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Sunday, 23 January 2011

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders


Pakistan is not just on the brink of the precipice, it’s probably fallen off the precipice, and is accelerating on its way down. — Daniyal Mueenuddin, in interview

After reading the eight interlinked stories that make up this collection I’ve come to a conclusion: rich or poor I’m glad I don’t live in Pakistan. If there is a single theme throughout this book it’s class. The poor are trying to better themselves by whatever means are at their disposal, fair or foul. and the rich are trying to hang onto what’s theirs and what they believe to be theirs. You need to be shrewd to get on in Pakistan because there's always somebody after a slice of what you have to keep them going until they can find a way to get their hands on the whole pie. Those somebodies might be members of your family or your employees or those in government. And your good fortune can turn on a dime (or an anna would probably be the closest Pakistani equivalent). All it takes is a death in the family and you can find yourself out on the street with a flea in your ear.

The feudal archetype in Pakistan consists of landlords with large joint families possessing hundreds or even thousands of acres of land although things are changing. These short stories revolve primarily around the Harouni family, their employees and their employees’ families. The only non-feudal characters are the ones in ‘Our Lady of Paris’ and ‘A Spoiled Man’- these stories revolve around industrialists. We get a good cross-section from the richest and most influential to the poorest. And we see what happens when someone tries to move beyond their class. I say ‘class’ and not ‘caste’ because Mueenuddin doesn’t mention caste. He doesn’t actually mention class. You simply understand from the subtext that certain things are not done in proper society.

A good example can be found in the title story, which focuses on the head of the family, K K Harouni based loosely on the author’s own father:

He was from a generation of elderly, dignified but harmless gentlemen. By birth with a lot of power, but not particularly significant. Good breeding, good manners. Representative of the fading Lahori land-owning class. — Beyond the Margins

We see him take a lover from among his servants, a girl called Husna that his estranged wife sends to him seeking a favour. Harouni is attracted to her because she reminds him of the servant girls with whom he had his earliest sexual experiences. When the old man dies — a spoiler, yes, but no surprise — his daughters make it clear that this pretender has no claim to the throne; the old man has not made provision for her in his will. The eldest, Kamila, tells her:

‘My father allowed you to live in this house. However, he would not have wanted you to stay in here. Tomorrow afternoon the car will be available to take you wherever you wish to be taken. I suppose you’ll go to your father’s house.’ She settled back, finished with the problem.

Husna, who had taken a seat halfway through this monologue, though she had not been invited to do so, looked down at the floor. Tears welled up in her eyes.

‘Did Uncle say anything about me before . . . before . . . ?’

Sarwat [one of the other sisters] broke in. ‘No,’ she replied with finality. ‘There was and is nothing for you.’

‘That isn’t what I meant,’ said Husna.

Kamila softened. ‘Look, whatever you had with my father is gone now. If you took care of him in these past months you were rewarded. You’re young, you’ll find other things. You think that you’ll never heal, but you will, sooner than you think.’

Now Husna stood. She had reached the bottom, and her pride arose, her sense of wanting to be dignified, to accept the inevitable.

Just as she approached the door, Rehana [the third sister] called to her. ‘There’s one other thing. They tell us you have a number of trunks in your room. We will not ask what you have in them. You may take those with you. But nothing else.’

This short section exemplifies everything that is in the book. Husna wants to tell the sisters to shove the trunks, in which she has been secreting away goodies anticipating this very event, but she’s a practical girl and takes them with her.

We see a similar situation in the last story in the book, ‘A Spoiled Man’, only at the bottom end of the social spectrum. The person who gets spoiled in this case is Rezak, a “funny little man” who the wife of Sohail Harouni, an American called Sonya, takes a shine to. She’s taken to living in Pakistan and for the most part she loves it but when in a bad mood she’s not beyond airing her reservations ether:

I hate it, everyone’s a crook, nothing works here!

These outbursts are rare though. She has a comfortable life even if there is only the one servant she really trusted with her son, the old majordomo, Ghulam Rasool.

I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘majordomo’ and so I looked it up:

A majordomo is a person who speaks, makes arrangements, or takes charge for another. Typically, the term refers to the highest (major) person of a household (domo) staff, one who acts on behalf of the (often absent) owner of a typically large residence. Similar terms include castellan, concierge, chamberlain, seneschal, Mayor of the Palace, maître d'hôtel, butler and steward. — Wikipedia

wedding5 I’d assumed it was an expression unique to Pakistan and perhaps India, a throwback to the days of the Raj, but it seems not. It is, however, one of a number of usual words that are not explained. For example, did you know that a Pakistani wedding consists of two parts, the shadi and the valima? I didn’t but I had to look them up to see why. A glossary, or footnotes, is something that would have been a great help in reading this book.

