ahmad, now helplessly ‘fixed’ in a frame, who can only look on with “shock and disbelief” as the wife he had treated as a doormat all his life overturns every single belief he had lived by. As the plot progresses and Mona starts to shake off his influence, the portrait emerges as her alter ego — the contrarian voice of sanity that keeps a check on her feelings. Significantly, thus, by the end of the novel, the portrait disappears — signifying Mona’s coming into her own as an individual who needs neither Akbar Ahmad’s approval of her as a wife/mother nor Salamat Ali's endorsement of her as an attractive woman.
A Woman’s World from The Tribune: June 07, 2009
Musharraf Ali Farooqi has a story to tell, characters to explore and a plot to take forward, and he does it with both ease and style, carrying his eager reader with him. Apparently, a simple story, The Story of a Widow, is in fact, a tale of the coming of age of a 50-year-old widow, Mona. It is her journey towards shaking off her shackles of habit and convictions in a conservative society as well as breaking out of the restrictions put upon her by herself and her conditioning. With this as the central theme, the story is about imperfect people and imperfect choices and "looks at what is involved in taking charge of one’s life and what happens when we assume control and make a bad decision."
The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. In fact, the reviewer would even go so far as to say that it’s a fine example of how pleasurable chick lit can be, only it is written not by a woman but by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. The fact that the author has such a fine perception of the female mind makes it all the more remarkable.
The surprise here is that the widow’s remarriage is not the conclusion of the story, but only the beginning. It’s a voyage of exploration of a new relationship for Mona, and discovery of new passion, excitement of love and disappointments—big and small—in the duration of her second marriage. Mona’s remarriage also leads to a redefining of her basic relationships with her daughters, sisters, friends and relatives. Many of these fundamental relationships are challenged because of the cultural belief that widowhood has prohibitions attached to it. The book, Farooqi tells us "is about human resilience and life’s power to transform us when it seems least likely."
The Story of a Widow is located in Karachi, Pakistan. After 30 years of marriage to the stern and staid Akbar Ahmed, Mona is left to deal with life on her own. As time passes, however, Mona discovers that she is a financially comfortable and independent woman who for three decades has lived her life in accordance to the diktat of her tyrannical husband, in a loveless marriage.
All is well, however, and Mona behaves with sufficient propriety until Salamat Ali, a widower, moves in to the upstairs flat in her neighbour’s house. Salamat Ali is a rather declass and loud and different from the gentlemen Mona is familiar with, but that does not stop him from sending Mona a proposal of marriage. Perhaps Mona would have refused but the combined horror of her family to the proposal makes her cock a snook at the family and she accepts Salamat Ali as her husband. This is perhaps the first rebellious thing that Mona has ever done in her life.
In the beginning, the marriage is full of excitement and romance for Mona, although the picture of her late husband that dominates the living room wall does cast a discouraging pall on her spirits. The demure Mona rediscovers her womanhood and manifests it in pride in her body, joy in wearing bright clothes and awakening passion for her husband.
However, the unadulterated joy does not last forever. Mona discovers that her husband not only drinks (and is not above dancing with a glass full of whiskey balanced upon his head in a public function) but is also a gambler, had lied about his business and was exploiting her for money.
The plot now moves forward as Mona first finds herself in denial about the true nature of the man she had married, then accepts it and then starts resenting it. She has to, however, travel her own path before she comes to a conclusion about what she now wants to do with her marriage and life.
The story is about Mona’s realisation about the truth about her first marriage, the value of her relationships with her daughters, sister and friend that veers from love and devotion to antipathy and irritation. This is where Farooqi really scores; in his wonderful insight into the psyche of a woman.
The best thing about Widow is that there is no pity for the widow protagonist. It’s an interesting read about varied women characters and one scoundrel who upsets the apple cart of graceful living. The character of the silently disapproving Akbar Ahmad, hanging on the wall is nicely sketched too. The story has a good pace, not dragging at any time. The reviewer frankly admits that when she read the title of the book, she expected a tear jerking melodrama! It was to her great relief that she realised that the book she was reading was excellent indeed.
Calm and Quiet from Calcutta Telegraph: August 21, 2009
Shams Afif Siddiqi
The title of Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s novel tells it all. The novel deals with an unexpected decision of a middle- aged widow that entirely changes her quiet life. In this novel, Farooqi ventures into two uncharted territories, which even seasoned novelists would have tried to avoid.
