Slices of Feudal Pakistan in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

In Saleema, one of the more heart-wrenching tales in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a young woman makes the mistake of trying to rise above her station. At a disadvantage due to her background (she was born into the Jhulan clan, blackmailers and bootleggers), youth and gender, the protagonist Saleema dispenses sexual favours to make a better life for herself. She eventually falls in love with the Rafik, long-time valet to the master of the house, KK Harouni, and he with her. A brief, loving relationship and a baby follow, but the inevitable happens. Rafik returns to his family, and Saleema is left to fend for herself.

Other characters are similarly punished for trying to fulfil their hearts’ desires in this book, which features stories about the family and household of a Lahore landowner, KK Harouni. In Provide, Provide Chaudhry Jaglani, Harouni’s manager at his family estate in southern Punjab falls in love with Zainab, the driver’s married sister. Jaglani is a canny man, who has over the years acquired weath and the power and respect that go with it. His whole life has been the result of careful planning and he feels he owes it to himself to take Zainab as well. He justifies to himself and Zainab’s husband, “I have so much because I took what I wanted.” In A Spoiled Man, Rezak, abandoned by his family and barely managing to subsist on odd jobs, finds himself on Harouni’s estate and being offered a job there. His luck holds well, as he gets a small patch of land on which to park his portable hut and settle down.  It seems only natural that he should get himself a young, new bride to keep in company. The titular protagonist of Lily too wants to settle down, after a life of hard-partying and irresponsibility. She marries Murad, a well-to-do American-educated young Pakistani who takes her to live on his farm in southern Punjab. Lily works hard to fit in with her husband’s lifestyle and tries to care about the farm as much as he does.  In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, the poor, young and ambitious Husna becomes Harouni’s companion and mistress, and tries hard to win the acceptance of the household servants and Harouni’s family and friends.

None of these stories have happy endings. Jaglani abandons Zainab while on his deathbed, Rezak’s wife goes missing and he ends his days alone and uncared for, Lily finds herself suffocating in her marriage and Husna is forced to leave Harouni’s house after the old man’s death. We, the readers, know that Mueenuddin isn’t writing fairy stories where everything ends well, and the blow is just as hard for us as it is for the characters when things begin to go awry. And yet, Mueenuddin’s skill is such that he doesn’t allow himself or his characters to wallow in their misery. His distilled, clear prose is as contemplative as an afternoon cup of tea and imbued with gentle wisdom and humour. With a less talented writer, Saleema and Zainab’s stories would have developed into melodramatic plots about the unjust hand dealt to underprivileged women and how their only currency is their sexuality. Mueenuddin stops short of making these moral pronouncements. He lays out the stories as they unfold, allowing the reader to take in everything at her own pace.

This is an ambitious book which seeks to throw into sharp relief the various slices of life that make up modern Pakistan. Mueenuddin has successfully fleshed out the machinations of a divided household, the sexual politics that pervade both above and below the stairs and the various ways in which life queers well-laid plans. One could perhaps say that the writer is better when he is depicting life below the stairs, in the servants’ quarters where the cook lords it in the kitchen and where the women seek the sexual patronage, and protection, of the more important domestics. One someone as monumentally unlikeable as Hassan the cook is sketched in lines that feel firmer and more assured, while characters like Saleema, Jaglani and Nawabdin Electrician are simply delightful. Above the stairs, however, the characters all seem a trifle flat in comparison and their inner turmoils simply do not engage the reader as much. In fact, one of the least memorable stories in the book is Our Lady of Paris, where Harouni’s grandson Sohail and his American girlfriend Helen feel the distance growing between them after they meet Sohail’s parents.  There’s tension woven throughout the story and you do become invested in the lives of these characters, but it lacks the gentle humour that marks many of the other stories.

This in not to say that the book is dissatisfying at any point. Even the weaker stories are far better than the works of many other writers. With its measured narration and acute observations, this book announces itself as a classic from the very first page.

 

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