- 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.
What Husna really wants are diamond drop earrings, and to shop in expensive stores – but these are tokens of privilege K.K. doesn’t offer. She has seen the future at family weddings, the handsome young men ‘blowing through dull parties . . . on their way to somewhere else, to cool rooms where ice and alcohol glowed on the table . . . she imagined them gliding through foreign airports, at ease in the European cities that she read about.’ She tries to plough through books about the history of K.K.’s ancestors in the Sikh wars, but soon gets bored, and turns instead to her collection of second-hand women’s magazines. K.K.’s old and slightly musty world of privilege – a world that soon will be obsolete – is the only escape that presents itself; it’s much better than nothing.
Mueenuddin’s achievement here – and in all these stories – is to hold open two perspectives at once: on the one hand, the long history that produces the individual profile and the individual plight; on the other, the sensation of the present, experienced on the skin and in the emotions. The writing too makes this back and forwards movement, from long shot to close-up, while also representing the way the sensual intensity of moment-to-moment living is contained within the frame of history and change, the large categories of class, the public performances of role. And vice versa: the way those categories can be overturned through the sheer power – the surprise and chaos – of subjective experience. The moments of close-up – Husna’s wondering timid footsteps moving round the gloomy house; the kites and vultures wheeling on an afternoon’s thermals in a bleached sky; K.K. observing ‘sequences of perplexity and focus’ in Husna’s eyes when they first make love – linger to confound the ending which obliterates them, when K.K.’s daughters chase Husna out of the house after his death, with only two steel trunks of loot. Or at least they work in perpetual counterpoint with the futility of the ending, preserved inside the story’s frame.
In pursuit of this complex perspective Mueenuddin needs the narrative omniscience of classic realism. He often shifts point of view between characters even within a paragraph, a technique that is enabled by his having a point of purchase somewhere just outside this world, and yet saturated in it. His perspective allows an element of dissent, of critique – there’s so much for the stories to protest against – but the primary effort of the writing is to be in the moment. The classic realist mode seems particularly suited to addressing the kind of society described here: hierarchical, socially conservative, on the cusp of change.
‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ is one of three love stories in the collection which follow a similar narrative arc, though they play out at very different levels of society. Jaglani, the all-important manager of K.K.’s farms, increases his own power by covertly buying up land to build factories when K.K. starts selling it. He takes to bed his chauffeur’s sister Zainab, who is estranged from her husband. And Rafik, K.K.’s valet, embarks on an affair with Saleema, a wild girl ‘born in the Jhulan clan, blackmailers and bootleggers’, who comes to work in K.K.’s kitchen. In all three cases – Husna, Zainab, Saleema – the woman is socially inferior to her lover, younger, supplicant, dependent; and yet never abjectly makes herself over into her master’s object. (Jaglani’s Zainab ‘needed him, he knew that, but he had no idea whether she cared for him. Except when they made love, when she abandoned herself, a red patch of flushed skin brightening each cheek, he found no response in her eyes, except a willingness to serve him.’) In each case the love affair threatens to displace – but finally doesn’t – a more or less resigned wife of the man’s own age.
All three women use their sexuality and the men’s need of them to save themselves from the fates conspiring to consign them to nonentity, or childlessness, or destitution. All three are eventually cast adrift, with next to nothing salvaged from their brief moment of good fortune. (Saleema’s story is easily summed up: she turns to pills and then heroin, she begs on the street with her baby, she dies ‘and the boy begged in the streets, one of the sparrows of Lahore.’) The relationships, nonetheless, are a parenthesis of pleasure and mystery for both the men and women within the long labour of the rest of their lives. The hidden work of sex temporarily heals the inequities, the disappointments, the exhaustion; in K.K.’s case, it holds off futility in the face of encroaching death (he is writing his memoirs, wonderfully entitled ‘Perhaps This Happened’).
Mueenuddin has an impressive range. The collection opens with Nawab, a country electrician, repairing a broken tube well. The road he travels on was built in the 1970s, when K.K., his patron, ‘still had influence in the Lahore bureaucracy’, but it has had time since then to become ‘pitted’ with potholes, so that his bicycle ‘bumped along, whippy antennas and plastic flowers swaying’, and the tools clanked in his ‘greasy leather bag that hung from the handlebars’.
Hammer dangling like a savage’s axe, Nawab entered the oily room housing the pump and electric motor. Silence. He settled on his haunches. The men crowded the door, until he shouted that he must have light. He approached the offending object warily but with his temper rising, circled it, pushed it about a bit, began to take liberties with it, settled in with it, drank tea next to it, and finally began disassembling it. With his screwdriver, blunt and long, lever enough to pry up flagstones, he cracked the shields hiding the machine’s penetralia. A screw popped and flew into the shadows. He took the ball-and-peen and delivered a cunning blow. The intervention failed. Pondering, he ordered one of the farmworkers to find a really thick piece of leather and to collect sticky mango sap from a nearby tree. So it went, all day, into the afternoon, Nawab trying one thing and then another, heating the pipes, cooling them, joining wires together, circumventing switches and fuses. And yet somehow, in fulfilment of his genius for crude improvisation, the pumps continued to run.