First, he enters a world that most male novelists fight shy of — the psyche of a woman. Second, he attempts to tell the story of a middle-aged widow, not of a young lady. Both these areas are not only difficult but are also fraught with dangers for Farooqi, as he is still far away from experiencing the trials and tribulations of middle-aged life. After all, fiction is not only about writing a story. It is also about the ability of the novelist to make the reader so involved in the world of fiction that he becomes a part of it. Farooqi certainly has the ability to overcome the hurdles involved in the process. But it is difficult to say whether he has succeeded in doing so.
The novel starts with a widow, Mona, staring at the portrait of her dead husband, Akbar Ahmed. This makes her feel that he is constantly with her. She hung it in her living room, where she spent most of her time. The portrait played an important role in her life. When her husband died, Mona led a quiet life, for he had left her a comfortable income and two daughters who were happily married. She led a routine life until the arrival of a widowed tenant next door. Salamat Ali proposed to marry her, and this changed her life. She was forced to take a decision against her family’s wishes. The more she tried to assert herself, the more the members of her family tried to save her from what society would consider a dishonour. The portrait, too, seemed to express its discontent at her decision. Nevertheless, Mona married Ali. It was only after sometime that Ali showed his true colour, and Mona realized that she had come too far to retreat.
Mona is the most important character in the novel, and Farooqi tries to make her life-like. She is a woman who fights not only for her own right to enjoy life, but also against the hypocrisies of a conservative society. Salamat Ali is depicted as a highly unpredictable person. Though he is the most important man in the life of the widow and an ardent lover, he is also instrumental in bringing grief to the lady.
Mona, on the other hand, is calm and quiet, although she is capable of taking tough decisions. When Ali unceremoniously breaks into her life, she does not like it, but slowly comes to accept the fact that she likes the attention she gets from this stranger. Similarly, when she comes to know the darker side of the man in her life, she takes some time to arrive at a judgment. Mona is a modern woman trapped in an outdated society. She is neither moved easily when happiness knocks at her door, nor is devastated when things go awry. The Story of a Widow is also a family drama. Although it is set in Karachi, it could very much be an account of any Indian city where the joint family is still alive.
Farooqi is good at delineating scenes of family squabbles, so much so that it seems he takes pleasure in probing into them. It is surprising that he could devote so much attention to details, and impart such finesse to his work by concentrating on things people usually consider trivial. The novel portrays contemporary Karachi society, with its attempts to overcome some taboos of Pakistani life. Written in a simple prose hardly found in modern fiction, Farooqi’s novel will give readers a chance to listen to a new voice from the subcontinent.
Portrait of A Lone Woman from Businessworld: May 01, 2009
SANJITHA RAO CHAINI
Praising this book, Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif writes: “If Jane Austen had grown up in a Karachi suburb, this is what she would have written.” And nothing could possibly better describe Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Story Of A Widow (Picador). Mona Akbar Ahmed, 50, loses her husband. Now free from the daily arduous schedule she followed while her husband was alive, Mona rediscovers, among other things, her long-lost love for gardening. She also discovers that her tight-fisted husband Akbar Ahmed had left behind plenty of money, and is slightly disturbed that she never got a whiff of it while he was alive.
Enters Salamat Ali, the 50-something tenant of Mrs Baig, Mona’s neighbour. What begins with a candid gift of rose plants turns into a relationship that Mona realises she never experienced with Akbar Ahmed. With sufficient support from Mrs Baig and Hina, Mona’s sister, the duo marries. There is opposition from various quarters — Mona’s daughters worry about their reputation, her uncle Sajid Mir is exasperated and, then, there is Umar Shafi who still hopes to win over Mona. Ali makes attempts to fit in, and all’s well until Mona starts lending out money to her new husband. Bit by bit, she discovers his many vices.
Despite the soap-opera slant towards the end, with equal doses of humour and heartbreak, the book is a speed read. Farooqi’s writing is best in parts where he describes various moods of Mona in her state of widowhood.
