Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar
Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
For those who need one more reason to dream about visiting Lahore someday to take in the juxtaposition of the city’s pandemonium, history and romance, Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water only adds to the list. The protagonist, Nida, wanders along the boundaries between the walled estates of the metropolitan’s wealthy, to the markets of the underclass and, finally, the shrines that offer refuge to the disowned. Nida has lost much to the rigid patriarchal structures of her life — a child, freedom, her right to choose, a sense of self. In a way, this book is about Nida’s journey of rediscovering her dignity, and the immense price that she ends up paying for it.
Among the three main characters that narrate the story by turn is also Sasha. Bringing glitz and glamour to this tale, Sasha is indulgent, decadent, and a siren by choice. In dusty Lahore, Sasha’s ephemeral aura marks her out as a creature from a different world. She is an object of desire incarnate and she knows it. What is more, she is not hesitant to use it to get what she wants — designer fashion and a thrilling escape from a life she feels is too ordinary for her. Try as hard as she might to deny this, sometimes to herself, this respite is only fleeting. Her image is a mirage that Sasha has carefully constructed even as she makes it look effortless. She does indeed sashay into every scene that she inhabits — cafés, the hotel rooms of her lovers, even spiritual ground like the Daata Sahib dargah. This is where the two women first meet.
The contrast between them is softened for both by their distance from Bhanggi, the transgender Qalandar, a title that is typically held by holy men. Bhanggi’s is a short life full of cruelty and exclusion, first from society itself after being abandoned at birth and then from the Hijra community where he was raised. In exchange for being allowed to live at the shrine, Bhanggi must be indentured to the administrative clerk there. This is part of the clerk’s deal with the Hijra community, who rely on sex work to make a living.
Bhanggi’s voice is enough to make this book rare. The Hijra community is ever-present in South Asia, but can exist only on the edges, hardly ever coming into the purview of the respectable milieus that Sasha and Nida come from, let alone be featured in a novel. Rarer still is Mansab’s mention of the violence committed daily against these bodies. One such instance is that of a man paying a Hijra woman, Chameli, to have sex, and then killing her, just one instance in a series of systemic murders of trans-people around the world that occur with minimum ado and furore.
Add to this the fact that this is so often done in the name of religion. This places in sharper relief the contrast between the loving Sufi traditions of shrines and music and the more categorical brands of Islamic thought. This remains a theme of social commentary throughout. Repeatedly, the men —whether husbands or illicit lovers – refer with equal ease to religion in their attempts to temper, stem the mobility of or elicit compliance from the women in their lives. Nida’s husband bestows freedom upon her as a token of his generosity and kindness, freedom that was never his to take away in the first place.
Another taboo Mansab brings to light is child sexual abuse. All the warning signs — the love-starved child being the most vulnerable, the child most often taken advantage of by those he or she trusts — are ignored, as usual, until it is too late.
Mansab also draws attention to the exotic portrayal of the nights of semaa in Western media, misrepresenting a spiritual experience as one of debauchery. This same conversation leads to a counter-positioning of nostalgia for colonial times with oppression — another example that makes one happy to be reading a book written by a South Asian. This House of Clay and Water invokes the feelings of quiet wonder reminiscent of Gita Mehta or Anita Desai’s work. This may be why the book intensified in this reviewer a longing for a story where the powerless, the innocent — who from the very beginning have nothing but their bare bones, empty hands and the blood in their veins — do not have to be sacrificed for a protagonist of relative structural privilege to find redemption. How cruelly the world treats someone is proportional to their position in the social order. In relearning this over and over again what we are perhaps not doing is celebrating the magic of the marginalized who survive in a world hell bent upon erasing them.
Mayeesha Azhar is an entry level environment management professional, and has been the assistant editor for a Dhaka-based business bimonthly. She wades in stories by reading, listening to podcasts and performing as monologues for theatre.