Extract: Between clay and dust
Ustad Ramzi was the head of a pahalwan clan and the custodian of a wrestlers’ akhara. He was a man of frugal speech and austere habits, and appeared to some a stern man. His imposing stature, a heavyset jaw, and upturned whiskers reinforced that impression. He was one of those men who do not accept the futility and emptiness of life, but who try continuously to give it meaning—areflection of their own life’s purpose. Fifteen years earlier, in 1935, he had won the highest wrestling title in the land, Ustad-e-Zaman. This title was at the heart of a long struggle between Ustad Ramzi’s clan and its rivals who had defended it for years. By winning the title Ustad Ramzi had fulfilled the coveted dream of his clan elders. He had defended it many times since and cherished it as a sacred trust vouchsafed to the strength of his arms. Recently, Ustad Ramzi’s world had been shaken by the abolition of the princely states whose nawabs and rajas traditionally patronized the wrestling arts. Many smaller akharas had closed down in consequence. The two surviving akharas belonging to Ustad Ramzi and his rival clan had also experienced the bite of hard times. Trainee pahalwans continued to take instruction, but there were fewer of them than before. One bout had been organized in the past year, and it had not drawn many spectators. The prevailing situation made the future of this sport look uncertain, at best. These circumstances, however, had not affected Ustad Ramzi’s unremitting adherence to his creed or checked his aspirations for the sport and its practitioners. The akhara was a hallowed place for him where a man made of clay came in contact with his essence. On the day he first put on the wrestler’s belt and stepped into the akhara, Ustad Ramzi made the pahalwan’s traditional pledge to strive for the perfection of his body and soul until he returned to earth upon his death. The akhara, which his patriarchs had tended with their labour and sweat, was still the mainstay of his life. It had always been guided by the example of his elders, and as it had been before, so it was now. Ustad Ramzi had continued with his absolute ways in his diminishing sphere of influence where everything was pre-determined, and every act, every gesture was of consequence. This consciousness had given a fatalistic decisivenessto his actions. People coping with the pressures of life after Partition, battling harsh circumstanceswith all the means in their possession, had neither the use nor sympathy for such intensity of purpose. Even those close to Ustad Ramzi sometimes found it difficult to understand or appreciate his motives. For many, Ustad Ramzi’s set outlook on life had turned from a virtue to an impediment. Adjacent to Ustad Ramzi’s akhara was a private cemetery marked by an enclosure lined with cypresses, yews and banyans. It was a relic of the times when it was not unusual for people to be buried where
they had worked and spent their lives. BesidesUstad Ramziâ€™s ancestors, other pahalwans who had upheld the artâ€™s strict tenets were also honoured by being buried there. Ustad Ramzi did not allow sweepers to enter the cemetery for fear of polluting the sanctity of its grounds, instead, he swept it himself every week with a broom of palm fronds. He never entered it without making ablutions. He kept the cemetery rimmed by rose boughs as a sign of devotion to the memory of his elders whose lives were lived in strict conformity with their creed. He always experienced a deep senseof harmony in that place. The graves were not laid symmetrically, and the ground was a little uneven and sloped to one side. In a corner at the acclivity of the slope, Ustad Ramzi had placed two stones and surmounted them with a marble slab to improvise a bench where he kept his gardening tools. Sitting there he could see the spot in the cemetery where lay his own unfilled grave. He had made it several years earlier and exulted in the anticipation that the day he was laid there, his life, too, would have conformed to that of his eldersâ€™ existence and become a part of it.