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.