Daniyal Mueenuddin

"In Other Rooms, Other Wonders"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 17, 2009)

Book jacket designs are an art form unto themselves and while there are entire discussions about what works and what doesn't, arguably no other cover in recent memory, ties so well to the book material as the one for Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The catchy painting is by a young Pakistani artist, Shahzia Sikander, who is known for merging traditional South Asian miniature painting with more contemporary styles.

The vibrant mix of stories in Daniyal Mueenuddin's debut also captures Pakistan in all its diversity—the characters who populate these pages range from globe-trotting, jet-setting young Pakistanis who nevertheless carry the remnants of the country's feudal system with them, to desperately poor women who can do nothing more powerful than use sex as a way to curry favors with the men stationed above them.

For hundreds of years, on the subcontinent, the ownership of land has always granted unbridled power. Old South Asian stories often recount the worst kinds of oppression carried out by moneyed landlords and even in very old Bollywood movies, the archetypal villain was a cruel zamindar (landlord) counting out piles of coins while taxing the workers who tended his lands, with very high-interest loans.

Decades later, such an oppressive system of land ownership might have weathered down somewhat, but old habits die hard. The central character in Daniyal Mueenuddin's interconnected set of short stories is K. K. Harouni, an aging landlord who owns large parcels of land—all in the Punjab district of Pakistan. This is extremely fertile land; the river Indus flows through what is considered the prime wheat belt of the subcontinent. Each story in the collection (some of which have been published in the New Yorker before) has some direct or tangential connection to Harouni. In many instances, relationships between him and the servants are described. Even in cases where Harouni does not feature directly, his broad influence is felt sharply.

Mueenuddin is an expert at chronicling these class differences not by sweeping narrative but by the slightest of gestures that pass between his stories' characters. Even among the many servants that each landlord has, there are subtle differences in status and position and each one knows and asserts this position constantly. In the title story, for example, Husna who once worked for Harouni's first wife, comes to see him, seeking a job. “[Harouni's] butler, knowing that Husna served the old Begum Harouni in an indefinite capacity, somewhere between maidservant and companion, did not seat her in the living room,” Mueenuddin writes, “Instead he put her in the office of the secretary, who every afternoon took down in shorthand a few pages of Mr. Harouni's memoirs, cautiously titled Perhaps This Happened.” Just this small act speaks volumes about the hierarchy of class and status in countries like Pakistan.

The young Husna, herself the daughter of landlords who have now lost all their connections (and most of their land), sees no way of furthering her status in society other than by becoming Harouni's mistress and she sets upon this task in a deliberate and calculating way. Harouni, for his part, views her advances with amusement, even patronizing her as a plaything for temporary entertainment. “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 middle class still found expression only in a few households, managers of foreign banks and of the big industrial concerns, sugar and textiles and steel. As a boy Harouni slept with maidservants; lost his virginity to one of them at fourteen. Husna evoked those ripe first encounters,” writes Mueenuddin of Harouni's feelings.

In yet another story, About A Burning Girl, a sessions judge in the Lahore High Court casually admits to not having “perfectly clean hands. I render decisions based on the relative pressures brought to bear on me,” he adds. Taken at their face value, such statements might seem startling but Mueenuddin expertly places them in such relevant context that you can see the fractured lives of these characters and at least begin to understand their motivations and reasons for acting the way they do.

In another of my favorites, Lily, Mueenuddin portrays a glamorous city girl Leila, who after having spent much of her youth in the country's social circuit sleeping around and otherwise living the high life, tries to settle into married life with a more grounded husband she falls in love with. The story beautifully captures her freestyle spirit and her inability to be tethered to any relationship especially a more demanding marital one.

Mueenuddin, who was born in Lahore (to a Pakistani father and American mother), and who holds a law degree from Yale, seems to have an insider view of the contemporary Pakistani society he writes so beautifully about. At least his writing makes us believe he does. In a recent interview, the author has made clear that his book is not a statement about Pakistan and that he is not a political writer. “I prefer to write from a human perspective, to observe and to not be judgmental,” he has said. Indeed, by this measure, Mueenuddin has succeeded to a large degree. Each story in this marvelous debut collection is intricately observed and laid out with attention to the most basic human interactions. That, in the end, it also serves as a mirror to contemporary Pakistan, is just icing on the cake.

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Read a story from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders in the New Yorker

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About the Author:

Daniyal MueenuddinDaniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie. For a number of years he practiced law in New York.

He and his wife live on a farm in Khanpur, in Pakistan’s southern Punjab.

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