Pakistani author Danyal Mueenuddin begins his inaugural book simply, with a dedication to his mother and an epigraph: “Three things for which we kill — Land, women and gold.”
The Punjabi proverb, written in English and the highly stylized lettering of Urdu calligraphy, anticipates with startling accuracy the source of conflict in Mueenuddin’s brilliant debut collection of fiction, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.
In the title story, the wealthy patriarch of a feudal landowning family, KK Harouni, falls for Husna, a shrewd, young social climber looking to integrate herself into the glitzy, jet-setting life of Lahore’s wealthy elite. Much to the chagrin of Harouni’s europhile daughters and estranged wife, Harouni takes Husna, with her simple clothes and unrefined manners — imagine a Pakistani Eliza Doolittle, if you will — under his roof, at first only as a servant of sorts, but eventually as a mistress.
Husna shows up at Harouni’s door, a distantly related young girl of a family that “had not so much fallen into poverty as failed to rise”. Harouni, a disinterested old man who seems bored to tears with almost everything, finds in Husna a relief from the redundancies of upper crust Lahore. As he explains to his daughter, “She keeps me company. She’s no genius, if you like, but she can play cards and so on.” Mueenuddin’s characters seldom try to sugarcoat the facts of life.
As many of the women in the Mueenuddin’s grim fairy tales, Husna assumes she can use feminine wiles to climb the social ladder, and avoid marriage to “a compromise, a salary man.” And at first, she succeeds, until, also like many of Mueenuddin’s stories, the fairytale ending is pulled right out from beneath her.
Mueenuddin builds up his reader’s hope for his characters, only to vindictively strip all hope away in the end. In ‘Saleema’, a young woman and her drugged-up husband move to the cramped servant quarters of the Harouni estate. The woman, Saleema, is the daughter of a prostitute mother and a heroin addicted father seeking for herself a better life. As a maid for the Harouni’s, she meets Rafik, a gentle and reserved valet. Saleema hopes that their affair can somehow make of her an honest woman. Before Rafik, “her love affairs had been so plainly mercantile transactions that she hadn’t learned to be coquettish. But that little hopeful girl in her awoke now.”
The reader can’t help but root for the honest and wide-eyed (though admittedly shrewd) Saleema, but it’s not long before she winds up drug-addled and dead herself, her child with Rafik begging “in the streets, one of the sparrows of Lahore”.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is partly an exploration into the harsh realities of a modern-day society still bound by class. If this had been Cinderella, most of Mueenuddin’s stories would have ended halfway through, but instead, in his Pakistan, happiness is usually short-lived. Like Husna and Saleema, his characters end up learning a harsh lesson: you can move up or down the ladder, but in the end, motion in Pakistan is only horizontal.
The collection is, in the tradition of Balzac’s original Comƒ©die humaine, eight stories bound together by the common thread of the moneyed KK Harouni’s household and extended family. Characters reappear throughout the book — sometimes on the main stage, and sometimes as a side note. Set in the Pakistani district of Punjab, Mueenuddin’s stories follow the lives of the rich and powerful Harouni family and its employees — from the managers, drivers, gardeners, cooks, and servants to the patriarch’s young, traveled nephew in Paris.
The collection sheds light on contemporary Pakistan’s many faces, from the inhabitants of impoverished rural Pakistan to the young, bored nouveau- rich gracing Mueenuddin’s pages feasting on lavish picnics of champagne and cheese or as coke-snorting snobs at Halloween parties in Islamabad.
Reading In Other Rooms, In Other Wonders, you often get the sense that writing the collection was in some ways Mueenuddin’s method for working out his own problems of identity and feelings towards Pakistan. He spent the first years of his childhood in Pakistan, then was shipped off to an East Coast boarding school at 13 and went on to attend Dartmouth College. A decade after first moving to America, he returned to Pakistan to help his aging father uphold family property that was in danger of being taken over by crafty managers. He spent seven years alone on this farm – an isolated 10 hours from Lahore by a bumpy road – before he moved back to the US to study law at Yale and practice corporate law in New York. Eventually, Mueenuddin, tired of the corporate sector, received a Master of Fine Arts and returned to manage the Pakistan farm, in his spare time writing what would become the stories of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which were first picked up by literary rags like The New Yorker and Granta.
In Mueenuddin’s work, you easily see the characters and colors of his own life. The crafty managers and wily servants of his father’s farm are the same characters who occupy KK Harouni’s farm and Lahore estate, and color the pages in tales like ‘Provide, Provide’ (writes Mueenuddin, Jaglani “would receive a brief telegram, NEED FIFTY THOUSAND IMMEDIATELY” and he would “sell the land at half price, the choice pieces to himself, putting it in the names of his servants and relatives.”). In ‘Lily’, the title character’s eventual betrothed manages his father’s old farm, 10 hours from Lahore by a rough road, where he is beginning to grow vegetables in greenhouses, just as Mueenuddin himself does now. And in the tale ‘Our Lady of Paris’, the character, Sohail, perhaps bears resemblance to Mueenuddin’s own identity struggle: the wealthy Yale law school-educated son of KK Harouni’s brother, Sohail struggles with what to do next in his life – move back to Pakistan and take over his father’s business dealings or live in America with his American girlfriend Helen.
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