Between Clay and Dust is not only about the partitioning of Pakistan but also about a conflict within the akhara, not only about national identities but personal ties as well.
"‘How simple Ustad Ramzi made it look.’
‘It is not without reason that he is the Ustad-e-Zaman.’
‘Just wait until Tamami becomes Ustad-e-Zaman,’ one of Tamami’s friends casually remarked.
Everyone in the akhara became silent when the words were uttered. Tamami’s friend realized his indiscretion and became quiet."
The disruption of tradition creates many opportunities for conflict and meditation. Readers who are introduced to this conflict when it is burgeoning have had little experience with the tone set over many years by Ustad Ramzi, but they are engaged with the story in anticipation of dramatic change, so they share in misunderstandings like that of Tamami's friend.
Indeed, much of the emotional heft of this story rests in misunderstandings and missed connections, in severences that might have been avoided.
"Tamami realized they had mistaken Ustad Ramzi’s embrace for a grappling lock. Ustad Ramzi also regarded the trainees with a surprised look.
Come see Ustad Ramzi and Tamami fight!’"
Two wrestlers in a lock could easily be mistaken for sharing an embrace, particularly out of context. Those embroiled in the conflict are less likely to miss the cues, but those on the margins are ever-shfting, uncertain as to the nature of what they are observing.
"That the ties between them could be so easily severed – and that there would be no attempt at a rapprochement... was something [he] could neither understand nor bear." [This passage has been edited to avoid spoilers.]
Breaks in relationships, between men and between nations, lead to meditations on broader concerns about community and peace, leadership and balance.
"Did the essence of art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force? Did it not lie in keeping power bridled?"
Musharaff Ali Farooqi poses questions like this, but he does not present answers in plain-spoken prose. Instead the characters in his narrative ponder and press at their uncertainties, but there is no resolution.
"Ustad Ramzi no longer knew if it was grief he wanted to share or some guilt which he wished to confess to lighten his heart’s burden before her."
What does one do in the wake of a tremendous loss, and how does one manage their own participation in the circumstances which led to it? How much sorrow must be borne alone and can some be eased in company? To what extent does one's identity rest solely in contrast to a force with which one has long struggled?
Although the questions are often posed directly on the page in Between Clay and Dust, the narrative is relatively short and one imagines many longer drafts having been painfully reduced to boil down the tale to its essentials.
Upon finishing, the novel may leave readers with the sense of burden which follows the reading of stories about war and conflict, but without the declarative tone that sometimes accompanies such stories; the work embodies a sense of much-to-discuss, which does not lessen the weight of the story but it does sway the balance towards hope and away from despair.
This review originally appeared on BuriedInPrint.