Summer Reading: (2) In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Well-traveled we may be, but for most of us, there are distant places we may never visit, and for this reason, I continue to be grateful for the window that fiction opens on unfamiliar parts of the world. In this collection of linked short stories, the setting is Pakistan, a headline-making country that remains an enigma to many of us.  In his debut collection, Daniyal Mueenuddin allows us an intimate view of Pakistani society through memorable characters whose dilemmas move and often trouble the reader. They include members of the wealthy land-owning Harouni clan, their servants, managers, retainers and hangers-on, many of whom are struggling for survival in a world where “job benefits” involve copping favours, second-wife status, theft and low-level extortion.

There’s Nawabdin, the moderately prosperous electrician whose survival schemes include stealing power off the grid, and who refuses forgiveness to a thief who shoots and wounds him — irony, for most of us, but in the story, it’s clear that Nawabdin sees his crafty success as a sign of God’s favour and his assailant’s failure as deserving of contempt. “Look at you now, with bubbles of blood stuck in the corners of your mouth,” he says. “Do you think this isn’t a judgment?” In “Provide, Provide,” Jaglani,  manager of the Harouni lands, likewise wheels, deals and rises up in the ranks — in his case, dying powerless and friendless, his allies out of jobs and his lover left with nothing.  In this feudal milieu, it sometimes feels as if forgiveness hasn’t been invented yet.

Impoverished and desperate women are among the greatest schemers in these stories. Husna (in the title story), companion to the wife of the patriarch K.K. Harouni, seduces the master as a means to survival, then is expelled by his family when the old man dies.  Likewise, in “Saleema,” a woman trapped in an abusive marriage becomes the lover of Harouni’s retainer Rafik, with tragic results. Fate and tradition weigh these people down; corruption is embodied in the cynical judge who narrates “About a Burning Girl,” the only story told in the first person, a tale narrated with a sarcastic and disturbing edge.

Despite the author’s empathy, there’s a sense of impoverished people battling hopeless odds that will always defeat them. In “A Spoiled Man,” old Rezak, a man abandoned by his family, is taken on the Harouni estate to be a guard. He’s paid well by Sonya, the American wife of the wealthy Sohail Harouni, who sees her generosity as a way of doing good. More irony: Rezak prospers, saves money, brings a handicapped wife into his modest home and encounters unforseen tragedy, some of it driven by envy. In a reverse image of Nawabdin the electrician, he reflects on his sufferings: “The fault is mine, who married in old age, with one foot in the grave. God gave me so much more than I deserved, when I expected nothing at all.”

The variety and detail that shape these memorable characters more than offset the fatalism that pervades these stories. Yet Mueenuddin’s stark and unforgiving landscape invites contrast with the backdrop of contemporary North American short stories. For us, history does not cast as long a shadow as it does in Pakistan, and our characters most often dwell in the psychological dimension of life: family or romantic conflicts and unresolved feelings of one sort of another.  In In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, (and, I suspect, in many places on this earth) it’s the weight of history, custom and tradition — not neurosis — that narrows choice and crushes the lives of otherwise good and decent characters.  In light of this difference, what ordinary citizens are forced to bear is almost incomprehensible to us.

It’s a sombre reflection, that while we in the West have our own grave burdens, what we suffer is quite different in kind from the grievous history of those we would hope to understand. Mueenuddin’s collection allows us a rare opportunity to imagine Pakistan and to come to grips with the struggles of its people.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin was published in paperback by W.W. Norton (New York: 2009).

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