Not Quite Lost in Translation from Mumbai Mirror: May 10, 2009
Between fable and fantasy, Pakistan and Canada, Musharraf Ali Farooqi is weaving a literary resume for himself, notes SUDIPTA BASU
The Story of a Widow seems like an archaic title for a modern-day romance between two matured individuals in their fifties, but Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Toronto-based Pakistani writer, says that he decided to go with it simply because “it is very easy to remember; and in fact I was surprised that no one had used the title earlier”. Farooqi gained literary fame in the West with the translation of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, a grand epic by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, on the legend of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, a warrior’s adventures in far flung places. A translator and writer of children’s stories, this is his first work set in modern times. And while at that, the book is rooted in domesticity - told in the voice of Mona, freshly widowed after a 30-year-long marriage to a straight-laced Akbar Ahmed, who then falls in love with the rakish Salamat Ali, the new neighbour next door.
“I am a great admirer of the family drama depicted in the writings of Urdu writer Azeem Baig Chughtai; and the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki, particularly in the latter’s novel, The Makioka Sisters. In many ways it is a tribute to the two masters, with a strong focus in story-telling, which is a very strong element in the classical texts I translate, and which is very important for me in all writing - whether it is short story, a novella, or a thousand-page novel,” says the author, whose book was released last week.
Critics maintain that it reads like a fable, and Farooqi thinks that it may be because a lot of action is packed into a small novel, told from one person’s perspective. “It would have been relatively easy - once I had put down the story - to inflate it by adding details. But that would have done nothing for the story,” he says. “Imagine what could have been done with long flashbacks of Akbar Ahmed and Mona’s past life.” Curiously, in many ways the romance, with all the trappings of familial disapproval and idle curiosities of the neighbourhood, uncannily reminds one of a Bollywood romance playing out. The author however feels that this is inevitable, “as the mechanics of romance are the same whatever the age of the parties involved, besides the key protagonist is not all that ancient”. He watches very little cinema, he says, and sticks to the occasional Tom & Jerry Show.
As the romance between the two individuals plays out, the author takes recourse to communication by letters as a literary form, harking back to Austen. But he says while it may have made an Austen novel bulkier, the same was employed to achieve concise control over story-telling. “I have known many letter writers on both sides of my family; their letters always fascinated me because when I read them, I could not believe they were written by the same person I knew. The letters sounded as if the writer was perfectly sane. You can say that the perfect facade of their letters was a great training for me in looking at the whole letter-writing process either as an exercise in self-detachment, or deceit. The literary possibilities are inherent in such a device,” he states.
A book of fiction out of the way, the author is back at work on writing a graphic fable titled Rabbit Rap, about a group of modernist, disaster prone self-destructive rabbits who invite endless troubles because of their reckless ways. “It is a fable of our times,” he says. And when he is not working on that enterprise, he throws himself back into reading dictionaries for his ongoing translation work on Tilism-e Hoshruba; he has published the first book of a projected 24-volume translation of the world’s first magical fantasy epic that dates back to 1883-1893.
Looking Into Mind’s Closet from Sakal Times: May 24, 2009
In his novel The Story of a Widow, Musharraf Ali Farooqi has portrayed the world of a woman who ventures into a new life against the orthodox order. BISWADIP MITRA finds more
A middle-aged widow whose two daughters are married, herself gets married again. That being the outline of a novel, it may not sound to be an interesting read. But, with a mix of subtle humour, and narration of a woman’s dilemma and desire, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s recent novel The Story of a Widow does turn out to be an engaging one.
Born in Pakistan and currently settled in Canada, Farooqi was drawn into literary creativity since childhood. He recalls his days as a young boy when he read a lot. The illustrated children’s stories used to attract his attention. It was this interest that made him “wish to write stories like them.” As he puts in, “Probably, I was good for nothing else.”
So he nurtured that dream of writing children’s fiction. “And I am happy to report that I accomplished it when I published my children’s picture book, The Cobbler’s Holiday or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes,” he adds.
The Story of a Widow’s central character is Mona Ahmed, whose domineering husband Akbar Ahmed has died leaving enough wealth for the widow. The portrait of the dead man hangs on the wall of the couple’s home in Karachi, and Akbar Ahmed seems to express his views silently through his portrait and Mona somewhat acts in deference to her dead husband; her efforts to make independent decisions thus being scuttled. It is then that her neighbor Mrs Baig gets a new tenant in the shape of Salamat Ali. He sends a proposal to marry Mona which she accepts.
