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This House of Clay and Water Hardcover – 22 May 2017
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About the Author
Faiqa Mansab completed her MFA in creative writing with a distinction and an award for the best thesis. Her novel This House of Clay and Water is the final version of her MFA thesis.
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Nida comes from a sophisticated family of high-ranking politicians and is married too, to one from this fraternity, but none of that sophistication and power has healed her wounds inflicted by her little daughter’s death. Sasha is trying hard to break the shackles of her middle class drudgery by seeking out pleasures outside her marriage, even as she protects her pretty daughter, Alina, from the preying eyes of the society and dismisses the state of her other daughter, Zoya, who thankfully is too plain to draw any attention. Bhanggi is an outcast hijra (eunuch) who, sitting under a tree in the Daata Sahab mosque, blesses and prays for worshippers at one hand, and is constantly at war with self and Allah, on the other. When these three imperfect and burdened souls cross each other's paths, nothing ever remains the same.
This is a tale of merging and separating, stereotyping and rebelling, patriarchy and equality, suppression and freedom, violation and redemption, cowardice and courage. But above all, this is a tale of love - A love that blooms at an unconventional junction and between two people who are far, far removed from each other when it comes to their past experiences.
Does a love without proximity carry the curse of disintegration? Or the curse of disintegration is a must as eternity is simply a mirage? Who decides the forbidden line when every heart is tainted? Can’t love simply be, without the prying eyes of society labelling it legitimate or not? Does such a label add gravitas to the love or crush it under its weight?
Mansab extends the sprawling sky of Lahore, across crimson days and indigo nights, and nurtures the love of her protagonists with tenderness and purity, subtlety and sincerity. Her lovers are not the typical rebels or self-discoverers who make up their minds and go for the kill; they are the little children who retreat to their shelters when the rain falls hard and yet, they venture out again when it subsides, on slippery grounds, to collect its wet elixir on their souls. They step out and step in, forever toying with the line, not knowing when to cross and when to contain, but always knowing, to not malign the other’s heart. While the author does beautiful justice in sculpting the interlocked arms of ambition and failure, keeping the backdrop authentic and non-intrusive, it is her love story that brings a staggering element of poignancy, bordering on being impregnable.
Upon reading the final line, I felt a prick in my heart. No, I didn’t know either of the lovers. However, they paraded in my world for three full days and their sharp, passionate pleas punctured my heart. But I didn’t bleed. Instead, I breathed in long, content breaths, as if a window of my heart was suddenly opened and a fresh breeze came rushing in from a land that invalidated ‘forbidden love’.
The writer’s fondness of books gets reflected through intertextuality and multiple mentions of books and reading throughout the novel. Each sentence, word, and concept is well worked upon to perfect the craft. The plot is not given away cheaply, the shift of narrative voices from the first-person narrator to an omniscient narrator, and occasionally the merger of the two, the effect of which can separately be argued, kept me involved as a reader. I enjoyed Mansab’s keen observations translated into authentic descriptions of hermaphrodite community.
This House of Clay And Water is set in present day Lahore, Pakistan. The book has three main protagonists – Nida, Bhanggi, and Sasha. Nina is the wife of a high ranking politician and the daughter of one too. In spite of her privileged birth or maybe because of it, she is trapped in an onerous marriage and seeks solace in the crowded forgotten old dargahs where she can be anonymous, forgotten and can forget.
Sasha is the epitome of modernity. She scorns her middle-class husband and marriage and yearns for a life of luxury and decadence. She is the opposite of Nida, instead of being bowed down by society and circumstances she decides to take matters into her own hands disregards all propriety and rationality.
Bhanggi is a hermaphrodite or hijra in his part of the world. Hijras have no rights and are treated as the lowest of the low in this society. Bhanggi’s entire life is an ongoing battle for survival. He is an outcast even in the hijras because of his attraction to women and an unwillingness to sell his/her body to men. These men who call themselves custodians of religion and propriety are not accustomed to a mere hijra having the nerve to refuse them and Bhanggi has to pay dearly for his audacity.
The story revolves around these three characters and their lives. Fate brings them together at the shrine of Daata Sahib and entwines their stories in the thick of Lahore’s paradoxical society.
I did not find the book surprising at all. It is a rather common story told and retold time and again in our shared culture and divided borders. But no matter how many times it has been told, it is not enough. Not enough to change anything. Not enough times to make me surprised at the struggles of the protagonists and not enough times to make it into fiction.
It is the hard reality, that’s what hit me in this book. Not many people would even like to read about Bhanggi because no one wants to talk about hijras. Certainly, no one wants to know about the sexual preferences of a hijra. It is a taboo. But reality rarely makes for pleasant reading. On the surface Nida’s life is perfect. Why is she so unsatisfied? Hundred’s of women would give anything to be in her position. Why is she complaining? As a woman she got lucky. Her husband hasn’t taken another wife even though he misses no opportunity to remind her of his magnanimity. She’s produced and lost a daughter. An imperfect one at that, she should be grateful to her husband for not divorcing her. Unfortunately she is educated enough to understand the oppression but helpless in her “respectable” political family to do anything about it.
Sasha now is living life on her own terms. She believes herself empowered by making a fool out of unforgiving society and her unsatisfactory husband.She has blissfully shut her eyes to any self-reproach and while doing so also shut her eyes to her poor neglected younger child. It is her lust for life that makes her so reckless and she has to pay for it. Sasha and Nida at the opposite ends of the spectrum represent our patriarchal to the point of being a farcical society with muddled morals.
Bhanggi’s fate was sealed the day he was born a hermaphrodite. There’s no hope and no life for his kind in this world. Every time he even dares to think of happiness he is squashed down like an ant. But he dares. He dares till the very end.
I loved Faiqa’s writing. It is humorous with darker undertones which is exactly what the story demands. I was hooked onto the last page.
The cover is gorgeous. I’ll admit, it is what attracted me to this book first. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing this book. You can get your copy from Amazon like I did or get it at any bookstores stocking penguin publishers.
I am giving a 5/5 star rating to This House of Clay And Water.
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