Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin


  • Hardcover: 256 pages

  • Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.; 1 edition (February 1, 2009)

  • Language: English

  • ISBN-10: 0393068005











I first came across Daniyal Mueenuddin's stellar writing when the New Yorker published his story "Nawabdin Electrician" in the July 2008 issue. So intrigued was I with the protagonist Nawabdin, Mueenuddin's lyrical writing and his ability to bring Pakistan and its people into our homes that I hungered to read more from him. Fortunately I didn't have to wait long, in February this year Norton published his first book of short stories titled "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" and I am happy to say that Mueenuddin is not a one-story wonder...I have enjoyed reading all of the eight stories in this volume, which is saying a lot because I have read other books of short stories and there have always been a couple that I didn't care to finish..not this time!

The central figure of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is K.K. Harouni, a rich landlord in the Punjab area of Pakistan, though he figures as a protagonist in only one of the eight interconnected stories. The others focus is on peasants, servants, drivers, land managers, privileged Westernized children in an upstairs-downstairs sort of theme

The book opens with "Nawabedin Electrician" but it is "Saleema", the second story which captured my heart and still refuses to let go. In "Saleema", Mueeneddin takes us into the servant quarters of a rich landlord and shows us how even in the kitchen there is a pecking order based on clan and god forbid you come from a clan which is not respected (Saleema came from the Jhulan clan of blackmailers and bootleggars) you are destined to be everybody's doormat. It is sad because Saleema has nothing but sexual favors to offer the menfolk to get ahead and when even that is gone, she is back to square one. What hope is there if you are never allowed to shrug off the heavy mantle of tribe or clan?

Provide, provide, is another excellent story of a small time landlord, Chaudry Jaglani, from Dunyapur, a place along the Indus river. Being an opportunistic man Jaglani manages to increase his lands steadily and become quite active in politics too. However, the story isn't just about him but rather his love (always to be confused with passion) for a servant girl named Zainab and how his love for her ruins them both.

As with the previous stories, I liked how the landscape is such an integral part of the story and enjoyed Mueenuddin's evocative and pastoral descriptions of "peasants bringing back their buffaloes from watering at the end of the day...the heavy bells hanging from the animals' necks making a mournful hollow gonging..." brought back hazy memories of warm summers in the villages of my country!

Perhaps this might be a good time to mention that Mueenuddin is the son of a Pakistani father and American mother and after completing boarding school in Massachusetts, returned to Pakistan at the age of 23 to help his aging father to safeguard some ancestral property that was in danger of being taken over by unscrupulous managers. The seven years he spent on the farm provided the fodder for some of the stories in this book.

"About a Burning Girl" made me wince because it shows you how corruption has come to play such a huge role in the sub-continent. It seems to me that justice can never be had unless you have the mullah to pay for it. This story also reminded me of Mueenuddin's flair for description, especially strong when describing the landscape or one of his characters:

"He wore a battered white skullcap, soiled clothes, a sleeveless sweater and shoes with crepe rubber soles, worn down to one side, which gave each foot a peculiar tilt. The deep lines on his face ran in no rational order, no order corresponding to musculature or to the emotions through which his expressions might pass, but spread from numerous points. The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sandcastle on the beach, after the sea has run in over it." pg 106

"Our Lady of Paris", "Lily" and "A Spoiled Man" focus on urban Pakistan and while they are captivating in their own way, I preferred the stories set in rural Pakistan. Big cities don't lack for quirky tales or complex characters, but small towns and villages feel more accessible, the characters more colourful, the stories richer.

You can read some of Daniyal Mueenuddin's stories on the web...here are the links:

Nawabdin Electrician

In Other Rooms Other Wonders


A Spoiled Man





11 comments:

campbele said...

Please stop by my blog and pick up your Splash Award!

Sanjay said...

Hi Lotus, what a wonderful sounding volume of short stories. You are so right about not all the stories in a collection being readable. They can often be uneven. "The Japanese Bride" that comes to mind, it was the only good story in the collection.
The others focus is on peasants, servants, drivers, land managers, privileged Westernized children in an upstairs-downstairs sort of theme.