Through a well-balanced mix of narration and conversations that unfolds the tension in Mona’s immediate circle, Farooqi then lets the story flow like a drama. “I chose this style of writing only for this story because I think it suited it. I do not have a fixed style, and I hope I never do, because that would be very boring for me,” Farooqi informs.
The character of Akbar Ahmed is a reminder to Mona’s unhappy life with her dead husband’s dry and stuck-to-principles ways that stand much in contrast to the happiness that Mona attains from the somewhat mischievously romantic self of Salamat. But at the end, it is Salamat who unexpectedly fades out.
How easy was it to let Salamat go away in the anti-climax, I ask. “Knowing the kind of character Salamat Ali is, I am sure he will never really fade out. He will emerge somewhere else to carry on what he does best – endearing himself to some woman and then making her happy and disappointed at the same time. I had to let him go so that he could live his own life,” Farooqi replies. The message of the story, says the author, is: “You go, widow! But widow, beware!”
The novel offers a glimpse of life in Karachi. “I guess, Karachi is a city whose social life I knew enough about, to set the novel there,” the author affirms. “You will notice that most of the events in the novel take place indoors. This is how it is in Karachi. The tale is told from the point of view of an introverted person who spends most of her time indoors, and with her family. So the city interacts minimally with the character and events.” Thus, the story might not have been much different had it been set in other cities in Pakistan or elsewhere where the population is mostly of Pakistani origin, say, in some British town.
The idea of The Story of a Widow originated from Farooqi’s visit to a home in Toronto, Canada, where the lady of the household kept the photograph of her former husband hanging just above the chair of her current husband. Keeping that in mind, I ask the author about his writing process in general. “I do not launch myself into writing anything now without having the complete outline of the story before me,” he replies, adding, “It still changes continuously, but I know how the changes will be reflected in the ending.”
When asked, Farooqi mentions the literary influences on his creativity. “For each writing project one draws on a different set of literary resources. In the case of The Story of a Widow, I drew on the social drama depicted in Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters and noted Urdu writer Azim Beg Chughtai’s short stories.
Talking about the Pakistani writers in English, Farooqi says, “I find it great that so many young people are devoting their creative energies to literature. A lot of good will come out of it.” But aren’t these writers somewhat overshadowed by the hype around Indian writers in English? “I am in the privileged position that I have friends among both Pakistani and Indian writers. So no matter who gets hyped, I win,” Farooqi replies happily.
He is currently working on the fantasy epic Tilism-e-Hoshruba, and translations of Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed’s works are also in the offing.
Widow 2009: The Translator of Dastan-i Amir Hamza Writes a Book About a Wonderful Woman
from Mid-Day: May 31, 2009
My first impression was that this book was a satire, but as I continued reading, entered the story and became familiar with its characters, I realized that the faintly tongue-in-cheek impression I’d received were only the result of a deadpan – though very elegant – storytelling style. Its rendering of the culture was earnest and witty, but not mocking.
This book is the story of a woman whose husband’s untimely death suddenly leaves her with a small inheritance and far more comfortable than she had ever imagined possible. She had led her life in his shadow and never questioned any decision or been consulted for her opinion on any matter. Since this situation is quite common among women in our part of the world, and something we often take for granted, I particularly admired Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s skill in highlighting it as an injustice.
As the story progresses, a neighbour’s tenant begins to press his suit and a complex situation develops. Through it, the widow’s relationship with her daughters and her sister and her own awakening sensuality are beautifully described. Letters are exchanged and I was surprised and impressed at the way these two ordinary middle-class people are able to express themselves. It struck me that their easy and lyrical articulation doubtless arose from the commonplace poetic usage of the Urdu language in daily life.
The relationship is solemnized in marriage, and for the first time in her life, the widow experiences happiness. Then, thanks to the author’s subtle craft, we see trouble coming long before she does.
I now logged on to Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s site and was amused to see that he resembles Amitav Ghosh. I learnt that he had published, just a year ago, a 900-page English translation of a great Urdu classic Dastan-e Amir Hamza, and been widely praised for it. Just one month after this book has been published, he also brought out The Cobbler’s Holiday or Why Ants Don’t Wear Shoes, a children’s picture book.
I mailed him to ask what he had been doing before that. He replied promptly, explaining that he had been writing and translating since 1994. But The Adventures of Amir Hamza had been a huge and lengthy project. Publishing processes also take their own time. Meanwhile, he had been teaching the tango in Toronto.
