Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

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March 4, 2012 by markstani

The eight short stories that make up Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Pulitzer Prize finalist In Other Rooms, Other Wonders strip bare the class conflicts and contradictions that prop up Pakistan’s crumbling feudal structure, and highlight the hypocrisies of the sleek new money that is rushing in to replace it.
The ageing K.K. Harouni is an eminent Lahore landowner, but his last days are being blighted by a decline in prominence in the face of the new industrialist wealth exemplified by his brother.
Each of Mueenuddin’s inter-linking stories revolves around Harouni, his extended family and those who facilitate their supposedly serene lifestyle, from the humblest servants to the brightest socialites.
In the opening story, ‘Nawabdin Electrician’, a lowly worker at Harouni’s mansion finds ingenious ways to make his pay stretch to feed and clothe his twelve daughters, until a chance meeting underlines the perilousness of his existence.
Mueenuddin delves deep into the lives of these servants and labourers, uncovering a world of ruthless ambition and inherent deviousness, borne out of the sheer desperation of their predicament.
The second story, ‘Saleema’, begins:

Saleema was born in the Jhulan clan, blackmailers and bootleggers, Muslim refugees at Partition from the country northwest of Delhi. They were lucky, the new border lay only thirty or forty miles distant, and from thieving expeditions they knew how to travel unobserved along canals and tracks. Skirting the edge of the Cholistan Desert, crossing into Pakistan, on the fourth night they came to a Hindu village abandoned by all but a few old women. They drove them away and occupied the houses, finding pots and pans, buckets, even guard dogs, which grew accustomed to them. During Saleema’s childhood twenty years later the village was gradually being absorbed into the slums cast off by an adjacent provincial town called Kotla Sardar. Her father became a heroin addict, and died of it, her mother slept around for money and favors, and she herself at fourteen became the plaything of a small landowner’s son. Then a suitor appeared, strutting the village on leave from his job in the city, and plucked her off to Lahore.

As Mueenuddin’s collection develops, the relative squalor of the lives of the feudal servants is quietly nudged aside, as if in recognition of its increasingly obsolete place in modern Pakistani culture. The book begins to focus on the new-rich: from the emerging middle-class to the almost obscene wealth of the Karachi polo set, who summer in London and send their offspring to study at Yale.
If some of these latter stories lack the potency of those earlier in the book, characterized by a wholly unloveable array of pompous wives and their flitting, flirting offspring, they are no less assured.
Mueenuddin’s final story, ‘A Spoiled Man’, pulls the two poles of Pakistani society together quite brilliantly, but it is for its whole that In ‘Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ deserves praise as a rare and evocative insight into a world of which the West knows little, and from which it might learn lots.

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