- In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Bloomsbury, 237 pp, £14.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 7475 9713 1
A number of the stories in this collection cluster around the figure of K.K. Harouni, an elderly landowner in 1970s Pakistan, with a big house in Lahore and farms in the Punjabi countryside, just as Harouni himself exists at the centre of a far-reaching network of subordinates and dependants. In some of the stories he’s a remote master, viewed from the perspective of the people who work his land: when occasionally he descends on his farms, his subordinates accept that he needs to be surrounded with his ‘mechanical cocoon’ of ‘air conditioners, water heaters, refrigerators’, as if he belonged to a different species. In other stories we meet him in his own social milieu, or enter into the machinations of his manager, or into the private lives of his household servants.
K.K.’s world is ‘as measured and as concentric as that of the Sun King at Versailles’, his old age passing in ritual rounds of visits, bridge games, whisky drinking, walks taken in the garden for his health. His implacable confidence in his own importance makes him almost passive, and he’ll do anything to avoid unpleasantness; over time, his inner life has given way: the mask and the routines (he chews his food ‘exactly ten times before swallowing’) are all there is. His perfectly nuanced manners and the ‘mild look’ on his ‘handsome golden face’ make him seem less like a living man and more like one of the ornamental brass and copper figurines of Hindu gods in his big suburban house. Somewhere inside this shell, he’s lonely, and in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s title story, ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’, he finds fulfilment in a sexual relationship with Husna, a young and poor relation. She comes to the house ostensibly to learn to type, so that she can make herself a career. ‘Critical, quick-witted, sensual and slightly crude’, speaking the ‘rich Punjabi of the inner city’, not important in anyone’s life except her own, Husna is lonely too. Improbably, across the differences of age and class and culture, their relationship becomes a real communion and a reminder for K.K. of the maidservant he lost his virginity to when he was 14.
In its small space, the story boldly deals with a sweep of Pakistani history and culture. In the 1980s, when it’s set, K.K.’s aristocratic class remains all-powerful: the ‘old barons still dominated the government, the prime minister [was] a huge feudal landowner.’ Their hegemony, however, is beginning to be threatened by the new industrialists (K.K.’s daughter is married to a man of that sort, and in another story K.K. himself tries investing in manufacturing, selling off land to do it, but without success). The intricate social structures of that historical moment are reflected in the story’s outward forms: in the big house, for instance, with its ancestral portraits, crowds of servants, garden full of old trees, and its smell of ‘dusty carpets and disinfectant and wood polish’. Husna is desperate to escape from her father’s house in the Old City into this space of privilege and leisure, to leave behind the ‘bare concrete steps, layered with dust’ and ‘rooms without windows, the walls painted bright glossy colours, as if to make up for the gloom’. Yet the Old City was once where power was located; K.K. has kept in his new house the carved doors from the old family home there.