Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rooms Of Wonder

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


Writing about Henry Green’s Loving and Living, those novels of the goings-on between workers, domestics and employers in class-ridden Britain, John Updike commented upon the writer’s “infinite subtlety and untiring tenderness”, noting that “these maidservants and workmen are seen with more than egalitarian generosity; they loom as figures of a luminous, simplifying grandeur”. This is what comes to mind while reading Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. These eight loosely-linked tales – most of which appeared earlier in The New Yorker, Granta and Zoetrope – are largely set in a semi-urban, feudal Pakistan away from the noise and dazzle of the big cities, and most of them deal with the hopes and disappointments of maidservants, valets and itinerant workmen.

The link between the stories is that they revolve around people drawn like iron filings to the magnetic influence of the patriarchal K.K. Harouni, head of a wealthy landowning family, who owns a sprawling Lahore house as well as various estates and farms. The book is populated by, among others, an electrician who’s not above tampering with meters, tenaciously holding on to his prized possessions; a maidservant who enters into a sexual relationship with a valet to safeguard her future; an estate manager whose rise and fall demonstrates the fickle nature of power; and an impoverished relative who begins an affair with Harouni himself, only to realize the transience of security.

The women advance through sexual alliances and backroom influence; the men, through pandering and obsequiousness. People barter what they have – bodies, skills, contacts – for personal gain: an increase in power and affluence, a chance to lead better lives. That in the process they have to cut corners, wheedle, deceive or court favour is besides the point, as the success of such transactions is often quite literally a matter of life and death.

Thus, Mueenuddin clear-sightedly shows us the effects of late-stage feudalism on individuals under the harrow, much as Turgenev did with his A Sportstman’s Sketches over two centuries ago. There are no moral judgments: his is an understanding and even sympathetic look at the series of negotiations through which his characters attempt to better their lives

It could be pointed out that the some of the female characters – Husna, from the title story and the pseudonymous Saleema, for example -- are almost exactly the same in actions and ambitions, and there would be more than a grain of truth to this complaint. The writer takes care, though, to make sure that the plots arise organically from the constant actions of the main characters. Not for them the leisurely reflections and hesitating doubts of those with means, or the resigned fatalism supposedly indulged in by peasants. These are active participants in the making and unmaking of their own lives. In the process, the distinctions that emerge are not as much of class but of status and power.

Though Mueeuniddin’s métier would appear to lie in writing about the lives of the subaltern, equally resonant is the haunting ‘Lily’, about a jaded, party-going woman from Islamabad who attempts a form of reinvention through her marriage with an engaging, determined landowner from the Punjab -- only to discover that the attitudes of the past aren’t that easily abandoned. No less evocative is ‘Our Lady of Paris’, in which an American student meets her Pakistani suitor’s cultured and wealthy parents to find that their attitudes are more dissimilar than imagined.

The prose charts the ups and downs of these lives in a classically realistic mode, with an effortless simplicity that belies the care with which it must have been crafted. An example of this is that even minor characters, from drivers to cooks and others in the domestic retinue, are adumbrated with care. The element of puckishness in some places – such as the first-person tone of ‘About a Burning Girl’ – brings to mind Narayan and early Naipaul; equally, the inevitability with which others such as ‘Saleema’ and ‘A Spoiled Man’ unfold, evoke the wistfulness and sensitivity of William Trevor.

If one of the aims of fiction is to create empathy with those outside one’s ken, then Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short stories score a bull’s eye. Each room in this world is worth lingering in.


Anonymous said...

Nice review...I've read one story - 'Nawabuddin Electrician'...looking fwd to picking up the book.

Unknown said...

Thanks. Do read it, it's an impressive debut indeed.