Genre: Contemporary fiction, Pakistani literature
Year Of Publication: 24th May 2017
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 270 ( Hardback )
My rating: 4.5/5
Set in the streets of the historical city of Lahore; This House of clay and Water tells the story of it’s three main protagonists – Nida, Bhanggi and Sasha.
Told in alternating POVs , the story transports us into their lives and we come face to face with their hopes, dreams and longings- the emotions they’ve suppressed for far too long. Now threatening to burst at the seams.
As the characters try to come to terms with themselves and try to figure out their identities, we get a glimpse of how religion and societal norms play a part in shaping “who we are” and what is expected of us.
“In our aloneness, our souls had found each other. That was all. How silly to call it anything less”
This story isn’t merely about forbidden love.
It’s about the intricacies that bind us together as human beings. How easy it is sometimes to forget that.
“I’d morphed, altered, nipped and tucked away bits of my personality for so long, I no longer recognized myself. I feared that one day, even if I wanted to,I wouldn’t be able to identify myself.I’d be forever trapped in an image of another’s making,and there would be no escape because I would have forgotten to want to escape.”
Nida belongs to an affluent political family. Having been married off to a husband that treats her like his material possession and in-laws (Familia Horribulus) that abhor her mere existence she seeks solitude at the dargah of Daata sahib. It is there she meets Sasha and Bhanggi.
“Turns out, I had harboured the notion in secret (even from myself) that the lovely dream, the myth of love,the handsome man who’d fall deeply and irrevocably in love, might not be true for others but would be true for me, because I was different“
“She looked like she belonged in a posh drawing-room rather than the shrine of a saint.Sashaying in on her five-inch heels, red lipstick and the clothes that fit her like a second skin, she was unaware of the staring multitude as Marie Antoinette had been of her bread-deprived subjects.”
Sasha is a true “Lahori” socialite. Promiscuous and a “rebel” against the good wife trope in Pakistani society ,she thrives off of branded handbags and shoes. What she wouldn’t do to live an extravagant lifestyle not burdened with thinking about her expensive tastes. Always looking for a way out of her marriage. Putting her needs first before those of her family. She is materialistic and selfish in the truest sense and isn’t ashamed to admit it.
“She had fooled herself into thinking that if she hadn’t been punished so far,she never would be.Her earthbound human brain could not really conceive of the idea of an actual Judgement Day. Sasha thought short-term – instant gratification, momentary guilt.The idea of accountability too far away for her to consider it real; her frequent desires were too immediate to be ignored, hence they were always appeased.”
“Each one of us chooses to wear a disguise but the masks for hijras, well known as they are, aren’t chosen by them. I chose mine but it was the wrong one for a hijra. People called it blasphemy.”
Bhanggi is a hijra (hermaphrodite). Abandoned as a child and having been forced into prostitution (in order to survive) he has never experienced unconditional love.One day he decides to atone for his past. He starts anew. Looking for a higher purpose in life.He sheds his sins and prays for forgiveness. For someone to love him.
“Then at times I feel I am closer to Him than ever before. I try to pray so that I can attain a higher station in His Eyes. If no one treats me as a human being, am I supposed to just agree with them, ji? If I have to reduce myself to nothing, then I will do it for God alone. Annihilation is easy for me. Forgiveness is harder. Peace is harder still.”
Three very different people, from different walks of life.
Their fates intertwined in a way that none of them could have predicted.
I love the way Faiqa Mansab has written this book.I would actually recommend that you read it for that reason alone.It’s very reminiscent of the works of Khaled Hosseini and Elif Shafak. which is always a plus if you ask me.
This book tackles a really taboo topic in Pakistani society. Something that’s often “hush hush” and only seldom talked about in whispers. A topic we often turn a blind eye towards and pretend it doesn’t concern us.
Hermaphrodites , or “Hijras”.
