“I would come home after running and lie on my back on the lawn and watch the day end and the stars come out. Have you ever done that?...I would think about how space goes on forever, and how little I mean, and how little my problems matter. Real popcorn philosophy, I know.”
The first time I read this book a few years ago, I hated it with a passion. I found it (alternatively) boring, infuriating, condescending or cynical. “What did you just make me read?” I complained to my best friend, who loved this book and was in turn amused and horrified by my vehement dislike of it.
“Read it again!” she likes to say, whenever I hate a book she loves. Because we both have such similar taste in books, it takes a while for us to accept the reality of our conflicting opinions about the same novel. And even though time and experience has proven that rereading a horrible book rarely makes it any better for me, I thought I would give it a try anyway. And the best I can now say about it is that I no longer hate it. It has progressed from an ‘Ugh, never again’ to a ‘meh, never again’, which seems like no big deal but in comparative terms shows huge progress.
A Tale of Eight Stories
She had been a famous beauty, from a prominent, cultured Lucknow family. Now at forty-five she knew everyone of a certain class in Karachi, went to dinners and to the polo and to all the fashionable weddings, flew often to Lahore and Islamabad, and summered in London.
There are eight loosely-connected stories within this anthology, each one entirely obsessed with either the filthy rich or the disgustingly poor. Apparently anyone earning a middle class income doesn’t exist in the Pakistan that Daniyal Mueenuddin knows.
Husna brought her shabby luggage to the house, a brown suitcase bulging and strapped. She had clothes and shoes, not much else, had arrived in a rickshaw - the facts soon communicated through the house by the snickering community of washermen, drivers, sweepers, household servants.
But ok fine. Accusing an author of writing about either the rich or the poor only is a ridiculous argument to have, because millions of writers all over the world choose to write about a specific class of wealth and we don’t bash them over the head with it. So this problem has more to do with the fact that Pakistanis don’t have enough books talking about themselves in all shapes and sizes than with Mueenuddin’s writing.
All the people within these eight stories have either a very close or a distant, passing relationship to a singular man, K. K. Harouni, a feudal landowner slowly losing power as the times change. The stories revolve around a network of his relatives, employees or servants.
“If I ran away to the South Pole some Pakistani businessman would one day crawl into my igloo and ask if I was the cousin of K.K. Harouni.”
In the first story ‘Nawabdin Electrician’ (appeared in New Yorker, Best American Short Stories 2008), Harouni’s electrician in his village has a violent encounter with a thief who tries to steal his bike; the second entry ‘Saleema’ tells the story of a young maid in Harouni’s household who seeks protection by seducing older servants, until she falls in love with the valet, who eventually chooses his family above her.
Holding the gun away at arm’s length, he fired five more times, one two three four five, with Nawab looking up into his face, unbelieving, seeing the repeated flame in the revolver’s mouth.
‘Provide, provide’ (published in Granta) tells us about how Jaglani, a domineering man who takes care of Harouni’s farms while also fattening his own pockets, falls in love with a servant girl. ‘About a Burning Girl’ tells the story through the eyes of a casually immoral man of a robbery gone wrong and how a favoured servant is saved.
He feared Zainab, strangely enough, although he had made a career of fearing no one and of thereby dominating this lawless area. Sometimes he thought that it would be a relief to be rid of her, and yet his love kept increasing.
The titular story ‘In other Rooms, Other Wonders’(published in) takes us to Harouni’s own bedside where we read about his affair with a young girl from a lower social class, and her eventual fall from grace. ‘Our Lady of Paris’ shows a young American girl falling in love with a Pakistani guy, and finding herself at odds with her complicated eventual-mother-in-law.
For a moment Husna and K.K. looked at each other… for the first time he thought of her as a grown-up, as a woman; and for the first time she thought of him as a lover, sick and possibly dying.
The last two stories tackle two completely different classes of wealth. In ‘Lily’ a spoiled party girl tries to let go of her past through marriage but ends up with the stark realization that she is incapable of changing. ‘A Spoiled Man’ tells the story of a poor man who lives alone until his marriage to a simple girl, whose eventual disappearance leads to a lot of pain and eventual death for him.
As a whole, the collection is random and disjointed and not much fun to read. And even though in some places it provides points to ponder away, those come too rarely or are too weakly written to do the whole collection justice.
In Other Rooms, Other Yawn-Inducing People
A major problem in this collection was my lack of connection with any single character. I could not have cared less about what happened to any of them in any of the stories.. Literally could not have.
“I was born into a comfortably well-off family. All my life I’ve been lucky, my business succeeded, I’ve had no tragedies, my wife and I are happy, we have a wonderful son. The one thing I’ve missed, I sometimes feel, is the sensation of being absolutely free, to do exactly what I like, to go where I like, to act as I like.”
Even when something relatable comes along, it’s cloaked within drama that verges on the boring or the petty. The privileged whine within their little perfect bubbles while the poor are caricatures, either corrupt and seedy, or else content and naive. Their is no complexity to either class.
Jaglani had lived an opportunistic life, seizing power wherever he saw it available and unguarded, and therefore he had not developed sentimental attachments to the tokens of his power, land, possessions, or even men.
