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Book Review: This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab

Reviewed by Mayeesha Azhar

This House of Clay and Water

Title: This House of Clay and Water
Author: Faiqa Mansab
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: 499 INR
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
https://penguin.co.in/book/fiction/house-clay-water/

 

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.

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The Inheritance Powder by Hilary Standing

By Mayeesha Azhar

The Inheritance Powder

Title: The Inheritance Powder
Author: Hilary Standing
Publisher: Red Door Publishing Limited (1st ed. 2015)
(Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 2016)
Pages: 356
Price: £8.99 (Kindle 2.99)

Intrigue in the Development Sector

Professionals in the development sector often complain that putting together the notoriously impersonal, jargon-filled proposals and reports eats away at their ability to write evocatively. In her novel, The Inheritance Powder, Hilary Standing proves that it is possible to be otherwise. A long career in international development allows her to draw out a relatively refreshing story from this field.

Like her, one of the two main characters is Carl Simonovsky, an agricultural economist based in London. He specializes in East Africa but feels compelled to take on an assignment in Bangladesh so that he can add to the income generating portfolio of his employer, the fictional Institute of Poverty Alleviation. Carl is needed for a cost benefit analysis of solutions to Bangladesh’s arsenic problem on behalf of an aid agency. He is not convinced he should take on the task—he has not heard of the problem before and has no experience in South Asia. His faith is dwindling in the kind of economic models he has been asked to make. However, he reminds himself that ‘in the last year, considerations of ignorance, ethics and scepticism had not stopped him from providing policy advice’ on topics as far-flung as tourism and healthcare in other geopolitical regions outside of his expertise. Even after he arrives in Bangladesh, Carl muses about this ‘small, slippery compromise with integrity’.

In Carl, the author puts a more human face on the stereotype of the ‘male, pale and stale’ international consultant. His hesitation, confusion and regret are just some of the aspects of the development sector that the book portrays realistically. The harried director of the aid agency who hires Carl’s services is, perhaps regrettably, seen all too often. Ahmad, the national consultant who knows all the key contacts and local context of the arsenic problem, but is only paid a third of Carl’s fees, is also uncannily familiar.

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