In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2068

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...

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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 relative, demonstrates his own lack of sensitivity. He does not wish to provide electricity to an elderly watchman’s hut on his property, responding to the suggestion with “Are you kidding?These guys don’t get bored.” There seems to be no way to bridge the real gulf between the classes.

Unfortunately, the traditional culture of corruption remains in Mueenuddin’s Pakistan. Chaudrey Jaglani, K. K.’s estate manager, sells his employer’s land as ordered but buys the best parcels for himself, secretly enriching himself at K. K.’s expense. In “About a Burning Girl,” both a mystery and an illustration of practical politics, much ado is made about the difficulty of rescuing a favorite servant from the police after he is accused of setting his brother’s wife on fire. The cynical judge who narrates this story has been asked to intercede, primarily because of his wife’s complaints that finding a good servant is “impossible.” New evidence and appropriate bribes are created in order to free the accused man. As the judge well knows, “In Pakistan all things can be arranged.” Ironically, no one mourns for the dead woman.

Mueenuddin’s treatment of his female characters often involves telling a story from a female perspective, as he does with Husna. His insights are impressive, especially in the midst of a hierarchical, male-centered culture. Poor women, such as the nameless burn victim, are essentially powerless in this society. Wealthy women, like the judge’s wife, may have limited control within their households but are still at the mercy of their husbands or fathers. Although one critic suggests that these women are able to use sex as a weapon to get what they want, any power they may acquire is temporary, as the stories confirm.

Saleema has the hardest life. Descended from a clan of unsavory characters, she is the daughter of a promiscuous mother and a father fatally addicted to heroin. At fourteen, she is already being abused by men. A new husband brings her to Lahore, where he becomes addicted to amphetamines. Ultimately, Saleema becomes a servant in K. K.’s wealthy rural home, where her drugged husband shares her room while she sleeps with the cook for extra food. When the cook grows tired of her, she seeks another protector and attaches herself to Rafik, K. K.’s kindly old manservant. He is married, but his wife has always lived elsewhere.

Saleema has a son with Rafik, who loves her and the baby. Rafik confesses the affair to his wife and eventually separates from Saleema out of guilt, although he continues to give her money. After K. K. dies, his household disintegrates. Saleema loses her job, begins to use drugs, and is reduced to begging in the streets with her child.

Mueenuddin demonstrates that more fortunate Pakistani women also face obstacles, although perhaps not as grave. “Our Lady of Paris” explores a different conflict of culture and class, as Sohail Harouni, like many of the collection’s characters, reappears in an earlier phase of his life. Having earned his law degree at Yale, he has returned to Karachi and his wealthy parents to follow in his father’s footsteps and to wait for Helen, the American student he is dating, to complete her final year. Helen, whose single mother works as a secretary, hopes to study medicine. The young couple has planned to meet in Paris for the Christmas holidays, but Sohail’s redoubtable mother announces that his parents will be there too. He is not pleased.

The narrative viewpoint shifts to Helen, as she prepares for the dinner in Paris where she will meet Sohail’s parents. She feels intimidated, deliberately shut off from Sohail and his mother, particularly as they attend the ballet without her. Wisely, the young people manage to arrange a brief idyll without the parents, but Helen begins to recognize that their lives and goals are incompatible. Seen mostly through Helen’s eyes, this is a love story gone wrong.

Lily proves a dramatic exception to the other women of In Other Rooms, Other Words. The daughter of formerly wealthy parents in Lahore, she lives a wild, excessive lifestyle filled with alcohol and parties, even as her parents can scarcely maintain their social position. When a serious automobile accident hospitalizes her with a concussion, Lily dreams of parachuting from a flaming jet plane. She views this dream as a symbolic escape from her previous dissolute lifean escape for which a part of her longs.

Despite her dream, Lily relies on champagne to help her feel comfortable at an evening party hosted by a flamboyant friend who has imported enough sand to create a fake beach. At the party, she encounters a man she has seen before but does not rememberthe young businessman and Punjabi farmer Murad Talwan, who has begun growing vegetables in greenhouses (as does Mueenuddin himself) in order to bring them to market earlier than his competitors. The previous year, Murad, while grieving the recent death of his mother, noticed Lily at a gathering and was impressed by his idealized vision of her beside the pool. Now, they are attracted to each other: She is lost, and he has been lost.

In time, Murad drives Lily to a place where the Kabul and Indus rivers meet: brown and blue streams side by side, not yet joined, foreshadowing their lives together. Then, he stays the night with Lily (chastely, at his request). In four months, they marry, but there seems to be no real union of these two people; they remain separate even after marriage. She is impulsive; he is deliberate.

Lily insists on honeymooning at the farm where they will live, rather than going abroad. While Murad feels respect and love for his land and for the people who work it, she becomes bored with the quiet life of the farm and realizes that she does not wish to become pregnant. Unable to accept the changes she thought she wanted, Lily soon invites her friends to the farm for a weekend party, and once in their presence she returns to the life that she rejected. While Murad politely avoids the rowdy visitors, Lily drinks heavily and is unfaithful to him. Secretly reading her husband’s private journal, she discovers that he loathes her parties yet is determined to work on their marriage: She must make a decision. The author does not judge this woman but reveals her desperate confusion.

Mueenuddin, who prefers to write in English, is also fluent in Urdu and Punjabi. His style is intimate yet dispassionate, his descriptions terse but sharp, as when he says a servant’s “leathery glum face made him look as if he had been pickled in gin.” Subtly inserting custom and color into his stories, he is careful to convey the meaning of unfamiliar terms by their context, frequently using local idioms. For example, Nawabdin greets his wife with, “Hello, my love, my chicken piece.” With regard to K. K.’s dishonest servants, the valet Rafik complains to Saleema that his employer “made these peoplethe fathers ate his salt, and now the sons have forgotten and are eating everything else.” In a frequently harsh world, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s practiced eye sees into the hearts of his characters with empathy and understanding.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

Booklist 105, no. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2009): 46.

The Economist 390, no. 8619 (February 21, 2009): 85.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 23 (December 1, 2008): 1223

London Review of Books 31, no. 14 (July 23, 2009): 27-28.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 17 (November 5, 2009): 39-40.

The New York Times Book Review, February 8, 2009, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 46 (November 17, 2008): 37-38.

The Spectator 310, no. 9429 (May 16, 2009): 36.

Time 173, no. 5 (February 9, 2009): 56.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 2009, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2009, p. W2.

The Washington Post, February 15, 2009, p. BW10.

World Literature Today 83, no. 4 (July/August, 2009): 68.

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