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 are the links:

Nawabdin Electrician

In Other Rooms Other Wonders

A Spoiled Man

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Marrying Anita: A Quest For Love in the New India

  • Hardcover: 320 pages

  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1st edition (July 22, 2008)

  • Genre: Memoir, Travel, Cultural

When Anita Jain, a 30-something, Harvard-educated, American-born Indian woman fails to find love followed by commitment in all the usual places in America, she decides to try her luck in her parents' homeland (India).

She chose India, not just because her parents hail from there but because, from what she has seen and heard, marriage or "shaadi" is very important to an Indian..."to an Indian, marriage is a matter of karmic destiny. There are many happy unions in the pantheon of Hindu gods...Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha, Ram and Sita. Marriage is even enshrined in Hinduism as one of the four life stages" Yes, as a good Hindu one is expected to get married! Also, there are more men in India than women, 930 women to every 1000 men and our author figures her options were simply more plentiful in India!

So sure is she of being able to find a life partner there that she gives up her job with a respected NewYork daily and takes up one in Delhi, India. What she hasn't bargained for however, is that in the 3 decades since her parents got married, India has leapfrogged into modernity. According to Anita, young people in Indian cities are currently in the throes of a sexual revolution very similar to the one the U.S. experienced in the sixties with drunken hook-ups and friends-with-benefits being two rampant trends.

Also, young urbanites aren't really doing the ( similar to e-harmony but with a distinctly traditional Indian flavor), they’re meeting in clubs or online sites like Orkut or Facebook. However, despite these frequent social interactions with the opposite sex, young, single Indian women are not having much better luck on the marriage market either.
Does this mean that arranged marriages may just be the answer to an unwedded person's woes? The author goes on to explore whether an organized system for marriage may actually work better than making young men and women responsible for finding their own life partners.

OK, so traveling 10,000 miles to find her "Mr. Wonderful" seems like a great premise for the chick-lit genre, but I think the candor with which Anita Jain describes her dalliances,her insecurities, suitor rejections and the astute observations she makes on how class, caste and economics play a huge role in the Indian marriage game elevates this book to more of a social commentary on modern India.

Let me hasten to add that the young people that the author speaks about in this book come from the urban demographic...people living in the metropolises like Delhi, Bombay etc. For the rest of India,
dating and premarital sex is still frowned upon and 95 per cent of all marriages are still arranged -- alliances that are almost always determined by religion, caste and class considerations.

If you grew up in India in the '80's and live elsewhere now and have not visited India in a while, this book might shock the socks off you, don't say you weren't warned!

I'd love to hear from young people in India on this one....what are your thoughts on arranged marriages, dating etc.? Talk to me!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages

  • Publisher: Gotham Books (Oct 30 2007)

  • Language: English

As most of you have probably noted already, global terrorism has spawned a whole battalion of young men in the Middle East willing and able to fight for the cause, or Jihad as it is known to many. Again, for many of us, these young men (and women) will never be more than a name (sometimes, not even that) ...they are just a group of young people prepared to give up their lives for a cause. Haven't you often wondered who these young people are? Where they come from? Why they do what they do? Have you ever wondered what it might be like to meet them on a social level and to just get to know them as people rather than fighters or terrorists?

Jared Cohen, a 25-year old Connecticut native did precisely that. He traveled to the Middle East in 2004-2006, met with young members of the Hezbollah, student activists in Iran and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. His travels are chronicled in the excellent memoir and travelogue, 'Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East".

So, what did he find?

In Iran he found the young people a very resilient lot. This group did not experience the revolution directly. Nor did they suffer under the Shah’s rule that preceded it. They did not fight in Iran’s brutal and lengthy war with Iraq. They have grown up exclusively under Iran’s strange blend of theocracy and democracy and they are far from happy with it, despite all that however, they refuse to give up on Iran. The Iranian young people Cohen met refuse to have their identities hijacked by oppressive and narrow-minded political or religious entities. According to Cohen - and this is really interesting - Iranian young people have emerged as the de facto opposition in that country, in the sense that by virtue of mass action they brought about (and continue to do so) a number of social and recreational changes in the country..

