Thursday, June 18, 2009

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS
Daniyal Mueenuddin
W.W. Norton
Hardcover
256 pages
February 2009

Pakistan is in the spotlight. The war against terror that rages on its terrain, to the accompaniment of political machinations and a gloomy economy, threatens to ravage this land wedged between the large India and the small violence-rocked Afghan state. Almost to coincide with this world attention, Pakistani Writing in English (PWE), or Pakistani Anglophone Writing (PAW) if you prefer, is suddenly gaining visibility as a deluge of authors such as Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Aamer Hussain, Shahbano Bilgrami, Azhar Abidi, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and many others make their mark on the international literary scene. Daniyal Mueenuddin is the latest addition to this star-studded gallery.

Mueenuddin’s unconventional life is the stuff of fiction. Born of a Pakistani father and American mother, he grew up in Wisconsin and Lahore, attended Yale and Dartmouth, then gave it all up to live at his ancestral farm in rural Pakistan. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, his debut collection of short stories, is a glimpse into this world where the trajectories of the old and the new, urban and rural, rich and the poor, landowner and tenant, intersect.

In an interview at a literary festival held at Jaipur in India, Mueenuddin pointed out that although it is necessary to highlight the diversity of Pakistan, he wasn’t keen on being political at all. Indeed, as the stories in this volume show, this world is much like any other, where people struggle for existence, recognition and acceptance. It is also hierarchical; like everyplace else, people jostle to reach the top where there is room only for a very few. And each person’s place and position in the ladder is unique. In the title story of the volume (all stories in this collection are interconnected), there is the rich and powerful K.K. Harouni thinking of Husna, a young women belonging to a distant branch of his family:

She behaved and spoke unlike the women he normally met, for she had always inhabited an indefinite space, neither rich nor poor, neither servant nor begum, in a city where the very concept of a middle class found expression only in a few households, managers of foreign banks and of the big industrial concerns, sugar and textiles and steel.

Husna, on the other hand knows that there are ways to improve her lot.

Seeing a girl her age stepping from a large new car in Liberty Market, among the expensive shops, or glittering in a pair of diamond drops, at a wedding, Husna’s mind would hang on these symbols of wealth, not letting go for hours. She sensed that all this might come to her through Harouni, if she became his mistress.

But there is a price to be paid for it. A price that is often very steep.

In the Old City where she grew up, the neighborhood pointed at shaming fingers at women from less than respectable families who were kept by merchants. The eyes of these creatures glided over the crowd as they rode on tongas, emerged untouched from dark streets where sewage flowed in the drain, prominent as targets in brightest red silk, lipstick, gold. Husna’s mother ground out remarks of the price that had to be paid, broken relations with family, broken old age.

Goodbye to the life she would never have, a life, economies that she would never make as she cooked and kept house for a clerking husband in the Old City, one of the boys who might have accepted her hand.


It is also a world where one is rooted. This comes at a price: when one wishes to shake off the shackles, they are too strong to come off. In “Our lady of Paris,” Sohail, a young Pakistani, introduces Helen, his American girlfriend, to his parents in Paris. Sohail’s father, when asked where he would like to be born, says

The only thing I’ve missed, I sometimes feel, is the sensation of being absolutely free, to do exactly what I like, to go where I like, to act as I like. I suspect that only an American ever feels that. You aren’t weighed down by your families, and you aren’t weighed down by history. If I ran away to the South Pole some Pakistani businessman would one day crawl into my igloo and ask if I was the cousin of K.K. Harouni.

Sohail’s mother, in her conversation with Helen, puts it in a roundabout way: You would hate Pakistan. You’re not built for it, you’re too straight and you don’t put enough value on decorative, superficial things-that is the only way to get by there.

In the last story of the volume, “The Spoiled Man,” old Rezak - homeless, penniless and without a family - finds employment at the farm house of Sohail Harouni. Sohail is now married to Sonya, an American lady who

has made Pakistan her home and who did fit in more than most foreign women, she studied Urdu, to the point where she could communicate quite effectively, made an effort to meet Pakistani’s outside the circuit in Islamabad. Even her husband’s catty aunts admitted that she was one of the few foreigners who wore Pakistani clothes without looking like either an Amazon or a Christmas tree.

The newly hired Rezak, paid and fed well, works in the gardens tending to the apple and peach trees that his master’s American wife has gotten from her country. When, during a picnic, Sonya greets Rezak, his heart, his soul melted, as if a queen had spoken to a foot soldier. It is a feudal world where the landowner’s largesse is matched by the intense loyalty of his minions.

Readers from South Asia will identify with many of the characters and incidents. The Ghulam Rasools and Rezaks and Nawabdins could easily have been a part of my own world. For others, too, Mueenuddin’s fiction opens the gateway to a dynamic place; it would be a pity to capture it within the twin stereotypes of oppression and terrorism.

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