In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin, the son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, grew up in Pakistan and Wisconsin, graduated from Dartmouth and Yale, and has practiced corporate law in New York. His first book, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is set in the Punjab region, where he wrote it while living on the family farm that he oversees and that served as a model for the fictional farm of K. K. Harouni. The eight interconnected stories of the collection depict ordinary Pakistanis of all classes. K. K., a retired civil servant and a still-wealthy member of a fading Pakistani aristocracy, serves as a unifying figure for the stories, which focus on those who surround him: his family, colleagues, and servants.
In the lead story, “Nawabdin Electrician” (2008), K. K. is the patron of a likable mechanic and general handyman whose house has “running water in all three rooms.” As the father of twelve daughters and one son, Nawab thoroughly enjoys his family, hiding coveted lumps of brown sugar in his vest to surprise and delight them. In addition, he carries on numerous private enterprises to augment his meager wages and prepare for his daughters’ dowries. Nawab maintains the tube wells that irrigate his employer’s sugarcane, cotton, and mango fields. He also knows how to adjust electricity meters to save his poorer clients money. He is benignly dishonesta sort of Pakistani Robin Hood.
Traveling from job to job on a rickety bicycle, Nawab wants to ask K. K. for a motorcycle to make his life a little easier. Instead, he slyly complains of his tired old legs and begs his employer for release, fully aware that K. K. does not want to lose him. His strategy works, but the coveted motorcycle soon brings him misfortune, and then even Nawabdin, a good man, can summon no compassion for the person who ultimately confronts him. After reading this story when it was originally published in The New Yorker, British Indian author Salman Rushdie was so impressed that he included it in The Best American Short Stories, 2008.
More than one critic has observed that Pakistani writers typically focus on the massive social changes taking place in their world, and this is certainly true of Mueenuddin, as the lives of his characters illustrate. Change is an underlying theme in all the stories, as Pakistan undergoes a transformation. This is seen in the diminishing wealth and influence of the old landed aristocratic families, such as the Harounis, who are selling off their land to raise money, and the increasing prominence and power of the new industrialists. English has become the favored language of the social elite, some of whom take pride in knowing neither Urdu (the official Pakistani language) nor the regional language of Punjabi.
Change marks the contrast between the lives of rich and poor, as well as the difficulties of those who attempt to bridge that gap. In the title story, young Husna, neither privileged nor abjectly poor, has “refused to accept her present status,” having “neither talent nor beauty.” Originally, her ancestors were quite wealthy, but they gradually lost their money, and she longs to rise socioeconomically. At present, she attends to K. K.’s estranged wife Begum Harouni, who lives apart from her husband. Remotely related to K. K., Husna seeks his assistance in finding a teaching position, but, because she refuses to marry, he advises her to learn a skill instead. His secretary will teach her to type.
Seven years ago, K. K. suffered a heart attack; now, he walks daily, inviting Husna to walk with him as a companion. He is alone; his married daughters have their lives elsewhere. Husna, feeling that she deserves K. K.’s world, struggles with ambition and ambivalence. Because she reminds him of his youth, she knows she could become his mistress, although the begum will be jealous of any attention she receives.
When the begum decides to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca without her, Husna complains to K. K. He, who is rather removed from life and avoids unpleasantness, invites her to stay at his home in Lahore, the Punjabi capital, while the begum is gone. She will have her own apartment in the annex. Thus, Husna joins K. K.’s household. Although a virgin, she ultimately decides to seduce K. K., thereby altering her own future. He is lonely and fears imminent death, but she learns to handle him well and gradually grows to feel real affection for him.
Some of K. K.’s elderly friends accept Husna, while the servants recognize that she has influence and treat her more respectfully. After K. K. is stricken in the middle of the night and taken to the hospital, his doctor instructs Husna to stay at the house rather than accompany him. When K. K.’s class-conscious daughters arrive, they immediately banish her to the annex, treating her as a servant, and after he dies, she is curtly dismissed.
Just as the Harouni daughters reveal their lack of understanding and utter indifference to what Husna has lost, young Sohail Harouni, another wealthy...
(The entire section is 2068 words.)