A female Dervish performs the Sufi Dance before a mixed-sex crowd at a dinner in a private house in North Tehran. Women are not allowed to dance in public and Sufi mysticism is strongly discouraged by the authorities,

Just reading about the resilient spirit of these young men and women makes me very hopeful for a new and gentler Iran. The other revelation Cohen makes is, that contrary to the anti-US propaganda that the political machine of Iran likes spewing, Iranian youth have absolutely no quarrel with America. They like Americans and they want us to know that! In part, the reason why the Iranian population is the most pro-American of any of the other Middle Eastern states Cohen visited is because the youth population is guided by a core principle which is, we'll love anything our government hates and we'll hate anything our government loves!

In Lebanon, Cohen found that the youth are only just coming together as Lebanese and taking immense pride in doing so. During the 20-year long occupation of Lebanon by Syria most Lebanese youth suffered from an identity crisis. Because they were controlled by Syria they were afraid to discover who they really were. However, after Syria pulled out most youth now feel Lebanese. The troubling bit about Lebanon is the influence of Hezbollah (Children of Jihad contains a fine chapter on the origins of the Hezbollah- one of the finest I have ever read) on the youth. What makes the Hezbollah so dangerous and troubling is that its members have managed to infiltrate Lebanon's universities and other institutions so seamlessly that no one ever knows they're there until it's too late. The author asks, could it be that they are also in the US "being" Americans, doing regular things that all Americans do, like attending school, eating at restaurants etc. unbeknown to the rest of us?

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters, listen to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah who speaks via a video link to a rally. AP Photo by Hussain Malla

Cohen's visit to the Palestinian camps (especially the Ayn al-Hilwah camp which houses the extremists) on the outskirts of Lebanon is probably the moving and chilling account of them all. According to Cohen, as the adult generations of Palestinians fight for a return to their homeland, it seems that many of the youth are fighting simply for a better life! Lebanon is one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East, yet the Palestinians are made to feel like second-class citizens, a burden on the society. The youth would like to contribute to society but because they are not given permission to move out of their camps, they have few options but to turn to the Cause. Extremist groups offer young Palestinians an outlet for adventure and a sense of belonging, not to mention, a heroic aftermath. You can't completely blame them for going that route...very often it's all they can do! Is the international community listening?

Syrian youth are highly nationalistic and pride themselves on their love of country. It's not that Syrian youth have it easier than their brethren in Lebanon it's just that their government has managed to seduce them into believing that patience, not agitation, brings about change. There are signs, however, that there is a limit to this patience and some Syrian youth are pushing for greater reforms, although they are still in the minority.

The author was happiest whilst in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, also known as, 'The Other Iraq". Not only does it have the most magnificent landscape with large canyons, gorgeous mountains and impressive waterfalls, but The Iraqi Kurds are full of gratitude to the American army whom they see as liberators, not occupiers. The young Kurds do not indulge in the same wild,crazy and defiant parties like the young Iranians and Lebanese, nor are they submissive like the Syrian youth, instead, they are very focused on building themselves a democratic society. They have a vision, they love their country - Kurdistan - and have a developed sense of citizenship. Of all the youth in the Middle East they are the least likely to want to leave their country for greener pastures.

Kurdish Youth

So after meeting youth from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestinian and Kurdish youth, how does Cohen feel about the future of the Middle East?

According to Cohen, the widely broadcast images of violent, angry and fanatical Muslims are hardly representative of the majority of the Middle East. Middle Eastern youth are politically savvy and and find it easy to distinguish between governments, people and religion. Most know the difference between Americans and the American government and wish that Americans, too would make the distinction between the people of the Middle East and their tyrannical regimes.

Unlike the earlier generations the youth of today are heavily into technology and are using it to communicate,not just with one another but with the rest of the other words, Middle Eastern youth are accessible and will listen if the rest of the world engages them. At the moment, extremists have already made inroads into shaping the opinions of these young people, the international community needs have greater communication with these youth..they are sure to help us find creative solutions for peace in that region someday.

If you are interested in the affairs of the Middle East, or simply enjoy a good travel book packed with history and conversations, you might want to give this book a whirl.