Daniya Meenuddin’s book ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ which releases today (Feburary 9), is the most anticipated work of fiction by a Pakistan author since Mohammed Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. It promises to be equally engrossing.
The book is already getting rave reviews. William Dalrymple, writing in the Finanical Times, says that the book “is quite unlike anything recently published on the Indian side of the border, and throws the gauntlet down to a new generation of Indian writers.” The New York Times calls it “mesmerizing”:
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is like watching a game of blackjack, the shrewd players calculating their way beyond their dealt cards in an attempt to beat the dealer. Some bust, others surrender. But in Mueenuddinâ€™s world, no one wins.
Mueenuddin who practiced law in New York for some years after studying at Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, now lives on a farm in Pakistan’s Southern Punjab. His short stories have been making waves recently, and have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008.
In fact, the story that gives the book its name also first appeared in The New Yorker (read it here). Here is an excerpt:
Although he had an excellent memory, and knew the lineage of all the old Lahore families, K.K. allowed Husna to explain in detail her relationship to him, which derived from his grandmother on his motherâ€™s side. The senior branch of the family had consolidated its lands and amassed power under the British. Husnaâ€™s family, a cadet branch, had not so much fallen into poverty as failed to rise. At one time, her grandfather had owned thirty or forty shops in the Old City, but these had been sold off more than thirty years ago, before Lahore grew, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, and prices increased. Encouraged by K.K., given tea and cakes, Husna forgot herself, falling into the common, rich Punjabi of the inner city. She told with great emphasis a story about her mother, who remembered falling and breaking her teeth on the steps leading into the courtyard of a lost family home, steps that were tall and broad to accommodate the enormous tread of a riding elephant.
Of the stories in the book that have already been published, one of my favorites is about Nawabdin Electrician. Let me not divulge how the story ends, but here is the opening paragraph from the version that appeared in The New Yorker (full version here):
He flourished on a signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of its meters, so cunningly performed that his customers could specify to the hundred-rupee note the desired monthly savings. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tube wells pumped from the aquifer day and night, Nawabâ€™s discovery eclipsed the philosopherâ€™s stone. Some thought he used magnets, others said heavy oil or porcelain chips or a substance he found in beehives. Skeptics reported that he had a deal with the meter men. In any case, this trick guaranteed Nawabâ€™s employment, both off and on the farm of his patron, K. K. Harouni.
Works like this should not be spoiled for the reader by giving summaries of plots. But let me conclude by giving you a glimpse of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s subjects and sensibilities – here are some excerpts from The New York Times review by Dalia Sofer:
Set in the Pakistani district of Punjab, the eight linked stories in this excellent book follow the lives of the rich and powerful Harouni family and its employees: managers, drivers, gardeners, cooks, servants.
… The women in these stories often use sex to prey on the men, and they do so with abandon at best and rage at worst â€” in this patriarchal, hierarchical society, it is their sharpest weapon. Women in the lower classes sleep their way up only to be kicked back down, while those in the upper classes use their feminine influence to maneuver their husbands into ever-growing circles of power, until age corrodes their authority.
… But the women are not alone in their scheming. Manipulation unifies these stories, running through them as consistently as the Indus River flows south of Punjab. A dance of insincere compliments and favors asked at just the right moment â€” when the supplicant detects a benevolent mood â€” is performed by every one. This bewildering pas de deux is familiar to all but the two American characters, whose ignorance causes grief to themselves and others.
Corruption too is ubiquitous here. Nawabdin the electrician cheats the electric company; Chaudrey Jaglani sells Harouniâ€™s vast lands at half price, keeping the best parcels for himself. For a country whose name means â€œland of purity,â€ Pakistan is startlingly blemished. Yet Mueenuddinâ€™s talent lets us perceive not just its machinations but also its beauty â€” the mango orchards, a charpoy laid out in the shade of a mammoth banyan tree, the smoke of a hookah on a spring afternoon, â€œeucalyptus trees planted by some briefly energetic government.â€