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Posted at: Aug 20, 2017, 12:35 AM; last updated: Aug 20, 2017, 12:35 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: THIS HOUSE OF CLAY AND WATER BY FAIQA MANSAB.

In quest of self and soul

In quest of self and soul
This House of Clay and Water by Faiqa Mansab. Penguin/ Viking. Pages 268. Rs 499

Aradhika Sharma

While reading Faiqa Mansab’s debut novel, you have the same feeling as when you read a dirge. You feel the melancholy of the narrative that’s inexorably rushing towards catharsis.  As the author manages to entice the reader deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters — two women, one half-woman and a little girl, you know that sadness is inherent in the book, but, fascinated, you read on till the end. 

A feeling of spirituality runs throughout the book — the three adult characters achieve their versions of spiritual bliss in their own ways. Aptly then, the main stage of the narrative is the Daata Sahib Dargah in the bustling Anarkali Bazaar of Lahore. 

The overwhelming figures are those of Nida, a bored, rich housewife, a ‘Begum’ who seeks salvation in different dargahs but does not know what her heart really quests for. The anti-thesis of Nida is Sasha, the reckless and immoral beauty who has no qualms in trading love for material benefits, ignoring her devoted husband and daughters. At the dargah also lives Bhanggi, the hijra, who is treated as a qalandar, a holy man, yet he is subjected to all the abuse that the hijra community must tolerate to exist. Another important character is Zoya, Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter, insecure and unloved. There are a couple of male characters as well, Saquib and Luqman, husbands of Nida and Sasha, but they are merely contextual. There’s restlessness in Mansab’s protagonists. A questing for something they do not have — love, wealth, peace, affection; and each tries to find it in their own way. 

Probably the most tragic is Bhanggi. People come to this slender man-woman for blessings and prayer, but he must succumb to abuse of the basest kind in order to survive. Venerated by some as the holy man of the dargah and beaten half to death if he does not succumb to the lustful ownership of the Aufaaq clerk, he is dressed neither as a man nor a woman but in the green robes of a qalandar. His gentle, kind, loving soul shines through the body he is imprisoned inside.  Craving a forbidden love, he is willing to give up everything for her lover. “My body, ji, isn’t my own.” he says “It’s a communal vessel for lust that finds expression in dark corners. I learnt that early in my life, na. I am like the spaces that belong to no one; a dirty thought never acknowledged.”

The book visits many taboo topics — of prohibited love and sex, of gender, of children being sexually abused, of mothers negligent of their duties and fathers who cannot deal with ill children, of ambitions and desires, of the ‘marriage trap’ and of spirituality and atonement. The author explores a wide spectrum of human experience. She writes with fine flair. Her prose though accurate and flowing, is not always economical — sometimes it seems to be written for the effect of gravitas.

Mansab captures the atmosphere of Lahore well, dexterously sketching out the extremes of its society — the busy Anarkali Bazaar and the teeming populace there; the middle class households clinging on to their respectability and political families with hypocritical values.The fine portrayal of women is, however, the greatest strength of the book. 

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