In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – A Review

September 20, 2012

Book Reviews

‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ is a collection of short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin, some of which have been previously published in The New Yorker and other journals. The eight faintly interlinked stories depict a feudal world in its dying throes, set against a torrid, transcendental Pakistan. Wisely picking up his characters across the social ladder, the author has etched an unforgettable canvas of a society roiled by decay and unbridled corruption. There is a rare intimacy with which he details the abject poverty, fortitude, cunning and the aspirations of the lesser class represented by the cooks, drivers, electricians, maidservants, attendants and farmhands. Similarly, the licentiousness, decadence, immorality, callousness and absolute power of the higher classes spill out like froth from the tales of the accountants, managers, judges, civil servants, and the socialites. It is a gravid and haunting picture of life in contemporary Pakistan, naked in all its glory, unparalleled in narration.

K. K. Harouni, retired civil servant and a feudal lord, is the axis around which this world revolves. Retired to ‘Gulfishan’, his sprawling mansion in Lahore, he owns enormous tracts of farms in Dunyapur. His establishments employ a platoon of attendants and officials representing many colours of the humanity, thus creating layers within layers of authority, resulting in a system fertile in friction.

Nawabdin, a father of thirteen children, is famed for his knack of dumbing down electricity meters. He is equally proficient in the art of padding up bills and wheedling out favours from the masters.

Saleema, born in the clan of blackmailers and bootleggers, is plucked from her village by a drug addict husband and planted into the cramped servant quarters of Harouni. She quickly finds duties in the kitchen and ingratiates herself with the cook. “The cooks tempted her, lording it over the kitchen, where she liked to sit, with the smell of broth and green vegetables and cooking sauce.” However, her life takes a poignant course once she abandons her parasitic husband to seek love in an ageing valet.

Jaglani, the corrupt estate manager, strikes gold when Harouni’s ill-conceived industrial ventures collapse and he starts selling blocks of lands. Jaglani sells the land at throwaway prices to himself and his relatives and allies, making considerable commissions. But the shrewd man succumbs to the stoic perseverance of Zainab, the driver’s sister who has fled from her husband to work on him.

A sessions judge from the Lahore High Court blurts out, “I don’t believe in justice, am no longer consumed by a desire to be what in law school we called ‘a sword of the Lord’; nor do I pretend to have perfectly clean hands.”

Husna, whose forefathers once commanded estates larger than Harouni’s, is aware that “in this world some families rise and some families fall”. Flung to penury, she aspires to get into a profession rather than a mediocre marriage. She carefully works her way into Harouni’s heart, she had “only herself to give. It hurt her that it was so little.”

Helen, a pretty American girl starts dating the sensitive son of a rich Pakistani businessman. Lily, the party animal shocks everyone by marrying a charming farmer. Rezak, well into the dusk of his life, is coaxed into rekindling the conjugal flame with a ‘feebleminded’ girl.

However, we soon discover that what happens to those characters as the stories unfold, fatally depends on the sex they are born with. It is a world where movement up the social ladder is possible, or rather viable, for men of lower stations but women may offer their bodies while they can and yet avail a fleeting relief at best. Electirician Nawab and Manager Jagalani wheedle, steal and plunder to quench their hunger for a richer life. True, their lives are also fraught with dangers lurking just around the corner, as is implied in a society festering with lawlessness. But the tragedies awaiting them are a far cry from the misfortunes in store for the lesser women who may be hankering for as little as a roof over their heads or their daily bread. If some of them get ambitious and dare to dream of a loving husband, a child or a place among the highbred, their destiny boomerangs on them that much harder. Move away ceilings of glass, we have slabs of concrete here! What is more, these slabs repel the creeping, crawling women with an alarming fierceness and crush them, quite like a cockroach discovered in a serene living room. As Husna points out, “I came with nothing, I leave with nothing. I leave with the clothes on my back.” Her anguished cry is both an epigraph and epitaph to the predicament of lowly women who dare to rise.

Even as Daniyal Mueenuddin is at his finest best when writing about the crushed and the destitute, he can write about the serfs and the masters with equal panache. His diction is light and springy yet forceful and he has a matter-of-fact tone that doesn’t mince words in the most complex of situations. His stories flow with a clinical focus, rarely bothered about a plot or a climax, concluding suddenly at short notice. One doesn’t have to look hard for the influence of the Russian masters of short fiction on his work. The depiction of the rural heartland of Pakistan easily flows from his pen as do the hurly-burly and the squalor of sewer ridden, concrete infested cities. He has also an uncanny eye that can scour tormented mindscapes. There is more than a hint of Hemingway’s Nada in the novella called ‘Lily’.

It is remarkable how there is a total absence of Islamic dogmatism in the fabric of these stories even as they strike at the heart of present day Pakistan. Daniyal Mueenuddin has ensured that the human drama holds the centre stage in all its banality without any religious undertones.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Author: Daniyal Mueenuddin

Published by: Random House India

Pages: 247

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About umashankar

I am just a watcher then. Sometimes I watch life. Sometimes I watch death. Many times I watch in between...

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51 Comments on “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – A Review”

  1. Found In Folsom Says:

    Now, I know around what time you publish your posts..:P You should be snoring by this time, Uma Shankar. You are really dusting off all the book s on your shelf. 🙂 I was seriously expecting a regular post from you, not a review. As I always say, would love to reading anything from your pen. But this one, is not like your other reviews. The last two paras, they leave your mark….:)

    Reply

  2. satish Says:

    Excellent review Uma, I will get hold of a copy simply because of your review…

    Reply

  3. The Fool Says:

    Once again a great review. Book theme also seems quite interesting.

