Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab
Publisher: Penguin Random House India (22 May 2017)
It takes an effort to write a sentence and a whole lot of struggle to write a novel. Authors and novelists – either writing fiction or non-fiction – have to dwell in their mind to unearth the thoughts that create sustenance for their passion of writing and the food for avid readers’ hungry minds. In addition, in that process, the author creates a magnum opus that defines their creativity and provides an impetus for their writing career to grow rapidly. Faiqa Mansab, a promising author from Lahore, in her debut novel, This House of Clay and Water, has touched new heights of creative thinking by highlighting the very intricate details of our society that are hidden behind curtains or evident in plain sight.
This House of Clay and Water reveals the story through a number of characters. There are a number of voices narrating the story, therefore, making the reading experience enriching and distinctive. There are Nida and Sasha, two women who are lost in their respective worlds. Where Nida is the wife of a politician and seldom makes an effort to look good or feel good, Sasha, on the other hand, lives amidst brands and satisfying the opposite sex. Then there is Zoya, Sasha’s daughter who is lost between her world and that of her mother and fate leads her to a dark path from where she may not return only because she had been craving for her mother’s love. Then there is Bhanggi, a transgender living at a Dargah in Lahore who experiences a unique spiritual relationship with Nida. Because of Nida never finding true love, she finds solace around Bhanggi – an association not finding any place to blossom in this society for obvious reasons.
I personally fell in love with Faiqa Mansab showing the world her characters lived in. The simplest of facts such as the morning sky, the sunset, the tree, or the surroundings were shown with the writing concept of ‘show don’t tell’ to such an extent that I had to read and reread it multiple times to savor the written words. A few excerpts from the book below are a few examples:
“The sky hung listlessly over Lahore, looking faded as if it had been washed one too many times with cheap detergent.”
“There was the mystical, the colonial, the historical Lahore that had had countless marauding armies storm its legendary gates. Gates that lay in ruins now, like thirteen distorted maws, frozen in a mute scream, echoing mine.”
“She walked over to the huge banyan tree, the bargadh. The tree was ancient, an increasingly rare sight in Lahore. The ground around it was broken and cracked, and the roots had broken out, like the gnarled fingers of a subterranean monster struggling to get out.”
Many parts of the book made me feel the walls built around women in this society, by this society, are too harsh. It suffocates them. It hurts them. Nida has been living a life where she never experienced love from her mother, mother-in-law or husband. Nida has been neglected and made to feel insecure and insignificant by the people around her – akin to how Bhanggi feels – which connects them both emotionally and spiritually. However, in their relationship and how they feel, lies the reason for such emotional mishaps – our society is male-dominated and men want to exercise their hegemony over the opposite sex. On the other hand, Sasha, who always broke social norms and spent hours with other men in search of love but never saw a man blaming her for the life she chose. Faiqa’s way of explaining the lives of Nida, Sasha and Bhanggi is quite interesting as every character has a different life, varying problems and altering mindsets. Through Nida, Faiqa reveals the male-dominated society women live in Pakistan and how they are forced to abide by their husband’s orders. Through Bhanggi, Faiqa shows the Hijra community of Pakistan, especially of Lahore, and how the society terms them an outcast while the influential ones use and abuse them at their will. Through Sasha, Faiqa narrates the life of a lost soul who slowly transforms into a hijab wearing woman. Sasha remained dominant while she pleased men or when she turned into a religious woman – for in both of her persona she was in control. This was another delicate social predicament Faiqa looked upon in her story. Narrated with a combination of calmness and rage, Faiqa Mansab takes her readers on a journey where each character evolves in their own domain, eventually reaching the climax which itself sends the reader into introspection and retrospection.