Books: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’

Posted on February 9, 2009
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Books, People
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Adil Najam

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 Mueenuddin’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 mother’s side. The senior branch of the family had consolidated its lands and amassed power under the British. Husna’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, Nawab’s discovery eclipsed the philosopher’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 Nawab’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 — 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 — when the supplicant detects a benevolent mood — 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 Harouni’s vast lands at half price, keeping the best parcels for himself. For a country whose name means “land of purity,” Pakistan is startlingly blemished. Yet Mueenuddin’s talent lets us perceive not just its machinations but also its beauty — the mango orchards, a charpoy laid out in the shade of a mammoth banyan tree, the smoke of a hookah on a spring afternoon, “eucalyptus trees planted by some briefly energetic government.”

14 responses to “Books: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’

  1. wasiq says:

    Just finished Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories: “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.” I enjoyed the read and was thrilled to see the Southern Punjab and Pakistan’s rural society take center stage. Mueenuddin finally puts rural Pakistan on the world literary map and for that he deserves a great deal of credit. The writing here is strongest when the author explores male-female relationships in all their psychological and sociological complexity. There appears to be a great deal of hooking up going on everywhere in Mueenuddin’s descriptions of romance — some couples meet in the servants’ quarters, others at fancy parties for Islamabad’s uber elite, and several relationships are formed across class lines in Lahore drawing rooms or deras in the countryside. At times, the focus on what makes the elite so elite can become tiresome — one does often wonder who these Pakistanis are that shop in Paris, drink fine wine, munch on cheese at parties surrounded by other friends from ivy league universities. This crowd certainly exists, but the emphasis on their social cachet could easily be mistaken for an author with some sort of juvenile fetish. Much of the book is about a Pakistan in social transition, but here it appears that more could be done to go beyond a reprise of the the hackneyed ‘old-money-new-money syndrome’ or the observation that old money had class, but new money devoid of taste or refinement is ascendant — many will wonder ‘so what’ or ‘what else is new’? In terms of how Mueenuddin compares to other South Asian authors, I prefer his work to that of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid, but find his writing and observational power less dazzling than Jhumpa Lahiri’s.

  2. Farrukh says:

    Have not read the book yet obviously, but did read the stories in The New Yorker, which I think are also in the book. They are really gripping and very powerful. I also liked the one about the electrician greatly. Very very well told tale. I think they had this quality that made the story and the telling very authentically Pakistani while written in a way that would also be graspable by a Western reader.

    I also think that there is some very interesting happening in English literature in Pakistan. A younger generation of Pakistani writers are catching up with the South Asian trend and finding a voice very much their own. Interestingly, the stuff coming from Pakistan is not fixated in the Raj but is very contemporary and that adds a whole new flavor to it.

  3. ASAD says:

    Yes, I had also read the glowing review in NYT this morning. Just read the story about the electrician that you gave link to (thanks for that link). It is really very elegant writing. Have just ordered my copy at Amazon and looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for highlighting this here.

  4. Eidee Man says:

    Sounds interesting. Although hearing about books like this one makes me wish our English authors would consider writing about the 99% of the people who are neither religious zealots nor feudal landlords.

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