Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pictures of a mundane Pakistan

Given its volatile leadership and questionable contribution to the global war on terror, Pakistan is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Yet a new breed of writers from that country have quietly but firmly begun to make their presence felt in the English-speaking world. Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam, authors of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Wasted Vigil, respectively, immediately spring to mind.

To this list can now be added Daniyal Mueenuddin. Raised in Pakistan and educated in the United States, he has long regaled readers with short stories in the New Yorker, Zoetrope and other literary magazines. Now they are in this fascinating collection chronicling the everyday ironies and cruelties of a place too used to being in the news for earth-shifting events.

The world of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is as much the feudal hinterland of Pakistan as the cosmopolitan cityscape of Karachi and Lahore. The eight stories revolve, in one way or the other, around K.K. Harouni, landowner of a vast estate in the southern Punjab province. The title story follows Harouni's illicit affair with an impoverished distant relative, in a world where joys transmogrify suddenly into catastrophes. When Harouni dies, the poor woman is thrown out of the estate by his daughters. She, after all, has no locus standi.

In "Saleema", another story that points to the grim state of women in rural Pakistan, a young woman escapes a childhood of deprivation to move into the servants' quarters of the Harouni estate with her husband. But her state in her new home is no better. Reduced to looking after her drug addict spouse and passing her days in menial drudgery, Saleema's life has moved from one calamity to the next.

In the collection's latter half, Mueenuddin moves to the city-bred relatives of Harouni, people who "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." Yet, traditionalism rears its head when matters of life and death — and love — are involved. In Our Lady of Paris, an American in love with a Pakistani man (they met at Yale) must contend with the latter's domineering mother who disapproves of the alliance.

Mueenuddin's prose aptly captures South Asian nuances, not just in dialect and cultural habits, but also in modes of thinking and relating. That is reason enough to pick up this collection from a writer destined to win greater laurels.

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This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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