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A Savage Pastoral

Feb. 20, 2009

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS
by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Random House
Price: Rs 395, Pages: 248

I wish it had happened,” Sohail said, “For a Pakistani being born in London is about as exciting as being born in Lahore. Paris would be glamorous.” Sohail is Sohail Harouni; and the Harounis are the Punjabi feudal family Daniyal Mueenuddin uses to knit together the many lives that people his highly accomplished collection of linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Sohail’s remark is characteristic of the great remove, hard even to imagine in India, at which members of his class live, a class Mueenuddin represents as idle, summering in Europe, with Mimosas in hand and little bits of French ready on their lips. On the other end, seeming to form almost a ‘downstairs’ of sorts, are maidservants, managers, electricians who flourish ‘on a signature ability, a technique of cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters’.

And though the distance between the two classes is very great, running almost like a glass partition through the stories, the lives are linked in more ways than through just the Harounis: they are linked by a double-edged tension of people trying to escape their circumstances while running to meet their destinies.

It is in the space that opens up between hopes of escape, and hopes crushed, that Mueenuddin’s narrative arc runs, each story marked by the abuse of power, each ending in resignation and inevitability that feel like despair. Rezak, ‘a small bowlegged man with a lopsided battered face’, after becoming the victim of police brutality for trying to retrieve his young wife who has either run away or been carried away, muses in ‘A Spoiled Man’, “They gave him money to live beyond his station, they made him hope—for too much. And when he lost the girl, their instruments punished him for having dared to reach so high, for owning something that would excite envy, that placed him in the way of beatings and the police. Now he belonged to the Harounis. This was how he understood justice.”

Overlaying the cruelty in these stories is an almost pastoral quiet. Mueenuddin’s Pakistan, often expertly evoked with a single detail, is, on one hand, a place of mustard fields, rosewood trees, jasmine, red brick walls; on the other, of heavy drawing rooms, furniture unmoved for decades, old photographs, people with studied and often false manners. Mueenuddin sets up this stylised calm in each story, then rolls it aside to reveal savagery below. It is a credit to his gifts as a writer of complexity that he avoids the kind of moralising that has damaged other writers dealing with these inequalities, both in India and Pakistan. In these stories, everyone is tainted by the injustices of the society, everyone’s hands become dirty, even victims become complicit.

In ‘Provide, Provide’, Jaglani, a manager, with a ‘face marked with deep lines of self-control and resolution’, rises through the system by siphoning off money from the sales of K.K. Harouni’s lands. When he’s rich and powerful, a poor driver whose wife he covets, implores him, “Please, Chaudrey Sahib, you and I grew up together in Dunyapur, we played together as children. I beg you, don’t take what’s mine. You have so much, and I so little.” Jaglani answers, “I have so much because I took what I wanted. Go away.”

The loose movement of power, and the casual violence that goes with it, emerges as not just another thread, but as the only law governing this world. It can make the society, ‘of feudal Pakistan’, feel enclosed, inaccessible to the outsider. Some years ago, I experienced it first-hand on the lands of a young Sindhi feudal called the Mango King. I wrote then, “Though occasionally I felt his pain, I didn’t understand his world; I didn’t think it was a world that could be made understandable to someone who wasn’t obliged to work by its arbitrary laws; its brutalities were its own.” Make no mistake, Daniyal Mueenuddin is the biggest talent to come out of the brief literary flowering of English writing in Pakistan; and yet, it was with an old feeling of detachment, after some initial distress, that I left the painful world of these stories.