Worse still, there is a sense of falsification; Mueenuddin’s position of privilege and wealth is obvious when he writes about the lower class, who apparently know no love and have no ties of loyalty, who form no proper friendships and have no sense of family. The poor in this book seem to be what rich people imagine poor people to be like; they are an imitation of a rich man’s view from a distant, and do a disservice to those whom he writes about.
“I was brought up with slaps and harsh words. We had nothing, we were poor. My father sold vegetables from a cart, but when he began smoking heroin he sold everything, the cart, his bicycle, the radio, even the dishes in the kitchen.”
Women Who Need Men
A conversation I’ve often had with my best friend circles around one question - a question that relates particularly well to his novel - when we read about women in books, do we want to read about women whom we admire, women in their best reincarnation, complex and three dimensional, or do we want to read women as they were in that time?
“I know what you all think,” she began. “You think I’m a slut, you think I poison my husband. Because of him I’m alone, and you all do with me as you like. I’m trying to live here too you know. I’m not a fool. I also come from somewhere.” Her words poured out clearly, evenly, angrily, entirely unplanned.
In the stories within this book, our female protagonists are angry and determined and opinionated, fighting against a system, trying to take what they want. They use the weapons they have, which is mainly their sexuality or their ability to charm, to their benefit.
Her love affairs had been so plainly mercantile transactions that she hadn’t learned to be coquettish. But the little hopeful girl in her awoke now.
The questionable thing is, their positions of power are always intrinsically linked to men. Their rise and fall come because of the actions of those around them possessing a penis. They themselves reach nowhere, get nowhere, without the acceptance - reluctantly or willingly given - of the men around them.
She wanted to keep her end of the bargain, and had only herself to give. It hurt her that it was so little; she imagined that her body, her virtue, meant almost nothing.
Whether this is an apt representation of the times is worth arguing over. It is obvious that every time writers depict women, they make a choice. Mueenuddin’s choice has been to show only those who were vulnerable without the protection of the men around them.
“You never ask for anything. Let me give you some money. You can buy clothes.”
“You buy me things and then later you’ll think you bought me. I was never for sale.”
While it’s entirely possible that the feudal system led to such sexual transactions being the norm, a woman whose story rests entirely on her own would have been a welcome reprieve. But if we look for it in this story collection, we are looking in the wrong place.
Poor and Polluted Places
“You would hate Pakistan. You’re not built for it, you’re too straight and you don’t put enough value on decorative, superficial things - and that’s the only way to get by there.”
Mueenuddin’s stories paint Pakistan as a dusty, old, damaged place, barely hanging on by the edge of its fingers to civilization. Either that or it’s a rich man’s paradise: large rooms, elaborate parties, a multitude of servants.
Though she insisted that she loved Pakistan, sometimes it all became too much. “I hate it, everyone’s a crook, nothing works here!” she would sob, fighting with her husband.
The thing is, books which disregard the acres of land all across Pakistan which aren’t poor or polluted bother me because they paint such a stereotypical image of the country. One could almost accuse Mueenuddin of pandering to the Western audience here.
The open field next to the village has become a collecting pool for the sewage from the city, the water black.
The only thing that could be the saving grace of this book is the utter disregard in each story for the country’s rules. Both rich and poor, living within the same country, are equally crooked, equally selfish. Or one could argue that they’re just resilient, seeking their own interests wherever they can. But in terms of being a book that describes Pakistan and its past, I’d say skip this formulaic portrayal if you can.
The Sometimes Good, Not All Bad Cultural Commentary
The one thing that’s done well are the conversations Mueenuddin has with the reader about the times, the culture, the ambience he produces.
She would even have sought a place in the demimonde of singers and film actresses, bright and dangerous creatures from poor backgrounds, but she had neither talent nor beauty.
This sort of throwback to the times of the rise of the cinema in the country, and the era of the actresses who came from poor backgrounds and made their claim to fame through the silver screen, this roots the stories within the times they are set in.
All of Old Lahore knew Rafik, the barons, the landlords and magnates and politicians, the old dragons, the hostesses of forty years ago.
Mueenuddin also uses the story format to his benefit when he is describing the inescapable gap between the lives of the rich and the poor. Even though most of the criticism against his book rests on the author’s decided ignorance of the lives of the middle class, he shows the class divide between those whom he chooses to show really well.
The old man did not merely lack interest in the affairs of the servants - he was not conscious that they had lives outside his purview.
Mueenuddin also threads corruption very casually into his stories, another point I found myself debating about. On the one hand, is there no one who is morally ambiguous but tilting towards the good? But on the other, is this really a reflection of the times we had back then? Mueenuddin certainly seems to think so.
One of my small indulgences, now that I am a member of the judiciary,is to allow myself airs with people who need favors from me. I gave him my hand with a loose wrist, as if expecting him to kiss it, and stood on one cocked hell.
He worked in concert with other men, or used them, or struggled against them. The rest did not interest him.
This book won, was nominated for or was a finalist of a ridiculous number of really famous awards: Pulitzer, Commonwealth, LA Times Book Prize, so on and so forth. And the only thing I have to say to that is: why?
Throughout this book I kept feeling like I should love it because so many people seem to love it but at every page the dominating feeling was an overwhelming nope. There is a lot of telling, too much history too quickly, excessive background description instead of letting the narrative tell the story, and an overall sense of rambling. Basically, it’s not worth the hype; I’d say give this one a miss.