In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin

mueenuddin

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut book is one that slowly but surely fought its way to the top of my reading agenda. A positive NY Times review was my first tip; other positive reviews kept bringing it up and a place on the National Book Awards shortlist finally told me that I should read it. I am very glad that I did — this is truly one of the best books of the season.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of eight linked stories — I am a novel reader and I would prefer to regard this as a novel, rather than a short story collection. While it is true that each of the eight stories stands on its own (and has been published elsewhere), the real strength of this very engaging book is to put them all together.

The ovearching character of In Oher Rooms, Other Wonders is K. K. Harouni, an aging Pakistani landowner who has shepherded his lucrative family assets reasonably well (but only reasonably) as the country moves into the modern age. He is not so much competent as “not a disaster” — the family is still well off, the serfs are treated well, the landlord is still respected — and Mueenuddin uses that conceit to frame his look at today’s Pakistan. We neither like nor dislike K.K.; we appreciate that people like him are necessary and could have made things a lot worse than they are.

The first four stories in this collection are best described as historical, looking at the traditional relationships between members of the underclass and their masters. Consider, for example, Nawabdin the electrician, the central character of the opening story:

He flourished on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters, so cunningly done that his customers could specify to the hundred-rupee note the desired monthly savings. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tube wells ran day and night, Nawab’s discovery eclipsed the philosopher’s stone.

Those are the opening words in this wonderful book and they offer the promise of all that is to come. If you do your job well, you find ways to skim — and it is in the skimming that you make your fortune (sounds like the Wall Street of today, doesn’t it?). Nawabdin is a valued employee in the Harouni conglomerate; he negotiates and achieves a motor scooter; it is the attempt to steal that scooter that ends this part of the story. In the opening four stories of this collection, the author explores a number of other cases of what it is like to be dependent on, but also succeed through, a “patron” — it is a theme not just of Pakistan but one that extends to the rest of the world.

Perhaps more important in the first section is the author’s exploration of what happens to women in this environment. If they are born into privilege (as Harouni’s daughters are) they become suppressors of the first order. And if they are born into poverty, they have but one asset — their body and the chance to offer it — and it must be used wisely. That tactic may work in the short term, but it never lasts.

In “Provide, Provide”, the declining K. K. Harouni is totally reliant on his land manager, Chaudrey Jaglani, to look after his interests. Given some bad investments, Harouni needs to sell land — Jaglani is in charge and delivers but he arranges, of course, to buy the best parcels himself at very discounted prices, thus becoming a significant person in his own right:

Though he had become crooked on a large scale, Jaglani did not believe himself to have broken his feudal allegiance to K.K. Harouni, but instead felt himself appropriately to be taking advantage of the master’s incapacity and lack of oversight, not seceding but simply expressing a more independent stance. He continued to run the farm extremely well and profitably, and continued sending money to Lahore, a larger share of the net in fact than he used to send, because he himself had developed other sources of income.

Into this mix comes Zainab, as an impoverished servant. She wants to move up and a “relationship” with Jaglani is the path — in fact, it is her only path. While her short-term tactics succeed, the path has a dead end. The problem with hitching your future to a rising star is that rising stars also fall; that is not only true in Pakistan, it is true in the rest of the world.

Mueenuddin accurately uses his first four stories to set up the history of the Harouni family story; it is in the fifth story — the title story — that he finally brings us face-to-face with K.K. himself. He is in his seventies at this point, and facing death. His wife has long been dispatched to another location, his children are distant at best, he is alone. Into this world comes Husna:

Husna needed a job. She stole up the long drive to the Lahore house of the retired civil servant and landlord K. K. Harouni, bearing in her little lacquered fingers a letter of introduction from, of all people, his estranged first wife. The butler, knowing that Husna serve the old Begum Harouni in an indefinite capacity, somewhere between maidservant and companion, did not seat her in the living room. Instead he put her in the office of the secretary, who every afternoon took down in shorthand a few pages of Mr. Harouni’s memoirs, cautiously titled Perhaps This Happened.

(Digression: Is that not the best memoir title ever?)

Husna is on a mission; K.K. may be 70 but he is the key to her need;

Given to her fits of crushing grey lassistude and then to sunny, almost hysterical moments, she had always believed she would escape the gloominess of her parents’ house in an unfashionable part of the city. She would escape the bare concrete steps, layered with dust, leading up into rooms without windows, the walls painted bright glossy colors, as if to make up for the gloom, the television covered with an embroidered cloth. She had spoiled herself with daydreams, until her parents were afraid of her moods.

Husna’s definition of success is to become K.K.’s mistress. She does achieve that, but it turns out that she had the wrong definition. Mueenuddin does a masterful job in this title story of bridging the traditional with the modern, of showing how we still pay homage to what used to be, even though we know it is no longer what is.

This review is going to give short shrift to the final three stories because it is already long enough, but in no way is that a critical judgment on those stories — they may be even better than the other five. Suffice to say that the author has created a highly successful triptych — four stories that explore how things were in the past, a title story that represents the present, three final stories that start to look at what the future might bring. The Pakistan that Mueenuddin portrays is not a traditional one — in fact, it is very modern. At a time when many in the West are looking at this country as a needed ally, he offers a very useful short course in identifying some of the issues that we might want to think about.

If you are contemplating approaching this book (and I certainly would recommend that — it is excellent on every front), keep that in mind. While styled and promoted as a collection of stories (and it is that), it is even more an impressionistic portrait of life in a country that has been under-represented in English-language fiction to date. I can’t wait for the author’s next volume.