“Wow! Really?” I asked, intrigued. He replied to say that one of his students had visited Buenos Aires and drawn surprised looks when he went to a tango evening there, and said he had learned the dance back in Toronto. “But they were completely knocked off their feet when he told them he had a Pakistani teacher!”
This tango teacher’s lovely novel showcases the different ways in which wonderful women can be ill-treated, and continue to live and find happiness in spite of it. Although by the end of the book I had become very fond of the widow, I did think that Mohammed Hanif’s blurb on the back, describing her as “everyone’s ideal woman: she can make you laugh and cry on the same page,” was unreal and faintly ridiculous.
The Story of a Widow is a lovely book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi about a middle-aged woman in Karachi adjusting to widowhood. The story begins as Mona Ahmad reflects on her marriage and wonders what, if anything, she should do next with her life. Mona's world includes her helpful neighbor Mrs. Baig, the mysterious new tenant next door, household servants, the entire extended family--daughters, sons-in-law, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends of friends, and, of course, her late husband, Akbar Ahmad. No, there isn't a ghost in this story, just a portrait of Mona's late husband which still hangs in her house. Everyone in her life has an opinion about how Mona-the-widow should live her life, but the more they press, shun, or badger, the more Mona comes into her own.
For more than thirty years, until his death, Mona's days followed a predictable routine dictated by her husband's needs, from putting his shaving water out in the morning to serving his dinner in the evening. During the day, Mona took care of her two daughters, Tanya and Amber, who are raising families of their own. A few months after her husband's death, Mona discovers the joy of doing nothing. Farooqi accurately conveys that feeling of freedom, if you've ever found yourself suddenly free from obligations or responsibilities (or just indulged in some 'me-time'),
"One of the first changes Mona felt was the sudden end to the daily duties she performed for Akbar Ahmad. After many months of feeling unsettled, she began to enjoy her leisure. If she read a book, often she would become so engrossed in it that she forgot about her lunch. When Habib was away, she felt too lazy to prepare meals for herself. On those occasions, only if her daughters or sister dropped by did she make lunch or dinner. Some days she drank pot after pot of jasmine tea the whole afternoon, or ate only fruit. Such lack of structure would have been unthinkable in Akbar Ahmad's lifetime."
A year later, Mona seems content in her new life, but the arrival of Mrs. Baig's new tenant, Salamat Ali, changes everything. Mona is unsettled by Salamat's overtures, but after a rocky start and an old-fashioned courtship, consisting mainly of letters between the neighbors, Mona accepts Salamat's proposal of marriage. Family and friends are both horrified and concerrned but Mona can't muster any guilt for wanting all that she didn't have with her first husband. She listens to what people have to say, raging silently at times, speaking out, at others, in defense of her decision and her fiance. Salamat and Mona marry but when certain facts come to light about her new husband's past, Mona is prepared to take charge of her life, gracefully manouvering around the "I told you sos" and those who once again feel she is incapable of managing her own affairs.
While the main storyline focuses on Mona and Salamat, Farooqi also allows readers into the lives of the other characters. Imagine being plopped into a large extended family a few days before a wedding or attending a family reunion. In no time at all, you're caught up in the dramas of siblings, couples and in-laws.
Farooqi's prose is elegantly simple. There are no long, awkward sentences or over-the-top descriptions of the weather or a piece of clothing, yet I could easily picture Mona, her garden and the places she visits with Salamat. By the end of the book, I think I could even see that portrait of the late, but helpless, Akbar Ahmad, watching from his place on the wall as his wife moves on with her life.
So often, books by or about South Asian women can be depressing, dark stories about unhappy women. The Story of a Widow is a refreshing change. Farooqi just tells us this widow's story, with the emphasis on 'story' and less on 'widow.' I'll probably get in trouble for this but I couldn't help thinking, maybe it's because a South Asian woman didn't tell this widow's story.
Though the publishing world, especially in the United States, has recently been entranced by Pakistan, the work is narrowed to depictions of terrorism and Islamic militarisation. Few publications portray the beauty and mundanity of private life in Pakistan, writes DAISY ROCKWELL
Is violence simply a literary preoccupation in Pakistan? Or does this have something to do with Western expectations of the concerns of Pakistani fiction writers? This quickly becomes a chicken and egg argument. The demands of the publishing market can be hard to separate from reality, so I didn't expect to get much of an answer to this question. But two recent publications have persuaded me otherwise, neither of which has found a publisher in the United States, as of yet (both are available in India).