But back to Rezak. When he asks Ghulam Rasool about a job working in the garden the majordomo picks his moment and makes a request on his behalf to Sonya:

‘Begging your pardon, the local people drive their goats into the Ali Khan orchard, and they’re destroying the saplings that you brought from America. There’s an old man, he can’t do hard labour, but he's a reliable person. His family abandoned him. He even has his own portable hut — he’ll take it there and live as a guard. You don’t have to give him a salary. Just food and a few rupees for pocket money.

But she wanted to give the old man the same as all the others. It made her happy to think of spoiling him in his old age.

So Rezak moves his little “tin-clad cubicle” and takes up his new post. One day after a party in the garden Sonya discovers his little hut:

‘It’s wonderful!’ exclaimed Sonya, circling around the cubicle, Rezak at her heels. ‘Hey everyone,’ she called to her guests, going over to where she could be heard. ‘Come see.’

She pleads on his behalf to her husband:

‘The poor man should have electricity for a radio and for lighting. He lives all alone here, imagine how bored he is.’

‘Are you kidding?’ Harouni said [showing a less-Western perspective]. ‘These guys don’t get bored.’

His wife gets her way but, like Husna, as soon as Rezak gets comfortable with his good fortune, disaster strikes. On learning that the old man is childless “a young man who lived near his childhood home high in the mountains” says to him:

‘Look, my cousin has a daughter. Something went wrong when she was born, and she’s a bit simple. But she can cook and sew and take your goats out to graze. She’s quite pretty even. She’s young and can bear you a son. Her father can barely take care of his other children. Why don’t you let me arrange a marriage?’

‘You’re making fun of an old man,’ replied Rezak. But hope and desire pierced his heart when he thought of it. A woman in the house, even one who was not right in the head!

Not long after his precipitous marriage she goes missing. He appeals to Ghulam Rasool who arranges a search party but no trace is found of her. Sometime later, again picking his moment, Ghulam Rasool bring the matter up with his mistress and asks her to take the matter up with the police in Murree all the time realising that all she needed do was go into the living room and speak to Omar Bukhari, the son of the inspector general of police, who had just arrived at the party she was hosting.

The police take the matter up but perhaps as some kind of payback for being troubled with such a trifling matter the Deputy Superintendent of Police takes the view that Rezak had sold his wife on or killed her because she’d failed to provide an heir. After a beating and interrogation he is released with a warning never to speak about the matter to anyone. He is philosophical about it though:

Why should I complain? The policemen did as they always do. The fault is mine, who married in old age, with one foot in the grave. God gave me so much more than I deserved, when I expected nothing at all.

He returns to his hut and his good life and looks for nothing else bar the fact that he be allowed to be buried there. He is content to have risen one rung on the ladder. It is enough. Husna got to leave with her trunks, Rezak gets a cushy number to keep him going until he dies.

I mentioned Sohail Harouni earlier. He also features in an earlier story, ‘Our Lady of Paris’ only he’s not with Sonya at this point. No, he’s with Helen, the girl he “had begun dating two years earlier at Yale.” Helen, a lower middle class American, is dazzled and maybe even beguiled by Sohail's wealth. Her feelings for her son seem genuine but Sohail’s mother, Rafia, herself “a famous beauty, from a prominent, cultured Lucknow family,” isn’t so sure that the girl has considered the full implications of marrying into her family. When she learns that the couple are planning a holiday in Paris she arranges for her and her husband, Amjad, to meet up with them there. It takes time — no one it seems is in a rush to have an awkward conversation in this book — but final during an intimate tête-à-tête at the Hôtel Georges V the two lock horns. Again you know what’s going to happen but farm_house despite the fact it takes days to get to this point and the story ends without us knowing what happens to the couple we know what’s going to happen. Seeing Sohail a couple of tales later married to Sonya is no great surprise.

Mueenuddin’s own life is clearly mirrored in these stories. 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 which is where the story ‘Lily’ is set; Mueenuddin and his wife now manage the farm in Khanpur. The names may well have changed but what we get to see in this story is what might have happened if Helen was the one to marry Sohail and not Sonya. Lily, who is introduced to us a something of a party girl, falls for “Murad Talwan, nephew of the great Makhdom Talwan” who she end up marrying. Soon afterwards they end up living on his farm, known as Jalpana:

I want to be at the farm, [she says]. I’m going to be like and old-fashioned Punjabi wife, weighing out the flour and sugar every morning and counting the eggs. And everything locked up, a huge ring of keys on a chain around my waist.

