‘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