Monday, October 4, 2010

Mueenuddin Short Stories

During the second half of September, I made a concerted effort to read more "non-genre" fiction, both book-length and in short story form. For the short stories, that meant at least trying to catch up on several months worth of stories from The New Yorker (partially successful), One Story and Library of America's Story of the Week (not successful on either front). It also meant finally reading Daniyal Mueenuddin's IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS. The book is a collection of 8 loosely-interconnected stories that take place in Pakistan in the present day. I've read three of the eight stories and reviewed them here in previous years (in fact, this was my third reading of the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician"). The stories, all together, paint a picture of a society in which the Old way of doing things still hangs on and in which the younger generation struggles to fit, as well as a society in which status still matters greatly. Most of the stories have a very "traveling storyteller" tone to the narration, as I noted in my original review of "Nawabdin Electrician."

279. Nawabdin Electrician The lead-off story centers on the poorer strata of Pakistani farm-town society, and the wealthy land-owner KK Harouni and his family are only briefly seen (and only in the role of bestowing a motorbike on Nawab to help him get around). Almost every time I reread a story I get something different out of it. In this case, what I really noticed this time was the sensory detail of Mueenuddin's writing. Whether he's writing about the weather, the food, or actual sex (which we don't see in this story, but do in others), Mueenuddin's writing has to be described as "sensual." The story's moral, that sometimes it is impossible to forgive or forget, still comes across full force and the final scene is still brutal.

280. Saleema The second story in the collection brings up more detail of the household of KK Harouni, but still primarily from the staff / servants perspective. It's also the first story in the collection to address the theme of social mobility in Pakistani society. Saleema, suffering with a husband who is a drug addict, comes into the house employ and first sleeps with the cook Hassan, but eventually sets her sights on the older Rafik, the household's major domo. Without giving too much away, there are developments that make Saleema think her place in the world is set. But if there's one thing Mueenuddin seems to make a repeated point about in his stories, it's this: nothing is ever set and guaranteed regardless of your station in life or who you build "unbreakable" connections with.

281. Provide, Provide We don't really see much of KK Harouni in these stories despite his being the main "rich" person in the book. But we do see how his actions and decisions affect others. This story focuses on a former manager of some of Harouni's properties, who buys up land Harouni is forced to sell off to pay off business debts. Chaundrey Jaglani becomes a farm-owner in his own right and by all accounts is a good one. As happens in Saleema and in the title story of the collection, Jaglani falls in love with a girl initially hired as a servant. He becomes torn, later in life, by this decision. She, of course, thinks her life is set because of her connection to Jaglani. The regrets the main character expresses towards the end of the story (and the travails of those he leaves behind) really express again that idea that the decisions we make have repurcussions we cannot always predict.

282. About A Burning Girl This is the only story in the collection narrated in the first person. The narrator is a judge in the Lahore High Court, and the story largely seems an indictment of a corrupt judicial system as well as a corrupt police system. The judge's wife's favorite servant goes home to visit his brother, and is arrested for the immolation-death of the brother's wife. The Harounis are again peripheral characters, the servant's father having been cook for various Harouni family members (including the "nephew with the American wife" introduced in "Our Lady of Paris"). There is almost a detective-story aspect to this piece, but it never really feels like a "whodunnit," and the judge is way too ineffectual to be a convincing series detective (although his assistant could probably be the focus of a sharp detective novel).

283. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders The title story is a companion piece to "Saleema" and "Provide, Provide," in that it centers upon a young woman facing hard times who sees her chance to secure her future by becoming the companion of a more powerful man. In "Saleema," that powerful man was the major domo of KK Harouni's household. In "Other Rooms," the powerful man is Harouni himself and so we finally, halfway through the book, get a more detailed look at the powerful businessman and representative of the "old school" upper-class of Pakistan. KK is near the end of his life in this story and Husna, the young woman, doesn't at first seem predatory at all -- but opportunity goes to her head. Again, the story is about false pride and the assumption that nothing can ever go wrong. Saleema and Husna, in these two stories, mimic each other without, it seems, being aware of the other's existance.

284. Our Lady of Paris This story introduces us to KK Harouni's nephew Sohail and the young American woman he falls in love with. Taking place in Paris, I actually expected it to feature KK's estranged daughter mentioned in earlier stories but she fails to put in an appearance. Instead, what we get is a tight little family drama: Sohail has avoided having his parents meet his girlfriend until this story when they insist on journeying to Paris with him, although his mother is smart enough to rent separate apartments in a different part of the city. Helen, the girlfriend, and Rafia, the mother, begin a not-so-delicate dance to see where Sohail's ultimate loyalties lay and how they will be able to co-exist should Sohail marry Helen. Sohail's father figures into the picture as well, but mostly as a foil for the women. This is the story in the collection that feels the freshest perhaps because it is the only one that features a true change of scenery. With the Pakistani characters out of Pakistan, there is less emphasis on the running of households and more emphasis on the characters. It is also perhaps the only story in the book besides "Nawabdin Electrician" that features characters who are all of the same social status.

285. Lily The Harounis are even more peripheral in this story of a rich young girl who wants to make a change in her life after a devastating car accident. She meets a fellow disaffected rich youth at a party, and he begins the slow dance of courting her. Ultimately, the story asks if we can really change who we are -- or perhaps it asks why people go so far overboard in changing themselves. Every relationship is about compromise in some sense, but Lily falls prey to what the Canadian band Motion Picture Ending calls "the superficial science / of changing all you are" to fit someone else. Lily wants so badly to escape herself and her social circle that she is willing to follow her suitor to his remote farm, which does not turn out to be the solution she thinks it will be.

286. A Spoiled Man The last story in the collection nicely book-ends with the opening story. In this tale, poor Rezak comes to work for Sohail Harouni and his American wife on their farm. He is a man accustomed to fitting everything he has in a small portable hut in which he also lives. Where Nawabdin, in the opening story, needed to find ways to support his large family, Rezak wants very little (in fact, needs very little) to support just himself but his possessions grow as the Harounis pay him far more than his previous employers. The story, it struck me when I first read it, is about how little we really need to survive and how we become dependent on the things we have. And, as with every other story in the collection, Rezak's tale is also about how the decisions we make seem sensible at the time but lead to places we never expected them to.

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