Book review

This debut novel tells an unusual love story of outcasts in Lahore, spun with sensitivity and rage

Faiqa Mansab’s ‘This House of Clay and Water’ follows the struggle of two women and a transgender.

Anatomy is destiny. The discredited Freudian theory takes a new meaning – and dimension – in Pakistan, where it plays out in a million different ways. Here, women are often treated as secondary, their choices deemed inconsequential, their desires subsumed under the male authority in a largely patriarchal society. They are forced to reconcile with a continuous self-effacement, a gradual decimation of themselves at the altar of religion, rituals, customs and traditions.

Naturally, in these circumstances, there is a penance, varying in degrees, for those who break away from the sanction of society. The penance could sometimes mean death (honour killing). In such a society, life for women remains “horrid” no matter what choices they make. They are often scared into “obedience” and “de-sexed” after the fear of men is infused in them. Those who err by going against the diktats of society have no choice but to make amends by surrendering to a life of subservience.

Smoke and mirrors

In her well-wrought debut novel, This House of Clay and Water, set in Lahore, Pakistan’s city of saints, Faiqa Mansab weaves a tale of saints and sinners, love and betrayal, courage and rebellion. It is the story of a woman who rebels because she felt “dirty living a lie”. The woman, Nida, around whom the novel revolves, realises, towards the end, how the “stain of cowardice and hypocrisy” was “big and ugly” on her forehead: “Years of my life had turned out to be lies – nothing more than smoke and devious mirrors.”

The novel, told in many voices, brings forth the conservative mindset of a society that at its core remains feudal, patriarchal and insensitive towards its women and its intersex community. Being modern is a pretention that its people put up to belong, though deep down their conservatism takes root and, often, festers.

At many levels, The House of Clay and Water is about the search for love, love that redeems, but that also invites censure from society – a society that puts up walls for women, preordains their roles and resists their perceived transgressions. Nida is married to a wealthy and ambitious politician and has never been loved, acknowledged or cared for by her mother in her lifetime – the latter doesn’t have time for her. After marriage, her husband, Saquib, expects her to be submissive and docile – his idea of an ideal wife. He demarcates her boundaries and her roles and Nida is supposed to unquestioningly play that role while he is free to indulge in his escapades and adventures.

Nida is put in a cage and, though rich, her life remains lacklustre, emptiness ricocheting within it. She loses her infant child to Down’s Syndrome and to the insensitivity of her husband and in-laws who blame Nida for being “diseased” and giving birth to a “diseased” child. Though shattered, she seeks no compassion from a family that considered her a non-existent entity at home, denigrated her. She frequents the dargahs of Lahore in search of refuge and solace.

The outcast

Bhanggi, an intersex, was abandoned as a newborn and adopted by the guru of the eunuch community, Gulabo, who brings him up, but also sells him at a tender age of eight to local policemen and shopkeepers for small mercies and discounts. At this young age, he awakens to the reality of why the older boys chase him. His life remains devoid of compassion and dignity. He feels cursed and burdened. Unlike others in his community, he is attracted to women. This, somehow, is a great cause of his internal conflict, anguish and dilemma.

Since his growing-up years, he has only been tortured and shamed of his identity. He does not have a life or a choice of his own. That’s how society at large treats an outcast. “It isn’t just what god forgot to give you that matters, huh? It’s also what he forgot to take out. Your desires are that of a man but your body, tsk, never will be my prince,” a eunuch tells Bhanggi. He is made to identify with women and wear women’s clothes. He considers himself to be a half-creature, an in-between person. Later, this internal turmoil makes him don a green robe and wear beads around his neck to embark on a journey, frequenting the dargahs in search of god. Someone had told him: “Find god and you’ll find love.”

When their worlds intersect, Nida and Bhanggi strike an emotional connect. They meet at the Daata’s dargah and get gradually drawn to each other as they are both caught in similar circumstances: neglected, negated, abandoned and made to feel insignificant by their family and a male-dominated and conservative society. They survive on the fringes as they do not fit into the stereotypical box. Towards the end, while looking at their relationship, Nida reflects: “It was a merging of our divided solitude. A coming together, a communion, of two tortured, lonely souls.”

The story is mostly told through the voices of the three narrators – Nida, Bhanggi and Sasha. Though the novel revolves largely around Nida, it also meanders past different characters. There is Sasha, for example, who seeks love from multiple men she meets, Zoya, Sasha’s daughter, who craves for her mother’s love, Luqman, Sasha’s husband, who yearns for his wife’s attention, and Razia, Sasha’s househelp, who seeks love from Idrees, their neighbour’s driver. While Sasha seeks love elsewhere, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, Zoya, crave for her attention. Zoya’s elder sister, Alina, is pretty and social and, therefore, her mama’s pet, unlike Zoya.

Faiqa Mansab
Faiqa Mansab

Love in the time of turmoil

Mansab manages to bind the threads of these fractured lives – some on the margins, all in search of love – in a seamless narration: She tells the story in a reassured voice, reflecting control over its warp and weft.

This House of Clay and Water chronicles the emotional turmoil of people seeking love. It sheds light on the dark underbelly of a conservative society, given to regression. It underlines the social faultlines in Pakistan, its gender neglect and marginalisation. Those who are abandoned by family and by their loved ones can cling to desperate journeys to be acknowledged and to be loved. Loneliness can drive people to the edge and push them to do things that they’d otherwise not do. Nida and Bhanggi cross the socially acceptable threshold to seek true love and acceptance. But they are forced to stand the test of society’s censure.

It’s an unusual love story of two invisibles – Nida and Bhanggi. Nida is invisible to her family while Bhanggi is invisible to the society in which he lives, survives. The novel also delves into the travails of transgenders and their hardships in a country where gender – or anatomy – defines the role and relevance of an individual.

Towards the end of the novel, the transformation of Sasha who starts wearing a hijab (“stamp of Allah’s authority”), is an attempt to make amends, find redemption in a certain “loftiness” sanctioned by religion and society. Her religious zeal heralds a new change in Sasha:

She realised, now they had nothing to criticize. They couldn’t criticize such an obviously religious woman, now, how could they? What kind of Muslims would they be if they did.

The other life Sasha had, it wasn’t hers at all.

It was some madness that had gripped her. The woman was not her. In disowning her past, Sasha had emerged as a staunch believer.

As for Nida, she had to bear her tragedy “in silence, and with patience, as Allah commanded: All of Allah’s commandments were for me – none for him.”

In the novel the invisibles and the outcasts – islands unto themselves, exiles unto themselves – wade through unhappy marriages, dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Conservatism triumphs when women are exploited and manipulated in the name of religion, forced to submit and adhere to social norms. Mansab carves out a bold tale out of the society’s inadequacy and inhumanity – her story is told with sensitivity and, sometimes, rage.

This House of Clay and Water, Faiqa Mansab, Penguin Random House

Shireen Quadri is a marketing and communications professional who has worked with several publishing houses. She is founder and publisher, The Punch Magazine. On Twitter and Instagram, her handle is @shireenquadri.

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