The second read for January was part of my self-challenge of reading more books by South Asian authors this year. The author, Sana Balagamwala, is Pakistani and apparently grew up in Karachi, where the book is set.
I like the idea of a house narrating a story. The house in question is a bungalow located in Karachi. House Number 12 Block Number 3 tells us about the lives of its inhabitants, Haji Rahmat, his wife Zainab and their two children, Nadia and Junaid. The story spans the four months after the patriarch of the family is dead. But, of course, the house remembers all the years leading up to this terrible event and how they shaped the family’s response to this unexpected crisis.
Each chapter reveals new shades in the personalities of the characters that populate the house. Spoilt little Nadia as a child, and later as a headstrong young woman; superstitious but warm-hearted Zainab; an almost passive Junaid with his carefully-repressed emotions. Dialogue is deftly used to establish and unfold the little conflicts that brew between these characters.
The house observes, not impartially, but with much vested interest in the future of its inhabitants. It notices details that they miss out on in each other’s demeanors. The house is sentient but not insightful. It cares deeply for its family; or perhaps it is simply filled with their feelings. Yet, it makes no profound observations or leaps of faith – it is a house, after all – and much is left for the reader to surmise. It’s a neat little trick – having a house as narrator. But it’s not necessary.
The book chronicles historical events through discussions between characters. Partition, wars with India, natural disaster in East Pakistan, and later the separation of Bangladesh; not to mention, political turmoil within Pakistan. These events show us that the characters lead inconsequential lives on the backdrop of history. And yet, every event in the characters’ lives is a small crack; and even the little cracks on the surface of history have huge consequences for those involved. Another neat little trick, but this one worked for me.
Overall, it’s a good book, even if a bit gimmicky. I can’t believe this book has only 40-something reviews on Goodreads. The writing is delicate. And it talks about trauma with great intensity of feeling. It’s worth a read.
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