The star-dappled cover of Faiqa Mansab’s debut novel, This House of Clay and Water, claims it is a story of forbidden love in Pakistan, which it is. The affections of Nida the guilty mother, Sasha the wanton wife and Bhanggi, a dreamy intersex, tangle together in this heightened and seldom told story of love in the streets and dargahs of Lahore.
But beneath that obvious tale of love, it is a story of religion. This strand is not always well-narrated, and can sometimes lapse into the unoriginal, but it is always interesting how the three characters develop and deny personal equations with god. The novel is worth reading just for the gentle, humane, sensitive ways it devises to remind readers that no one can be god’s keeper and that every human being is sacred. While debating with themselves or each other on morality and the ‘right’ way to lead life, Mansab’s characters can be almost blasphemous.
In one instance, Nida tells Bhanggi, “Now I think Adam was the first hermaphrodite.” She goes on to soothe him, “Adam and Eve were one once. Male and female together in one body.
Just like you.” Her friend, Sasha, considers the body to be just a vehicle, material, giving it up is, to her, a step towards transcendence. Once, denied entry into a mosque, Bhanggi says to the mullah, “The Holy Book you only
pretend to read reveals itself only to an open heart. Your eyes, lips and heart are sealed.” Mansab’s liberal-minded characters also bring to mind the women of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, where elderly women meeting for a literacy class abandon their inhibitions and religious indoctrination to explore their own selves.
Interlaced with religion, the novel mulls deep and long on women and femininity, their desires and yearnings, trials and quandaries. Nida, who might be called the protagonist, though she isn’t one in the traditional sense, is wealthy, intelligent, and has a seemingly perfect life with a devoted, politically-connected husband. But in reality, a sad, harried brush with motherhood has left her dissatisfied and restless.
At a dargah she visits to seek solace, Nida meets Sasha, a glamorous and ambitious woman who doesn’t let society or scruples dictate her way to riches. At the same dargah, she also comes upon melancholic, flute-playing, sad-eyed Bhanggi, with whom she falls in love. On the sidelines of these intricate escapades is the misadventure of Zoya, Sasha’s neglected daughter, who endures horrific childhood sexual abuse till Nida manages to glean it out of her.
The characters can be seen growing and changing along the pages, always a pleasant surprise in a work of fiction. But none of them rouse as much curiosity and empathy as Bhanggi, who is quiet, self-reflective, and surprisingly forgiving to a cruel, hostile world. Bhanggi is a difficult character. He is called a hijra (transgender), born intersex—with an affinity for books and a longing for women that keeps him apart from fellow transgenders. This is a marvelous character to be painted so tenderly and with such dignity, even while he is shunned by almost everyone around him. But the author goes overboard at times, entrusting Bhanggi with overtly theoretical dialogues and an unnaturally erudite tongue. This unfortunately reduces him to a theatrical, even farcical character at sporadic moments. It also gives birth to the danger of Bhanggi being dismissed as a mere body to carry the novelist’s ideas on the marginalised and oppressed. Used throughout the novel to uplift readers into a state of trance, something higher even than god, and then mercilessly discarded once the purpose has been served.
Also slightly dissatisfying is Sasha’s change of ideals, right towards the end. A bold, ambitious, headstrong woman, she is suddenly transformed. Not into one less unsure, but into a kind she’d hated in the past. Bad women in fiction often behave in a predictable manner. They either cave in to the pressures around them, going senile; or they reform themselves into how they’re expected to be. Sasha is slightly different in her choice, but it’s still sad to see a compelling character morphing herself into something she’s run away from. It would perhaps be acceptable if it were a choice of her free will, but in a roundabout way, it just seems to be penance for her being a ‘bad’ mother. Why must women always be shown to suffer for being the way they want to be, it makes you wonder. Is it because, as the novel says, “The social bonds were too strong, the double lives too well maintained, the codes of behaviour set in stone?”
Even Nida’s walk back to a stale, staid household after a few days of abandoned joy, is unfathomable— though what she does after that is pretty impressive. This brings us to the crux of the novel, which is neither religion nor love or even a search for the feminine existence, but simply honour, the kind thought to be inherent in females, and guarded jealously by males. In all societies, but perhaps most glaringly and stiflingly in South Asian ones, love is only allowed if the woman, and her affections, are perceived to be honourable. If she is unmarried she must remain pious, for she carries the family’s honour on her shoulders, and after marriage, her husband’s. It is quite interesting to note that to reach that emotion called love, to even begin describing it, writers and their characters must first traverse through baggage-laden concepts of shame and society, family and responsibility. And honour, always honour. The novelist doesn’t shy away from these complex perceptions and tries to navigate a path to reach a destination of compassion and kindness for all.
Content and context aside, the novel’s tone is sheer pleasure. It evolves into more poetry then prose, with Mansab’s characters spouting effortlessly eloquent lines, her ruminations on life and its encumbrances molding easily into verse. Her descriptions are so evocative you wish she would guide us through the entire country of Pakistan, and her musings on love range from the mellow to the piercing, seldom losing their artistic sheen.
“What you seek is unattainable in the mirror, yes? It is only attainable in the eyes of the beloved.” Bhanggi, in his sorrowful way, and Nida, in her practical one, trade searching questions and entreaties of love. The divine, profane and mundane clash on the pages, and through it all, in conversations difficult and delicate, Mansab tries valiantly to uphold the sanctity of the human spirit, and place love above all. This respect meted out to the human soul, in whichever state it might be, and the unquestioned leeway given to matters of the heart, even forsaking divinity at times, is what makes this book a work of beauty and love.
This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab Penguin (Viking) Rs. 800Published: 2018-09-08 08:10:00