A romantic notion, even a naïve one. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that she is disappointed; in fact disappointment runs through this book like a river carrying Mueenuddin’s characters towards their ends. Happiness is something they glimpse on the shore as they are swept past: one woman beloved develops a urinary-tract infection, then discovers she cannot bear children; a man finally achieves success, only to be diagnosed with cancer and we can easily imagine what lessons party girl Lily will learn when she discovers how hard it is to be virtuous.

The most interesting characters for me were the older ones, the wise one, the ones who have learned to play the game. Like judicial clerk Mian Sarkar who gets to play detective in ‘A Burning Girl’:

There is nothing connected with the courts of Lahore that he has not absorbed, for knowledge in this degree of detail can only be obtained by osmosis. Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived. He sees the city panoptically, simultaneously, and if he does not disclose the method and the motive and the culprit responsible for each crime, it is only because he is more powerful if he does not do so.

jeeves You could say much the same about the majordomo, Ghulam Rasool, or K K Harouni’s butler, Rafik. There’s a definite touch of the Jeeves in these men. And some of the women too but in the main the women are the ones who are fighting to stay afloat using whatever they have at their disposal, if only their sexuality. There’s a surprising amount of sex in this book although nothing graphic. It’s a form of currency and clearly an effective one.

It's possible to see here a scathing social critique of the death throes of an utterly corrupt system of patronage, but there is no overt political message in this book. Politics rarely raises its head, apart from local power plays. In interview the author says:

I am not a political writer, therefore my purpose is to write the finest stories that I am able to write, given my abilities. I don’t enjoy reading political literature, fiction or poetry. I think political writing is a limiting factor because when you have a political bias, it endears you to those who support you and alienates you from those who don’t. Life is much more nuanced than a cruel landowner beating his manager for sport. I don’t have a political agenda and I am not trying to eliminate or support feudalism. But I believe that one has to enter the sensibility of the character and have empathy with it. — Newsline Magazine

Religion is not discussed either — the only instance I can think of is when K K Harouni’s estranged wife announces “a pilgrimage to the holy places, in order to perform the umrah.” Again the term is not explained.

This book could have been a celebration of Pakistani culture but I felt the author in the background too often wagging his finger. The stories that focus on the poorer characters were the ones that had the most power for me. I didn’t have much sympathy for the Harounis even when they were being defrauded by their staff and forced to sell off land to meet debts and to fund their extravagant lifestyle.

When it comes to gender I found most of the men, especially the more well-to-do men, were content to see things hobble along the way they always had. The women showed more backbone but didn’t have the strength to effect real change.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Awards. In addition, it was selected among Time magazine’s top ten books of the year, Publishers Weekly’s top ten books of 2009, The Economist’s top ten fiction books of 2009, The Guardian’s best books of the year, The New Statesman’s best books of the year, and The New York Times’ hundred best books of the year. The book also received a 2009 National Book Award nomination and was nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Not bad for a debut collection. There is no doubt that Mueenuddin can write. These are carefully crafted stories. That he is a devoted fan of Russian writers (Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev) is obvious. Although he writes for fun — “for me, writing is my play. It’s something I have enormous fun doing” – he is also well aware that his readers have expectations:

Oh yes, multiple drafts for every story. The polishing, the careful craftsmanship, is something I owe to the reader. I mean, if a guy makes a car you don’t expect the wheels to fall off when you take it for a drive. Writing is no different. The least I can do is to write the story as well as I possibly can. If people are spending their time and money on the book, I owe it to them. — Ultrabrown

You can read the title story online here.

There are quite a few interviews online but I found this one on PakUSonline particularly interesting.


Daniyal Mueenuddin Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College and received his law degree from Yale. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008. For a number of years he practiced law in New York. This, I hasten to add, was after spending seven years managing his father’s farm. As he said in interview:

Well, my father was in his late 70s at the time (there was a big age difference between him and my mother), and there were powerful managers who were threatening to take over the farm, so the choice was between losing the property and moving back to Pakistan. It was difficult, yes: my Urdu was good but I spoke no Punjabi, which was the language in which most of the legal dealings were conducted, and I had to pick it up on the job, so to speak. There was an element of personal danger too – these were powerful people I was dealing with, including a Member of Parliament. — Ultrabrown

It was during this time he developed his writing skills. Since there was no telephone he ended up writing hundreds of letters. But it wasn’t until he had returned to the USA, got his degree and then returned to Pakistan that he wrote the stories included in this collection. In an interview in Beyond the Margins in February he said that he had only written 20 stories between 2002 and 2007. Before that he had written poetry exclusively.