How interesting! It sounds very similar to India in this respect but that is about it. I think Pakistani society while it has its slice of elites and secular, (the two are not mutually exclusive) I think it is much more feudal.
"Saleema" sounds sad but altogether familiar. But Pakistan is not the only place where clan rules. It is true in Iraq and some other countries in the ME.
Btw where does the word Jhulan come from? There are similar tribes in India, and I might be able to provide some names, but you are the anthropologist so you may already have some that you know? I know some in Maharashtra but can't recall their names. A few of them were associated with crimes too like the Jhulan.
Thank you for sharing with us, the authors background. I suppose those 7 years gave him a window to the society that he would never have had, had he been there for a shorter while.
Liked reading about provide
"peasants bringing back their buffaloes from watering at the end of the day...the heavy bells hanging from the animals' necks making a mournful hollow gonging..."
feels like a cliche, any one writing about non-urban parts of the subcontinent has talked about this i think no?
The lines below are so true. You can transplant this image to any place in India too.
"He wore a battered white skullcap, soiled clothes, a sleeveless sweater and shoes with crepe rubber soles, worn down to one side, which gave each foot a peculiar tilt. The deep lines on his face ran in no rational order, no order corresponding to musculature or to the emotions through which his expressions might pass, but spread from numerous points. The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sandcastle on the beach, after the sea has run in over it." pg 106
I would love to know a bit more about the urban stories of Pakistan, the reason I say this is I am unfamiliar with it. Somehow the atmosphere in urban Pakistan must seem more oppressive despite the enclaves that they live in. I wonder if there is an undercurrent of fear to this, given the strong religious influence in Pakistan?
Thank you for this great post about yet another good book.
Doesn't it seem like there is a lot of Pakistani fiction coming out of late?

Lotus Reads said...

@Campbele ~ Thank you for saying such wonderful things about me on your blog...you are generous with your praise indeed!!! Thank you for the award too!

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay~ How true about "Japanese Bride"...while I liked all the stories in that Basu collection, "Japanese Bride" was in a completely different league altogether, wasn't it?

YOu're dead right...this is about a little known area of Pakistan in the Punjab and very feudal. I think part of the attraction of this book of short stories is that Mueenuddin takes us to a place very few writers, if any, have travelled before. And because all these characters are so new and fresh, they appear so interesting! Also, Mueenuddin does have this gift for making his characters so alive, they're almost jumping off the pages!

I'm just an anthropologist wannabe! :) And, as you say, there are tribes and clans in India just like the Jhulan, but I am unable to tell you their names sadly.

Yes, anyone who lives or has lived in the subcontinent will identify with a lot of the material in these short stories because, they are in no way, exclusive to Pakistan only...I do see what you mean when you say that scene describing the buffaloes is almost cliched, but I salute the writer for never once being tempted to stray into areas that are now being milked by some other Pakistani authors like terrorism, the Taleban, fatwas, madrasas etc. And I say this because the South of Punjab, where a lot of the book is set is now becoming quite a hot bed for Taleban activists.

Urban Pakistan didn't interest me as much as the stories from the rural areas. Maybe it's because to us (city people) these are everyday people? I don't know. But you make a great point about the undercurrent of fear, be it religious or otherwise that may be pervasive in these urban enclaves. Care to elaborate? I'd love to see this from your POV.

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, I just finished reading this book. I loved it! I am planning to read it again. Great review!!

Lotus Reads said...

Happy Reader,

Lovely to see you! We are two peas in a pod aren't we? I came to the end of the book and my first inclination was to go to back to page 1 so I could read and enjoy it again! :)

Id it is said...

I read the short story in The Newyorker and I too was piqued by it; I'm glad for your post because I definitely want to read this one. Like you, I too am a little disenchanted with the 'collection of short stories' package. Jhumpa Lahiri's most recent package has been my latest disappointment.

Lotus Reads said...

Really Id? You didn't enjoy "Unaccustomed Earth"? I'm going to have to roller blade over to your blog to find out why.

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-Cindy
www.lacheapskate.blogspot.com

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Marilyn said...

Great review...it is rare to see an author compile a set of short stories that are equally compelling.

I love your finds!