Although now they have more rights in Pakistan than they ever had previously, they are still far from being integrated into society as respectable individuals.Thus, they resort to dubious jobs and often times prostitution. That is the sad reality of the world we live in and pretending it’s not there isn’t benefiting anyone.
With one of the main characters being a hermaphrodite (who identifies as a man), Faiqa Mansab has forced us to acknowledge their existence. The fact that they too have needs and desires just like any other person. You don’t see a lot of authors discussing these issues and I’m glad that she did.
“Some words are prisons.They’re labels of reduction.They’re like stones catapulting through mouths, hundreds and thousands of mouths, to target and hurt.”
I think it’s time we considered the real-life altering effects labels have.How breaking from the moulds that have been assigned to us by society can have real-life consequences.
One of the great things about this book is that all of the characters are essentially flawed. They don’t claim to be perfect.Religion and death are some of the major themes in this book. The characters often use religion to justify their actions- which is essentially a cop-out of trying to deal with their problems and acknowledging that they exist.
“The human mind, I could tell her, needed myths to understand its own complexities and contradictions.We made myths to sustain ourselves.Familiar rituals became landmarks to assumed sanity, and the myth of normalcy was established daily”
One of the things that irked me most was the hypocrisy of the characters.
Nida is a meek , educated woman but there were instances in the story where I though she was suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
“Imprisonment leads to either love or hate of the incarcerator. I chose love.”
Nida feels oppressed in her house and it’s suffocating her but she justifies it by her moral and religious obligation of being a “good wife” and obeying her husband.
For crying out loud ! You’re clearly unhappy. Who cares if your family will disown you if you leave your husband? You can only live like that for so long before something snaps in your head and you go all crazy.
She’s also completely unaware of the “Madonna-whore complex”. She sees women as either good or inherently evil seductresses. Thus, she’s self-righteous and although she won’t admit it we all known she looks down upon Sasha (as a woman as well as a mother).
“We hope to drown the murmurs of our paralysed conscience by screaming about other people’s sins”
So it’s pretty bizarre when the roles are reversed near the end and Nida comes to terms with her sexuality; as well as the life she’s spent preaching about something she didn’t quite believe in (i.e.: fealty to her husband).
“She had found a new God.The old God ,her Self, had betrayed her.”
Next we have Sasha. I think what she simply desired from the beginning was power and people worshiping her. She does an absolute 360° turn and becomes God-fearing and “holy” near the end. her motives are pretty whack so I don’t understand why people are buying into her b*llsh*t. I think their need to justify her behavior comes from the fact that they’re all relieved they don’t have to deal with a husband-stealing succubus amongst them anymore…but I may be wrong.
“Sasha smiled. She liked this new role just as much as she had her previous one. After all,she was still powerful. It was just a different kind of power to manipulate others with.She was born to lead. She just hadn’t realized it could be this way.”
“They were happy, I thought. As a child, laughter is all you need as proof of happiness. As a child you don’t know there are so many different kinds of laughter – like different varieties of birds. Some are flightless”
The only character I sympathised with was Bhanggi. His character was so complex that I was really intrigued about his past and wanted to find out more about him. We understand the motives behind his actions. He only wanted Love and that’s what he got – along with the consequences that came along with it.
“I cannot rid myself of the affliction called hope. I scoop up its broken shards within the cups of my hands. I hold it fast to my heart every time it shatters against the monolithic reality that looms at every turn, in every human eye.”
Near the end we see the outcomes of their decisions.
How love has the power to destroy.
How our minds are capable of maligning and invalidating our emotions.
How easy it is to betray someone without feeling any guilt.
“Loving someone is the greatest of burdens, yes? Love carries within itself the seeds of betrayal.”
In her debut novel Faiqa Mansab has expertly crafted a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it. If you like well-written books with complex characters, then I definitely recommend that you add “This House Of Clay and Water” to your summer reading list.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Faiqa and inquiring about her future plans. If you’d like to read her interview click HERE
*I was sent this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.