By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 15, 2009
IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS
By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Norton. 247 pp. $23.95
Because of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry, to mention just a few of the most prominent authors, American readers have long been able to enjoy one terrific Indian novel after another. But Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is likely to be the first widely read book by a Pakistani writer. Mueenuddin spent his early childhood in Pakistan, then lived in the United States -- he attended Dartmouth and Yale -- and has since returned to his father's homeland, where he and his wife now manage a farm in Khanpur. These connected stories show us what life is like for both the rich and the desperately poor in Mueenuddin's country, and the result is a kind of miniaturized Pakistani "human comedy."
In the original Comédie humaine, Balzac had the ingenious notion of tying his various novels together by using recurrent characters. Eugène de Rastignac is the protagonist of Le Père Goriot but is subsequently glimpsed in passing or sometimes just referred to in several other books. In like fashion, Mueenuddin interlaces eight stories, while also linking them to the household of a wealthy and self-satisfied landowner named K.K. Harouni. In "Saleema," for instance, Harouni's elderly valet, Rafik, falls into a heartbreaking affair with a young maidservant, and we remember this, with a catch in our throat, when in another story we see him bring in two glasses of whiskey on a silver tray. In "Our Lady of Paris," we discover that Harouni's nephew is madly in love with a young American woman named Helen; later on, we discover that he is married -- to an American named Sonya.
Many of Mueenuddin's stories conform to a common dynamic: We learn about a character's past, then zero in on the central crisis of his or her life and, even while we expect more development, suddenly find everything wound up in a paragraph or two: "The next day two men loaded the trunks onto a horse-drawn cart and carried them away to the Old City." (Flaubert or Chekhov might have written that.) In other instances, even so minimal a resolution remains cloudy: Mueenuddin just stops, having given us all that we need to know about the future or lack of future in a love affair or a marriage.
The epigraph to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a Punjabi proverb: "Three things for which we kill -- Land, women and gold." Throughout the book the Harounis are gradually selling off their ancestral lands to pay for business losses and a Eurotrash lifestyle. (Two of the patriarch's three daughters reside in Paris and London.) Nearly everyone in the book is more or less corrupt. In "Provide, Provide" we learn of the machinations of Jaglani, the manager of K.K. Harouni's estates in the Southern Punjab. When Jaglani "would receive a brief telegram, NEED FIFTY THOUSAND IMMEDIATELY," he would "sell the land at half price, the choice pieces to himself, putting it in the names of his servants and relatives. He sold to the other managers, to his friends, to political allies. Everyone got a piece of the quick dispersion. He took a commission on each sale." But even the immensely shrewd and politically powerful Jaglani has his weakness. He begins to sleep with his driver's sister, a young woman he employs to cook and clean for him:
"Finally he could not deny to himself that he had fallen in love, for the first time in his life. He even acknowledged her aloof coldness, the possibility that she would mar his life. And yet he felt that he had risen so far, had become invulnerable to the judgments of those around him, had become preeminent in this area by the river Indus, and now he deserved to make this mistake, for once not to make a calculated choice, but to surrender to his desire."
In Mueenuddin's Pakistan, happiness is usually short-lived. Jaglani's beloved develops a urinary-tract infection, then discovers she cannot bear children. A man finally achieves success, only to be diagnosed with cancer. When a party girl resolves to change her life, she discovers how hard it is to be virtuous. On every page there are wonderful, surprising observations and details: A judge says of his wife that "you need only see her disjoint a roast chicken to know the depths or heights of her carnality." The rich young Sohail Harouni suddenly recites from memory some poetry by James Merrill. An old caretaker builds a wooden cubicle that can be dismantled and simply carted away whenever he needs to move. In every instance, Mueenuddin convincingly captures the mindset or speech of any class, from the hardworking Nawab, a roustabout electrician with 11 daughters, to the flamboyantly decadent Mino, who imports tons of sand to his country estate for a "Night of the Tsunami" party. But my favorite character is the mysterious judicial clerk Mian Sarkar:
"There is nothing connected with the courts of Lahore that he has not absorbed, for knowledge in this degree of detail can only be obtained by osmosis. Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived. He sees the city panoptically, simultaneously, and if he does not disclose the method and the motive and the culprit responsible for each crime, it is only because he is more powerful if he does not do so."
Mian Sarkar -- half Sherlock Holmes, half Jeeves -- actually functions as a detective in "About a Burning Girl," and the result is the most light-hearted of Mueenuddin's stories. I was only sorry that he didn't include more about this "man of secret powers." Maybe he will in his next book.
As should be clear, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection full of pleasures. I saw only a single improbability in it: At one point, a gorgeous young wife grows dissatisfied with her hard-working and high-minded husband's routine love-making. So she dons a pair of stockings and a garter belt and, otherwise naked, lies fetchingly in their candle-lit bedroom. The husband comes in, glances at her and says, "So that's how you wear those!" and then begins to trim a broken fingernail and talk about a problem on the farm. Not even a Princeton graduate, which he is, could be quite such a moron. ·
Michael Dirda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for his reviews to continue in the Style section on Thursdays, beginning Feb. 26.