Sometimes what writers envy most – and enjoy – in other writers is precisely this kind of expert inwardness. How does Mueenuddin know about the plastic flowers and the oily room and the screw popping? From the author description on the back flap of the book’s cover, we learn that he managed a family farm: he must have been the observing writer on whom, as Henry James prescribed, ‘nothing is lost.’ He must have seen some of these things, or something like them, and guessed others, inventing out of experience. This degree of convincing inwardness couldn’t come from anything so unsatisfactory as ‘research’: you might find out about the landscape and the tube wells and the crops, but you couldn’t get it right about the mango sap experiment or how Nawab holds his hammer.
The writing builds our trust, the precision of material detail operating as a kind of guarantee of the rest. But the trust is also built through the language, the confident relish with which the narrative forges forwards, the abrupt short sentences, vivid compressions (‘trying one thing and then another, heating the pipes, cooling them, joining wires together, circumventing switches and fuses’), and an irony so embodied it’s almost knockabout (‘he approached the offending object . . . a screw popped . . . he . . . delivered a cunning blow’). The final sentence clinches it: ‘And yet somehow, in fulfilment of his genius for crude improvisation, the pumps continued to run.’ There is no apology for using a language more sophisticated than Nawab’s in which to comment on the way he works (‘disassembling’, ‘penetralia’, ‘circumventing’).
Mueenuddin’s paradoxical comment on Nawab’s work – his improvisations are crude but they have genius – is a key to his thinking about Pakistan in the rest of the collection. His bodging ought to finish the pumps off, yet somehow, not in spite of it but because of it, they keep on working. The world of these stories is precarious yet functioning, adapted to modern technology yet dependent for its maintenance on a kind of bricolage, venal (Nawab is specially good at cheating electric meters) yet energetic and creative (Nawab is doing all this to save dowries for his 12 daughters). And ‘Nawabdin Electrician’ isn’t a story told at its protagonist’s expense. Nawab’s performance of expertise has its own brilliance: he steals the show. On the next page, when he’s persuading K.K. to give him a motorbike, he acts his abject devotion to his master superbly: ‘In your service I have earned these grey hairs . . . and now I cannot fulfil my duties as I should . . . I beg you, forgive me my weakness. Better a darkened house and proud hunger within than disgrace in the light of day.’ The writing doesn’t plead for him as a touching subject, and it doesn’t excuse him through condescending comedy.
After Nawab gets his motorbike, he’s the victim of an attempted robbery in which he and his attacker are shot. They are both taken to a nearby clinic.
‘You won’t need to bother taking this one to the police,’ said the pharmacist. ‘He’s a dead man.’
‘Please,’ begged the robber, trying to raise himself up. ‘Have mercy, save me. I’m a human being also.’
Although the robber begs, Nawab lets him die unforgiven. ‘Nawab’s mind caught at this, looking at the man’s words and his death, like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it. And then he didn’t.’ Nawab’s failure to transcend his self-interest, in the moment of the other man’s death, coexists with his resilience, which allows him to survive, makes him what he is. ‘Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.’ There’s no redress for the robber’s pointless death, and no pity for it, outside the story that registers its whole horror without flinching.
Only a couple of the stories in the collection work at anything less than this high pitch. The humdrum horrible murder in ‘About a Burning Girl’, narrated by a sessions judge in the Lahore High Court, doesn’t come off tonally: the combination of the brutality of the material with ironic explorations of narrative omniscience and deflected truth-seeking is uncomfortable. ‘Our Lady of Paris’, one of the two long stories woven from more contemporary material – wealthy sophisticated Pakistanis, educated in America, connoisseurs of old Europe – is full of good things but doesn’t quite bite: partly because it’s set in a France that’s too purely picturesque, perhaps partly because Mueenuddin is too close to the characters to get a ruthless enough purchase on them.
But it all comes right in ‘Lily’. Lily is from the same world of sophisticated contemporary privilege, only she’s a bad girl, who belongs to a set of spoiled rich young people, flying round between parties in Islamabad and Karachi and Lahore. Visiting London for a wedding, she is involved in a car accident and feels that she was saved to do something better with her life: ‘She lay in the hospital bed at twilight after a day of snowfall and allowed a change to come over her, absolving herself.’ But since then, among other things, she’s ‘given a total stranger a blow job after taking Ecstasy at a party’. She marries an intelligent, good man who insists on loving her better self, and the two try to work out a very modern marriage in a place rooted in the past: Murad’s farm in the Punjabi countryside. Lily’s story is a cycle of redemptive visions and inevitable lapses: successive intimations of truth and wasted life flare up and decay.
At the story’s finely opaque ending, she escapes one night to hide with a whisky bottle in the mango orchard after a row with Murad that might be terminal. She entertains visions of various possible futures. The new certainties that came with her marriage have evaporated: ‘You take chances and then nothing really changes.’ She can hear Murad’s men at work, planting wheat late into the night: ‘None of it had reference to her, she controlled nothing here.’ Tolstoy’s answer would have been a baby, but Lily knows better. In its ambitious openness, the story is with Lily, inside the mystery of this particular present moment, a moment as dangerous as the snake she thinks she hears rustling in the leaves below her. Reckless and resolute, she jumps from her perch in the mango tree, expecting the blow of the snake against her leg, but the blow doesn’t fall: nothing ends here, not yet.