I usually don’t tend to read Pakistani English novels primarily because I always feel they are let downs. However, there are exceptions: Mohsin Hamid and Muhammad Hanif and of course Bapsi Sidhwa. I had heard a lot about This House of Clay and Water and so decided to give it a chance.
One of the biggest reasons why I picked up this book is that it’s based in my hometown of Lahore. I love reading such books based in Lahore because I feel very connected to the city. I will unashamedly also admit that there is another book In the Company of Strangers, also based in Lahore, which I really liked as well (and which is way better!).
This House of Clay and Water is Faiqa Mansab’s debut novel, and it’s an impressive one to say the least.
The book explores the lives of two women and a hijra.
One is Nida, who is intelligent and smart but ultimately a lonely woman. She is married into a rich, affluent political family, which means that she is treated like a second class object in her house. Her husband is absent most of the times, and even when he is there, he is absent. This causes Nida to search for some meaning in her life.
Then we have Sasha, who is from an ordinary middle class family. She is energetic and proactive and is quite impulsive. She meets with rich men regularly in an attempt to satisfyher cravings for that rich upper class lifestyle.
These two women, from different backgrounds, meet at the local shrine, Daata Sahib Daragh. They connect with each other, and understand one another. Their friendship doesn’t take into account their background, financial status, lifestyles and instead we have two women connecting on a very human level.
At the shrine, Nida also meets up with a hijra (intersex) named Bhaangi, who is often seen playing the flute under the local tree. Their friendship is one that is deemed forbidden, and so they keep it hidden from everyone around them. However, they connect with each other because both of them are searching for some meaning in their lives and acceptance. They both feel neglected and abandoned by a conservative and male dominated society. As Nida says, “It was a merging of our divided solitude. A coming together, a communion, of two tortured, lonely souls.”
(On a side note, Bhaangi is a character that reminded me a lot of Anjum from Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In fact, a lot of the time when I was reading of Bhaangi’s story, I was drawn back to Anjum’s story. So Bhaangi for me became someone who was under Anjum’s shadow.)
At the end of the day, the novel is about women’s lives, and how women are often seen in Lahori society. In the case of Nida, she is expected to play the role of a submissive and docile wife at the hand of her politician husband. He has designated boundaries and rules for her, within which she is expected to behave. Even though the society may have modernised, at the core there still exists conservatism, patriarchy and sexism.
The book explores themes of love, betrayal, and loss in a society where everything is not what it seems on the surface. This is a society that frowns upon women who behave differently from the roles they’ve been assigned. This is a society that shuns people like Bhaangi, for they are merely not accepted. This is a society where people like Sasha are always yearning for something to help them get out of the situation they are born into.
At times, I did feel like that the women and society the author is talking about doesn’t exist because Lahore has evolved a lot and we have many women who are independent, even married women, and are making huge strides in all fields. But then I remind myself that perhaps the women making huge advances come from a privileged background, where they have foreign education, a solid family background and means of income to help support them. It is my own shortcoming that I don’t see the women who are living in different situations, such as the Androon Shehr (inner city of Lahore) or those women who are from lower-middle class families.
On the flip side, I think about our values and beliefs at the core of the system- why is it that woman who has dated is frowned upon, and the man is not? Why is a woman considered to have loose morals if she shows some skin, but a man is not? Why is the woman called a home-wrecker and the cheating husband is not held accountable? Why is a divorced woman considered less than a divorced man? Why do some families frown upon women working?
So, to sum up, we are a society that holds on to those deep rooted conservative beliefs, even though our image may be one of progressive and modern.
Ultimately, all these people are longing and searching for acceptance and acknowledgement, and to be heard and loved. That is indeed a difficult thing to get in a judgmental and conservative society in Lahore.
This book was a one time good read for me. I know for a fact that a lot of my female friends who have read this have praised this novel a lot, so they would probably give it a four or five stars. I am happy with three stars.