The first is a marvelous novel by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, The Story of a Widow. The novel, blurbed promisingly by Mohammed Hanif as the novel Jane Austen would have written had she grown up in a Karachi suburb, tells the story of a woman whose husband, a rigid, ungenerous man, has recently died. The Jane Austen-ness (Farooqi has said that he has yet to read this writer known as Jane Austen, and drew inspiration from the Japanese novelist Tanizaki) of the story lies in its detailed, sensitive portrayal of the heroine, Mona's feelings as she explores the possibilities of love and independence. The novel is full of delicate descriptions of social and familial interactions and is not in any way meant to provide the far distant reader with a couch-side view of Life in Pakistan. It is in fact because of the narrative's resolute commitment to painting an intimate portrait of a private life that one gets a much more immediate sense of everyday life in Pakistan than is possible from many pieces of writing that overtly seek to introduce the reader to that country.
I loved for example this passage, leading up to the denouement of the novel, when Mona and her new husband, the reckless and drunken Salamat Ali, are driving home in the rain:
As their car approached their street, Moa saw some overhead electrical wires shorting up ahead. She asked Salamat Ali to slow down. Then she saw the electric company's truck parked near the electrical pole. Technicians stood on the street. One of them was trying to set up the ladder. Salamat Ali saw them too, when the technicians signalled with a flashlight for their car to stop. They were dangerously close to where a jangle of shorting electric wires hung overhead.
In a classic 'show, don't tell' move, Farooqi gives us a vivid description of the infrastructural snarls around every corner in a city like Karachi, without shining a sociologist's spotlight on the worrisome electrical work that is being done in the storm. Why is it that this novel, a witty and absorbing portrayal of urban middle class life, has not found a publisher in the United States? Is it because the easily relatable content does not fit preconceptions about life in Pakistan?
Musharraf Ali Farooqi achieved a measure of fame with his magisterial translation of Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami’s collection of Indo-Islamic folktales, The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Although by no means his only work—he has written a children’s book, is working on a graphic novel, and the first of his projected 24-volume translation of Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism has just been released— Farooqi’s felicity of being able to translate across cultures finds full expression in his novel, The Story of a Widow.
For those familiar with Pakistani television serials the format of the book and the themes it addresses will be immediately recognisable. Unlike the much-watched and much-maligned saas-bahu serials produced in India, Pakistan has a long history of producing challenging stories dealing with social and political issues. The best of these serials—such as Dhoop Kinaray,Bandish, Waris, and Ankahi—were richly populated with a cast of complex personalities, and were refreshingly free of clichés. In The Story of a Widow Farooqi manages to capture the feel, humour and drama intrinsic to this form of storytelling.
From One Husband to Another from DNA: July 12, 2009
Taran N Khan
When Akbar Ahmad unexpectedly dies of a stroke brought on by his only vice of excessive eating, his wife Mona finds her life settling into the unexacting pattern of widowhood. Left for the first time in
control of her own money and time, Mona is just discovering the difference between being a wife and a widow of substance, when the flamboyant widower Salamat Ali moves in as a tenant next door. His intrusions on her space culminate in a marriage proposal, and the resultant family uproar and Mona’s journey into a second marriage is the plot of this low-key novel.
The book is a study in detail, with finely observed accounts of the ties and machinations that connect large families. Mona’s hesitation in discussing her marriage proposal with her grown daughters, for instance, plays out with complete naturalness. Later, when Mona wears a sari given as a gift by Akbar Ahmad to a function with her new husband, her daughter flashes the accusation: “You never wore that sari when Daddy was alive”.
Mostly, however, Farooqi focuses on the gentle humour of the situation, such as the renewed interest in Mona from long forgotten, tiresome suitors, and the masterful way in which her elder sister puts an offensively curious visitor in her place.
The most entertaining characters however, are the two husbands, the deceased making his presence felt through a framed photograph that Mona hangs in her living room. As the story progresses, Akbar Ahmed’s portrait regards his wife with changing expressions, from confusion to anxiety to grim satisfaction.
