March 2009

Jacob Silverman

fiction

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

In Daniyal Mueenuddin's story "Provide, Provide," Jaglani, the savvy, powerful manager of K.K. Harouni's massive land holdings, makes one mistake: he takes a risk for love. Having fallen for Zainab, the married sister of one his servants, Jaglani decides to force her husband into a divorce. In coming to this decision, Jaglani, who is himself estranged from his wife, decides that "he had risen so far, had become invulnerable to the judgments of those around him, had become preeminent in this area by the river Indus, and now he deserved to make this mistake, for once not to make a calculated choice, but to surrender to his desire." But it is exactly this deliberate process of calculation, from which Jaglani had previously never strayed, that brought him to his position as the administrator of Harouni's lands and made him a wealthy man in his own right.

By this scene in Mueenuddin's debut book, an impressive collection of short stories titled In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, it is clear that by abandoning the Machiavellian methodologies that made him wealthy and secure, Jaglani ensures his eventual downfall. The only question remaining is whether that decline will be a spiritual or material one. But before that inevitable decay takes hold, we follow, in Mueenuddin's deft, precise prose, Jaglani's gradual rise to power, observing how he uses his master's aristocratic detachment towards his own affairs to fulfill his own desires. In Jaglani's own words, spoken to Zainab's illiterate, doleful husband: "I have so much because I took what I wanted." Here Jaglani evokes the book's epigraph, a Punjabi proverb that reads, "Three things for which we kill -- / Land, women and gold."

In these stories, love such as that felt by Jaglani is not a vice, but it can be dangerous. It can ruin a powerful man's position in society or create in someone such an inner torment that the love affair is drained of all of its initial passion and excitement -- usually after that love has been officially consummated by a marriage, locking the participants into their self-made prison. In Mueeenuddin's frequently haunting tales, love can also be a tool to aid the rise of inveterate manipulators -- as most are, must be even, if they are to survive in this unforgiving world. But to Mueenuddin's credit, he does not attempt to communicate a moral in depicting these dangers, only outlining the perils inherent in giving one's self over to an emotion that could run afoul of a society that depends on decorum, reputation, and discretion.

That society is late 20th century Pakistan, where, as a judge puts it, "all things can be arranged," usually in exchange for one of those valued commodities expressed in the Punjabi proverb. The focus of these stories is the aforementioned Harouni, a sort of feudal lord, barely grasping onto the vestiges of his old wealth and glories, but still attended to by a profusion of servants and hangers-on. Harouni spends most of his time in Lahore, while his extended family and more ambitious employees fight over his holdings, some of which he must sell to pay off debts caused by poor investments. In most of the collection's stories, Harouni is only an incidental character, if he is at all mentioned, but his influence -- and often, his potential to influence through his relatives, powerful managers, political connections, or sale of assets -- is clear and widespread.

Harouni's decline provides a convenient window into Pakistani society, high and low, both of which Mueenuddin ably explores by relating stories of land managers, local handymen, cooks, drivers, women forced to use their sexuality to survive, the wealthy men who take them in, crooked judges, and others. In Lahore, Islamabad, and the rural towns depicted here, there is hardly any middle class to speak of, and those who attempt to strive beyond their servant-class birthright, such as the protagonists of "Nawabdin Electrician" and "A Spoiled Man," find themselves physically cut down, a heavy toll extracted. Instead, it is best to stick to concerns in one's purview: mind your business; save what you can; avoid the police; trust no one, especially family. Even the rich and powerful K.K. Harouni is, in his own fashion, party to this doctrine. In the title story, Mueenuddin writes of Harouni, who's comforting his distressed mistress:

K.K. Harouni avoided unpleasantness at all costs, for he lived in a world as measured and as concentric as that of the Sun King at Versailles. He did not like to see her cry, because it upset him.

Like the French kings, Harouni is firmly encapsulated in his hermetic world. He cannot see or properly understand the suffering that often exists right in front of him. But his kingdom recalls Louis XVI rather than the Sun King because like Louis XVI, Harouni's world is collapsing under his feet, and he has little idea. Men like Harouni, who own vast tracts of land and numerous homes and shops, are dying off, along with their mini-empires. Many of them owe their fortunes to partnerships made with the country's past British imperial government, and they live in former colonial mansions, oblivious to the irony.

Mueenuddin, a Pakistani-American now working on his family farm in Pakistan and whose father was a Pakistani government official, belongs to the generation of K.K. Harouni's grandchildren. In this book, these young, wealthy Pakistanis are secular, globalized, wayward, and frequently caught up in the glitz and boozy mayhem of the high-class party scene. They hop on planes between London, Karachi, New York, and Paris. They drink liberally, they sleep around, they give into crass or superficial behavior, they have difficulty settling down, and they disparage those who live in small towns. They are, then, like spoiled, upper-class young adults from almost any other country.

That revelation comes as no surprise, but it is disappointing that little illumination follows. Though he clearly understands the class divisions of contemporary Pakistani society well, Mueenuddin has difficulty pulling off stories about this younger generation. Sohail Harouni, the Yale Law School student of "Our Lady of Paris," would seem an engaging protagonist (and potentially modeled on the author, himself a Yale Law graduate) as he tries to plan a future with his liberal, intelligent, but all-American girlfriend, Helen. But their journey to Paris, to spend time with each other and his parents, is unoriginal and often too sentimental. Like in so many similar stories, the characters make love, worry about meeting parents, explore unfamiliar sites, and stare wistfully out of high windows.

A similar reductionism can be applied to "Lily," the book's longest story. Though the eponymous protagonist is far more alive and vividly drawn than Sohail or Helen, there's little to ground Lily's story in the world of contemporary Pakistan. (She also stares out of windows, longingly.) What distinguishes this hard-partying, strong-willed, beautiful young woman, yearning for change, from any other like her in America, England, or France? Perhaps some consolation could be drawn from that very question, establishing as it does some common ground between cultures. However, it is not enough to sustain a story of this length, nor is there anything novel in Lily's attempt to settle down for the sake of Murad, an educated, successful, hardworking, loving, but occasionally frigid farmer and landowner.

The failures of "Our Lady of Paris" and "Lily," such as they are, are emphasized here because Mueenuddin succeeds so brilliantly in the collection's other stories. "A Spoiled Man" is a heartbreaking tale of an indigent workman, abandoned by his family, courageously striving for redemption late in life. "Saleema" and "Provide, Provide" powerfully illustrate the precarious situation of women in this male-dominated society. Both stories tell of women who attempt to use their bodies to better themselves and suffer for it. And in nearly every story, there are vividly drawn people struggling to fit into a regimented social order that rewards ambition only when accompanied by ruthlessness. In one of the more thoughtful comments she is allowed, Helen says that Sohail is gentler in America, explaining, "It's easier to be gentle in a place where there's order." Few people in this book are able to be gentle without suffering some consequence.

If Daniyal Mueenuddin is better at telling the stories of the desperate, the poor, and the failing, it is in part because there is a richness and vitality to Pakistan's disorder that the author manages to harness without fetishizing. And for a book with obvious social concerns, these are the tales that need to be told. He manages to do that here with excellent detail (in one of many marvelous descriptions, a man is called "gentle in a bovine sort of way"), humor, fine characterization, and a brutal honesty that eschews cheap comforts. His stories of the decadent, collapsing old aristocracy are also excellent, but that may be because, in some way, they belong to that aforementioned group, those who are failing, even if they are not aware of their own corruption and even if their servants would do almost anything to be in their place.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 978-0393068009
256 pages