His mother, Barbara Thompson Davis, was a writer in New York; she passed away in November 2009. His father, the late Ghulam Mueenuddin, was Secretary of Pakistan's Establishment Department, which administers the civil service, and later the country's chief election commissioner. He also wrote but as an amateur: memoirs, a novel and poetry for his own amusement.

Mueenuddin and his wife, the painter Rachel Jeanne Harris, now live on a farm in Khanpur, in Pakistan’s southern Punjab. He is currently working on a novel set in the 70′s in Pakistan about a love triangle but he also has some more short stories which are not set in Pakistan which he is looking to publish. It’ll be interesting to see how he does there. He does intend to return to the world of K K Harouni in the future:

To continue to create on a smaller scale something similar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, which is to create a unified whole in my book. — Beyond the Margins

I’ll leave you with an interview with the author:

Daniyal Mueenuddin Interview: On Writing from RedFence Video


Dave King said...

Sorry to hear you've been aggravated in this way. I went through it a bit a while ago.

As to your post, there was really nothing there that surprised me. (Does that show I'm biased?) I am with you in that I shall not be applying for residence.

Jim Murdoch said...

Not sure in what way I was aggravated, Dave, but since I wrote this about five months ago whatever did it has long passed. I'm glad to see you agree with me about living there though. It's really hard to imagine, isn't it?

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Mr. Mueenuddin sounds as interesting as his stories.

I lived in Saudi Arabia for a while and learned that the Middle East was not the place for me. Your review of this book reinforced that fact.

Kass said...

I read the first two pages of the New Yorker story, but got bogged down in details. I agree, he does have talent, but his focus is fuzzy. I feel like I'm aware of the effort it takes him to give us a taste of his world. I agree with him about bringing politics into writing, however.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have a feeling, Jane, that this is going to be the general consensus. I think Mueenuddin has done a good job if his intention was to put people off his countrymen. It makes you wonder why on earth he stays.

And, Kass, I can’t say I found any of his stories fuzzy; the characters were quite well delineated simply not very appealing on the whole although it’s the culture I found I couldn’t relate to; people cope the best way they can and there will be plenty of people who believe our western rulers and administrators are every bit as corrupt as these Pakistanis are painted, we just still cling onto the idea that that’s the exception rather than the norm.

Gwil W said...

The only place I would like to live in Pakistan is in the far north where the descendants of those who travelled with Alexander the Great now live. I saw an interesting TV docu by Michael Palin about these unique people who originate from Greece. I hope they can stick it out.

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose the big question though, Gwilym, is whether the same mentality exists in that area as does in Mueenuddin’s stories. I think that’s what puts me off more than anything. I see a similar mentality in the recent TV dramatisations of the Aurelio Zen detective novels by Michael Dibdin. He presents Rome as a place full of intrigue where everyone knows someone in power from whom they can ask favours and no one does anything without some ulterior motive. Who do you trust?

Lola Sharp said...

Yeah, the Middle East in general is NOT for me.

Dude, as a woman, I'd rather die than live one minute anywhere in that region. I'm not their kind of girl.

Jim Murdoch said...

Lola, even as a man I wouldn't want to live there. It's interesting reading about but even then I'm in no great rush to read anything else about that area.

Gwil W said...

These Alexander the Great people seemed to be of a completely different stripe. You had the feeling you could basically trust them. They had their own traditions and dressed like Macedonians or Greeks. Palin and his TV crew appeared to have a good time with them - especially at the horse races. As I say, I hope they can stick it out. One can't help worrying for them though.

Mairi said...

A fascinating review, whatever one thinks of the culture the book sprang from. I was watching a BBC miniseries called The Aristocrats, about the aristocracy in the 18th century. Everyone who knew someone in power scrambled to use their connections to as much advantage as possible, and life was a struggle to either hold your own or better yourself and yours. I've read a lot of literature of the period but seeing the sweetened condensed version on film makes it very vivid.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’d never heard of them before this, Gwilym, nor have I seen the programme but the odds are they’ll disappear. It’s a miracle they’ve lasted so long.

And, Mairi, yet another programme I seem to have missed. I can see the connection, yes.

Anonymous said...

Oops. Better check up on who Mueenuddin is married to.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Claudia. When I wrote the article I did see if I could find a website with information on Rachel Jeanne Harris but there was nothing I’m afraid.

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