Social Realism Books

Freedom from the margins

This novel of ideas explores whether and how Muslim faith can coexist with liberty and individuality

Delhi and Lahore are sometimes described as twin cities: they may have little to do with each other any more, but their visual and cultural resemblances are indelible. Delhi is, of course, full of the descendants of refugees from Lahore; the two cities are so similar, visually, that Mira Nair’s film of The Reluctant Fundamentalist was set in Lahore but largely shot in Delhi. Faiqa Mansab’s debut is a Lahori novel that is, in spirit, a kind of twin to a Delhi novel that appeared a few months ago (or at least its first half): Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

This House of Clay and Water is described, on its cover, as “A story of forbidden love in Pakistan” (an unusual and intriguingly specific alternative to, say, “a novel” or “a romance”). It is animated by a concern

Freedom from the margins

for and sympathy with the women to whom bourgeois Lahori, and by extension, Pakistani society, denies the chance to achieve happiness on their own terms. Mansab has said that because her country, Pakistan, “refuses to accept its own plurality”, her “stories arise from discontent, disenfranchisement, the periphery.”

Utterly credible

This House of Clay and Water has three principal characters, two of whom would not, at first glance, appear to be marginalised. Nida, the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, grew up in one privileged political family and has married into another. Her brothers and her husband, Saqib, would run each other close for first place in any patriarchy contest. Sasha is middle-class rather than elite, in an outwardly successful marriage and with two children.

Both Nida and Sasha have led lives, up until the start of the narrative, that are fatally circumscribed, their society and their husbands effectively the scriptwriters. But Mansab’s novel is concerned less with why they have been denied love, happiness, and self-fulfilment in the past than with their quest for it.

Central to that quest is Bhanggi, a character who is a marginalised minority within a marginalised minority. As a hijra, he is a member of what Mansab depicts as one of Pakistan’s most misunderstood and reviled communities; but as someone who is attracted to women, he is distrusted by and feels himself apart from other hijras.

Add the fact that, unlike many hijras, he was born intersex, and that he lives by the Daata Sahib dargah and is a devout—if tortured—Muslim, and there are almost too many contradictions for a human, real or fictional, to bear. It is to Mansab’s credit that Bhanggi is an utterly credible character rather than a vehicle for the novel’s ideas.

It is at the dargah that Nida and Sasha meet Bhanggi and each other. Over the course of the novel, their deepening relationships with each other — friendship, and beyond — provoke and inspire their own individual quests for freedom and happiness. This is not a straightforward narrative of mutual emancipation; in the second half of the novel, Sasha unexpectedly re-emerges as a hijab-wearing conservative. But in other respects this will inevitably remind readers of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy’s Anjum is, like Bhanggi, a Muslim hijra; she lives in a graveyard and builds a guesthouse that serves as a haven for the marginalised.

Mansab experiments with form with considerable success. Each chapter heading announces the character from whose perspective it is told; the reader will, initially, recognise this as the familiar mode of the multiple-narrator novel. But Mansab moves easily between first-person narration — when we see the action through Nida or Bhanggi’s eyes — and free indirect style, for Sasha, her daughter Zoya, or Saqib.

Compellingly told

This dual system works because Bhanggi and Nida are so suited to the first person: they are as perceptive about others as about themselves, and they are passionately engaged with the questions of what it means to be a good Muslim—or wife, or mother, or friend—while simultaneously living as a free human in the pursuit of happiness.

This House of Clay and Water has plenty of plot, compellingly told, but it is also a novel of ideas, above all of the question of whether and how Muslim faith can coexist with liberty and individuality. The novel’s prose is not always up to the ambition of its form and ideas. Whether in first or third person, it is flatly mundane at times and overwrought at others.

The stilted narrative voice stands in contrast to the dialogue, which is looser and more convincing. In its warmth of tone, its generosity to its characters, and its balance between storytelling and social criticism, Mansab’s debut brings to mind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. For the Indian reader, it is also valuable as a novel of urban Pakistani life that is very different from the likes of Mohsin Hamid or Mohammad Hanif.

The author is a writer based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 3:35:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/freedom-from-the-margins/article19516621.ece

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