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23 Responses to “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin”

  1. Rob Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    This is one that I’ve so far failed to read – despite having acquired it twice, after the first copy fell into a spriral of onward book loans from which it never returned.

    This is, I think, the first review I’ve seen of it, and it’s certainly making me think that I should dig out that second copy.

  2. Rob Says:

    Hm. I assume that a “spriral” is a more energetic and lively version of a “spiral”.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I was very impressed, Rob. One of the things that successful short story writers do is to quickly create characters who have a remarkable fullness — Mueenuddin does that in every one of the eight stories. That is why I thought the book had a very “novelish” touch to it as the result is a community of linked individuals.

    And while I could correct the spelling of “spriral”, I think I’ll leave it since you have offered such a good definition of the new word.:-)

  4. Isabel Says:

    I might give myself this book for Christmas.

    Here’s part of an interview. I heard it on National Public Radio (NPR):

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101484912

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the link, Isabel. It would be a very nice present to yourself.

  6. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I noticed, in your review, a continued refrain of something being true everywhere as much as in Pakistan. I don’t know what to make of it; where did it come from?

    It seems Mueenuddin has got unnaturally good luck in terms of covers. Here, for example, is the Indian edition.

    Your review reminded me of two different books:
    When you said, “four stories that explore how things were in the past, a title story that represents the present, three final stories that start to look at what the future might bring”, I thought of Salman Rushdie’s East, West which is similar, the stories are arranged in three parts ‘East’, ‘East,West’ and ‘West’. You can guess why I thought of this.
    Another short story collection that works as a novel is Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, which I just read recently. I have a review of it here.

    PS: I think you sold it to me. I’ll find out for sure tomorrow.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You are right, Ronak, that it is a bit of a refrain — I didn’t mean it deliberately as such, but it is there. I think what I found intriguing was that Mueenuddin, in examining a feudal relationship and history, produced a story that has close comparisons in much less feudal societies. And, as a reader who has not read many novels set in Pakistan, there is no doubt I found myself on a learning curve (I certainly liked this more than A Case of Exploding Mangoes, although I did not dislike that book either).

    Your two comparisons are appropriate — Chandra’s I have not read, but I think you have sold me on that one as well. Thanks.

  8. Kerry Says:

    Excellent review, Kevin. I think I will have to join the rush of your readers to the bookstore to get this one. Have you read The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splended Suns and, if so, is it useful to compare?

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I read A Thousand Splendid Suns and don’t think there is much of a comparison — my impression of both of those is that they are more plot and action driven while this book is more a study of various members of a “community” (extended feudal family?) on a pretty local level, with far less global politics involved. Which I suspect will also keep its sales well below those two, which certainly were/are successful.

  10. Kerry Says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I suspected as much from your review. I look forward to reading this collection.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I see from wikipedia he was an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton, that’s not an easy shop to get into, even if he has family money behind him it was brave to leave that world behind (most Wall Street associates hate their jobs, but few leave them because the money’s so good).

    Anyway, enough of that, this is a definite buy for me, thanks Kevin, it sounds marvellous.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I do think that given both your day job and your interests, this is one that will give you returns on both fronts. I wasn’t aware of his connections (and I do know them by reputation); I agree that that is a significant decision. It will take me a few days to contemplate how that adds to the book.

  13. Ronak M Soni Says:

    I’m really angry about this book. I was going to buy it, but then I found out that I hadn’t got some money a bookstore was supposed to send, so I didn’t have anything to buy it with.
    It’s a pity. I probably won’t be able to buy it till January.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: It will still be a good book in January. Don’t lose heart.

  15. Bill Says:

    Hey Kevin… loved the book. Deeply melancholy, moving – but a stunning achievement. His prose is gorgeous and I found that the ending to each short story was stunning, such a blunt finish.
    Probably the best novel I’ve read in a very, very long time. Reminded me of Jhampa Lahiri’s collection of short stories from last year in a lot of ways…

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bill: Good to read that you loved it — I think the comparison with Lahiri (whom I also admire) is quite fair, even if the two do approach the issue in quite different ways.

  17. The Mookse and the Gripes » Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Announced Says:

    [...] Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin.  For a review of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, check out this one from [...]

  18. leroyhunter Says:

    I read your review when I was contemplating this one Kevin so am back now having read it. I thought it was very good, Mueenuddin is obviously a seriously talented writer given this is his first collection. Like you I’d mark him down for future attention.

    I liked the discreet links between the 8 stories, but I thought they stood alone more so then eg the elements in Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. They do though as you say take meaning and resonance from each other and add up to something that is quite novelistic. A striking portrait of a society and the reach of a single sprawling family enterprise, the Harounis. He covers an awful lot, from the poverty of the serf class to the secretly indulged western decadance of the ruling wealthy – all the while creating quite vivid characters in each distinct section. And I think you’re right that the closing stories may be even stronger then the others.

    Quite an achievement.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for bringing this back to the comment list — it is a collection that I remember with great fondness (and a reread of the review did bring back some detailed memories). Definitely a book that I would continue to recommend.

  20. Immad Says:

    Kevin is it possible to somehow get a summary for each of these short stories from the internet?

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry, Immad, I don’t know — since I’ve actually read them in the physical book, I had no reason to look for Internet summaries.

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’d forgotten this and that I intended to buy it, so I was pleased to see some fresh comments pop up in my inbox. Very timely.

    Thanks again for the review Kevin.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: While I haven’t read it, there is apparently a new release of another similarly-structure collection, Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon. I saw a recommendation elsewhere from someone who liked Mueenuddin’s book — he says the Jamal is much bleaker but was also very impressed by it. My reading agenda is very full for the next while, but I have Jamal’s book noted for sometime in the future.

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