The interloper, Salamat Ali, wins you over with his boorish attentions to Mona in a cinema hall where she has gone to watch Mughal e Azam, slipping a Fanta in her hand and crouching in the seat behind her through the show. His flashy clothes and colourful sense of humour shakes things up in Mona’s snooty family, and leads to some domestic tiffs. Interestingly, while Farooqi traces the changes in Mona’s journey from docile wife to confident woman, he leaves us with a sense of doubt about whether the transformation is due to her marriage, or was always latent in her.
On the down side, the pace of the book falters somewhat after the middle, and it peters out to a somewhat predictable end. But despite these grouses, The Story Of A Widow is an easy and entertaining read. Especially refreshing is the complete absence of dictators, diasporas and post-9/11 traumas.
Mona’s Story: Like Alexander McCall Smith in Karachi from Indian Express: Apr 26, 2009
Blame it on the blurb. A claim is made for Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s first novel The Story of a Widow that he is bound to fall short of, and he does. Mohammed Hanif, author of the well-acclaimed A Case of Exploding Mangoes, writes: “If Jane Austen had grown up in a Karachi suburb, this is what she would have written.” This is arguably a book of manners, and perhaps that invited the Austen comparison. But this is not a telling of private lives that contains the seeds of subversive interpretations of a particular class in a particular society at a particular point in time.
But to combat the comparison is not to spurn the book. It only provokes the reader to join the sport and offer a more apt one. So here it is. If Alexander McCall Smith had grown up in a Karachi suburb — indeed given his gift for bringing alive distant lands, even if he had wandered through a Karachi suburb — this is what he may have written.
Mona Ahmad bears great affinity with Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie, most prominently because she is of a mindful bent, comfortable in her self, and disposed towards asserting her individuality not by confrontation but by thinking through the paces of the days of her life by weighing the repercussion of each step.
That disposition finds utterance when her husband of thirty years passes away. To her astonishment, Mona finds that she is now extremely well provided for and need not adhere to the frugality that defined their years together. A woman of comfortable means must, of course, be in need of a hobby (there goes Austen) and Mona discovers her inner gardener. Such a woman, of means and of gentle accommodation with her surrounding, must also be wooed. And she is suddenly having to fall back on her capacity for talking herself through the paces of her day, just to be sure that in being wooed she herself did not compromise her extremely strong sense of propriety.
The Karachi that Mona inhabits is not the restive place of news reports. Mona’s city by the sea is a location for softer social observations, a city that quiets down enough for the interior preoccupations of an average family to play out unhurried. But this Karachi is still different from McCall Smith’s Gaborone or Edinburgh. This is the Subcontinent, here stories do not draw to a close without a crisis; here they do not live happily ever after without the threat by a bad, or temporarily bad, guy to overturn their certainties. Here Mona cannot find a feminist equilibrium without taking the big dramatic step to show she is capable of handling her affairs.
Farooqi, whose translation into English of The Adventures of Amir Hamza won immense praise, pulls it off in the end. But there is a tentativeness in The Story of a Widow that one suspects will not carry into his next novel.
Notes on The Story of a Widow from Jabberwock: Friday, May 01, 2009
By JAI ARJUN SINGH
Have been reading Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s delicate, finely observed novel The Story of a Widow, about a Karachi-based woman discovering romance relatively late in life. As a huge fan of Farooqi’s English translation of the Dastan- e Amir Hamza, I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between that book and this work of original fiction. The Adventures of Amir Hamza is a big book in every sense – a larger-than-life epic featuring impossibly grand and heroic characters, and written in florid language that replicates the style of medieval campfire storytelling. The Story of a Widow, on the other hand, is a gently unfolding contemporary story about subtle shifts in relationships, the quiet workings of family politics and emotional manipulation in a conservative society. It’s written in a sparse, conversational style, and even the chapter titles are minimalist: “The Widow”, “The Man Next Door”, “The Letter”, “The Family” and so on. (Just by the way, here’s a typical chapter head from the Amir Hamza book: “Of Buzurjmehr’s Relating the Emperoro’s Dream at the Appointed Hour, and of Alqash’s Life Being Claimed in Retribution”!)
The novel’s central character is a woman who would have been decidedly out of place in the company of Hamza and Amar Ayyar: a middle-aged widow named Mona Ahmad who, as the story begins, is coming to terms with her newfound independence and mulling the end of a secure but loveless (and generally boring) married life that had lasted three decades. She doesn’t have much to complain about, her deceased husband Akbar having left her well provided for; but he was financially conservative during his lifetime and now his large portrait seems to frown upon her when she indulges in a bit of impulse shopping.
