Azhar Abidi’s The House of Bilqis, set in the tumultuous Pakistan of the 1980s, illuminates the complexities of love—the love between mother and son, husband and wife, mistress and servant, the love of country, past, and tradition. All of these bonds, with all their attendant joys and sorrows, swirl around Bilqis Ara, the matriarch of the Khan family. A formidable, aristocratic figure, Bilqis treasures the etiquette and traditions of her noble lineage as dearly as the memory of her refined, intellectual husband. She is hurt and dismayed, therefore, when Samad, her only child, marries a foreigner—an Australian girl named Kate who has no understanding of Bilqis’s values and expectations for her son’s future. Samad and Kate not only choose to live far away in Melbourne, but they urge Bilqis to give up all she knows—her home, her servants, her place in the world—to join them there. Meanwhile, her favorite servant girl, Mumtaz, enters into a secret and forbidden courtship with Omar, a passionate young mujahid from another ethnic clan. Bilqis knows what the dangerous consequences for the young couple may be, and her sense of responsibility toward her servants, combined with a maternal concern for Mumtaz, sparks her serious concern for this modern and ill-advised “love-match.” Omar’s own feelings for Mumtaz, in turn, are complicated by his devotion to Islam and its prohibitions against sex (and sexual women).
As the narrative shifts from one perspective to the next, the intricate web connecting lovers, families, and classes in modern Pakistan is revealed. While the love that Bilqis has for her employees is as incomprehensible to Omar as his devotion to a cause is to her, even they are bound by their mutual love for Mumtaz, just as Bilqis and Kate are bound by their love for Samad despite their differences. Abidi suggests that while no one individual may be completely known by another, the ties of love, like the ties of home, can withstand the tests of betrayal, politics, and even time.
Azhar Abidi is the author of Passarola Rising. He has been published in SouthWest Review and the Australian literary journal Meanjin. He was born in Pakistan and lives in Melbourne, Australia.
The relationship Bilqis has with her servants is seen through several different lenses: Bilquis’s own, Mumtaz’s, Hameeda’s, Kate’s, and Omar’s. What are the differences in these perspectives? How are they alike?
Do you think Bilquis, in particular, has an accurate understanding of how her servants feel about her?
Do you understand Bilqis’s reluctance to move to Australia, her anger at being asked? Do you think she made the right decision to stay?
Which of these characters did you relate to the most and which did you find the most foreign?
How did Bilqis differ from your idea of what a Pakistani matriarch would be?
There is much discussion of marriage in this novel. What do you see as the pros and cons of an arranged marriage versus a love match as they are portrayed in The House of Bilqis?
Bilquis’s brother Sikander and her brother-in-law Shahid represent two different versions of Pakistani manhood. How do they compare in the context of their own culture? What do you make of the differences in Bilquis’s own attitude towards the two men?
What do you think about Omar’s criticism of the class-system (pp 120–122), considering it is one part of his conservative ideology? Were you surprised by it?
In their first visit to Pakistan, do you think that Samad or Kate is more self-conscious about their cross-cultural marriage?
The notion of “home” seems almost abstract in this book—as Bilqis’s surroundings grow increasingly different from the home she once knew, while her son makes a home in a country that should be (but isn’t) utterly foreign to him. In what other ways does Abidi reveal the fluidity—or constancy—of “home”?