    Reply

  4. Jas Says:

    So you are on a book reading spree. But it seems a little too serious. Is it?

    Reply

  5. Corinne Rodrigues Says:

    This looks like a very interesting read. I haven’t read any books by Pakistani authors and have been receiving some recommendations of late. I’m adding your recommendations to my list. Thanks for a good review.

    Reply

  6. Amit Says:

    I have added it to my wishlist on Flipkart. I liked the cover and name of the book the moment I opened your post and your review removed any remaining doubts.

    Reply

  7. alkagurha Says:

    Havent read a good one in a long time…Unless I read the book, it is difficult to comment but the review is excellent, as always.

    Reply

  8. Personal Concerns Says:

    This sounds like a great review. Pakistan is anyway in a curious state of affairs. Any story coming out from there (“Jin Lahore Na Vekhya”) should be fascinating, so I feel!

    Reply

  9. manju Says:

    I am certainly going to read this book! I love “human drama”- makes a tale much more universal and lasting than one dependent on its ‘background’.

    Excellent review!

    Reply

  10. C. Suresh Says:

    Mmm! If Daniyal captured the essence of a Pakistan, you have encapsulated the essence of his book, it seems Uma! Your review seems to have captured the mood of the book that you reviewed!

    Reply

  11. sudhagee Says:

    Your wonderful review is just an example how much we neglect to read more of our own literature and that of our neighbours. Though I have read quite few translations from across the borders, both state and national, I haven’t read this one. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      I agree, Sudhagee, about how we to tend to ignore our own and those closer to us. Yet, such is the state of things that we have more chaff than wheat among us today. That said, I am trying to do my bit even if at a snail’s pace. Thanks for appreciating.

      Reply

  12. aakanksharulz Says:

    This is a brilliant review because it is so well written with all points taken into consideration! Thanks for reviewing this quite unknown book.

    Reply

  13. Bikramjit Singh Mann Says:

    SIR ji , these people should hire you or pay you for writing the reviews , they are so good that people will be buying the book for sure .. 🙂

    Reply

  14. Rachna Parmar Says:

    I somehow don’t favor short stories except on blogs. I like a full-fledged novel. I know I am digressing but I read a couple of Pakistani books. “My Feudal Lord” stands out for me. Benazir’s biography was quite pedestrian. Iranian, Saudi Arabian, and Pakistani cultures have always fascinated me for being so close yer so far to our own.

    Reply

  15. Akshay Kumar G Says:

    Not only are your reviews brilliant but I also applaud the fact the choice of books you read. Shows your class, Mr. Pandey. 🙂

    Sorry for missing your posts lately, my health issues have sort of cropped up again.

    Reply

  16. Zephyr Says:

    I have read Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa and My Feudal Lord. I liked both since I feel that a good writer can capture human drama and the society no matter which culture they belong to, not to speak of which nationality. This book is no exception. I would love to read it for its sociological perspective. Thanks for the review.

    Reply

  17. Sabyasachi Patra Says:

    This seems like an interesting book to read. I guess I should do some long train journeys and read this on the way. Nice review Umashankar!

    Reply

  18. ilakshee Says:

    You have captured the book very aptly…as I read the book, my perception of Pakistan changed and gave me a 3D view. So far we’d been fed a very 2D version by the politicians. Your review is definitely doing justice to the book…

    Reply

  19. shovonc Says:

    The pretty American girl seems like an obvious ploy to catch foreign readers. But thanks for the review.

    Reply

  20. Latha Says:

    Got this book on Sunday evening and finished it. Didn’t expect to find it in our local library. Haven’t finished any book so quickly in the recent past..:) Thank you for the review .

    Reply

  21. Giribala Says:

    I have read the title story in the New Yorker long time ago, and have completely forgotten about it.
    This is unrelated, but I recently read a story by Mohsin Hamid, probably it’s an extract from his upcoming book. I did not like it at all. http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2012/09/24/120924fi_fiction_hamid

    Reply

  22. umashankar Says:

    I read the story whose link you have kindly provided. All I can say is, Daniyal Mueenuddin is unlikely to disappoint you. You can pick up his book with confidence.

    Reply

  23. raju070 Says:

    Reading through every review of yours, I have one thing to say: You are a master of the art. 🙂 Every review is so detailed, so insightful, so personal and so innovative. I say innovative because you analyze the book in several perspectives which people don’t really think about or give importance to. It shows how intricately and intimately you have read the book and why and how it has touched you. And unanimously every review kindles the curiosity for the reader to get and get the book straight away. You have got a real gift in your pen and in your brain. And coming to the book, it looks like it paints a great picture of real human emotions and outlines a society in its true shades and colors. The stunning portrait you paint of its various characters is a treat in itself and the book sounds like a fascinating read.

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      Raju, key to writing a book review lies in understanding the book. Writing a good review naturally implies understanding the book that much better. I am grateful to you for understanding the travails of this reviewer. Thank you for your reassuring stamp of approval, my friend!

      Reply

  24. Seema Misra Says:

    I liked the way you have summed up the book without giving away too much. I was floored by this book, and went on to read several Pakistani authors after it. None of them matched up to Mueenuddin’s craftsmanship.

    This book was impressive in its expanse and the array of characters it touched upon, and yet he wove the stories into a common arc giving the feel of a master who is well in control of his creation. It highlighted social reality in Pakistan and many other third world nations, including India, in a subtle way. As a reader I was interested in the characters and looked forward to knowing how their lives panned out. Fresh, crisp dialogue; easy readability; dense characterization and impeccable storytelling make this a book worth owning.

    Reply

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