Just as Mona is settling into her new life, a man named Salamat Ali moves into her elderly neighbour’s house as a tenant and begins to show an interest in her – an interest that culminates in a formally worded marriage proposal. Now she has to assess her own feelings about the matter while also dealing with the various ways in which the people close to her will be affected: her married daughters, her sister and the more orthodox elders in the family. Questions of impropriety and dishonour are raised; another attempt at matchmaking is made; a daughter who was particularly close to her father becomes resentful when she realises that her mother wasn’t happy in her marriage.
I thought Farooqi’s portrayal of Mona’s emotional turbulence, her vacillating feelings about Salamat's discreet but cheeky courtship methods, the many insecurities – all of which seem more suited to a college girl in love for the first time than to a woman of her age – was done with particular sensitivity. But equally notable is how we are made to realise that Mona’s decision to accept Salamat’s proposal – though apparently a sign of a progressive willingness to get on with her life – might simply be a kneejerk act of defiance, and that it could lead to a different sort of enslavement rather than deliverance from social strictures. What does it really mean to be independent, and to what extent are our actions determined by others' expectations of us (even when we think we aren’t answerable to them)? By the time Mona's story reaches its bittersweet conclusion, she has probably had occasion to think about these questions. It's a very engrossing journey.
“Tender, heartwarming and unabashedly sentimental, in Mona, Farooqi has created everyone’s ideal woman: she can make you laugh and cry on the same page. The Story of A Widow is an ultra-realistic miniature in which Farooqi has evoked the tribulations of extended families and mid-life with sparse prose. If Jane Austen had grown up in a Karachi suburb, this is what she would have written.”
—Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
"Farooqi's characters quickly establish themselves by dint of personality. This is no small feat in a book that is essentially plot driven...What Farooqi does so well in The Story of a Widow is illustrate the nuanced machinations of familiar relationships. He also shows the subtle influences of increasingly voluminous family chatter. The third-person point of view, and a driving narrative of event, consequence and response, lends a grounding (and occasionally grinding) reality to this life-affirming work. —Margaret MacPherson, The Edmonton Journal
Farooqi succeeds splendidly with this novel...You could call it a coming-of-age novel about a woman who is already of age —James Macgowan , The Ottawa Citizen
Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Story of a Widow skilfully portrays a woman’s metamorphosis toward individual freedom and the reactions she faces as she sheds the traditional meaning of honour...The Story of a Widow is a satisfying read that offers a fresh perspective from an unlikely heroine.—Amna Ali, The Toronto Star
Editor's Choice - The Vancouver Sun
“Readers are not so much transported to suburban Karachi as they are transplanted into the heart of an Indian family. And families are . . . well, families, it seems, are the same world over. . . . [The Story of a Widow is a] charming and insightful novel.”—The Montreal Gazette
“I loved The Story of a Widow! It is a novel full of charm and humor, and Farooqi writes about Mona Ahmad and her attempts to negotiate a world full of interfering if well-meaning relativves with a warm understanding of human frailties."
—Anita Rau Badami, author of Can You Hear The Nightbird Call?
"The subtlety of Farooqi's narrative conveys empathy for his endearing heroine and sets Widow apart from similar stories that are encumbered by clichés." —Straight.com
THE LIGHTER SIDE OF CHARACTERS (From Pages Bookshop website)
READER'S GUIDE: (From Random House wesbite)
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: (From Random House website)
BOOKBITS INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG RINTOUL (From Bookbits website)
After paying the salaries of the household staff, Mona was released from accounting for every small sum spent during the month. But even a year after Akbar Ahmad’s death, she could not spend money impulsively, but it happened more and more frequently that she bought something she liked—an ornamental bowl for the coffee table, or new curtains for her bedroom.
One day, while shopping with her daughter Amber, Mona spent three thousand rupees on a small rosewood table with marquetry work. After they returned home, as Amber helped her unwrap the table, Mona’s gaze unconsciously travelled up to her husband’s portrait. The expression on Akbar Ahmad’s face was one of shock and disbelief. Mona went out into the garden before his remonstrating looks became unbearable.