In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

In other rooms, other wonders_edIn Other Rooms, Other Wonders

By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Bloomsbury, 237 pages

My first brush with Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin’s material was in the pages of the New Yorker. I don’t remember the exact year but I had noticed the title of the story (Nawabdin Electrician) and the author’s name—not a very common feature in the noted American weekly. I was not going to miss it.

I remember reading the story and not being very impressed by it. I think I read it off the web, maybe after downloading the story and printing it out. I must have read it on the go—I admit that’s not a very good way of reading stories but that’s how I read books. We all live hurried lives. Anyway, I had decided that it was not a good story and after reading it, I had forgotten about it.

The story was about an electrician—a commonplace character even in India, where usual electrical failures (fans not working, circuits and wires dying all the time and so on) make us run to their little hideouts for help, especially in summers when voltage fluctuation and power cuts are rampant. We usually don’t spare a thought about them, much less be interested in the drama of their lives. In any case, their lives are not far too different from that of a butcher (maybe slightly more respectable) or a grocer or a small shopkeeper. What could be of interest in this Nawabdin, a Pakistani electrician, for a non-White non-Western reader like me? That’s pretty much what I thought about the story then. And given my dislike for the typical New Yorker stories (often lengthy well-written pieces about something I don’t care about or pieces that fail to make me care about them), I had made my decision about Nawabdin and Daniyal. I thought the New Yorker had made yet another mistake but this too should pass.

Then came Daniyal’s collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The book was greeted with wonderful reviews. Murmurs of praise surged into a crescendo of critical acclaim. Every serious reader I knew, my book-loving friends, unreservedly recommended me Daniyal’s book. I didn’t tell them about my Nawabdin experience, fearing their re-evaluation of my intelligence by discovering that I didn’t like all the New Yorker stories. “What? Are you nuts? You don’t like the New Yorker stories? You must be joking man?”

Who does like to get exposed unless forced out of habit, just like David Letterman’s confession of having sex with his staffers after being blackmailed for $2 million? And anyway, I think I am entitled to not like something, however fashionable and popular it might be. Gore Vidal, at the height of Donald Barthelme’s popularity, wrote about his oeuvre in an essay: “Over the years I have seen but not read Donald Barthelme’s short stories in The New Yorker. I suppose I was put off by the pictures… I was not aware that I was not reading one who is described in The New Fiction as, “according to Philip Stevick… ‘the most imitated fictionist in the United States today.’” (Gore Vidal, American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction, in Selected Essays, Abacus, 1974). So, I was well within my rights of not reading or not liking something.

And so, I thought about Daniyal: here comes yet another pompous ass Yale-educated MFA-holding the New Yorker-published addition to the pantheon of South Asian creative gods, to grace the book launches, panel discussions and literary festivals, from Jaipur to Ubud to Singapore (unfortunately, in our celebrity-saturated times, none of the Indo-Pak writers want to emulate the great and elusive J M Coetzee, who has recently killed his fictional self in Summertime. Each one of them wants a share of the limelight, maybe forced by their publishers but yes, I know, I digress). I suspected that Daniyal’s stories might be rip offs of fabulous Pakistani Urdu fiction writers, that he might be transliterating a common experience hitherto not available to the Western readers and getting all the praise for it.

How wrong I was! When Daniyal (son of a Pakistani bureaucrat and an American reporter at The Washington Post) came to the Jaipur literary festival, I was blown away by his modesty and self-belittling. He said in one of the interviews that his stories were getting attention because they were about Pakistan, the cynosure of the world’s eye, the hotbed of terrorism and the theatre of America’s war on terror. If Bush’s war on terror was not on, he said, he wouldn’t have got the attention that he got. If such is the case, then I must admit, this is the only good collateral damage that has happened thanks to Bush’s jingoism.

Daniyal’s self-effacing statement, buried in one of his interviews, convinced me that he was a genuine writer, not another freak show, put forth by publishers to entertain book buyers (and not readers!). I felt I could connect with him as a reader. I wanted to give him (or rather myself) another chance.

When I got In Other Rooms, Other Wonders in my hands, the first story I read was not the first one in the book (Nawabdin Electrician) but the last one, A Spoiled Man. By the end of the story, which is about an old man Rezak who carries his tent-like house wherever he goes, my eyes were moist. Rezak’s story had moved me.

And then I read Nawabdin Electrician. This time my reaction was different. Though the story was dramatic enough and exposed the life of a common man and the dangers that threatened his survival, I was not pleased with the ending. I still felt ambiguous about Nawab, who had suffered a bad turn of luck.

Then I read the other pieces in the collection, all linked with each other, moving around the life of a rich, dying, feudal patriarch—Saleema, Provide, Provide, About a Burning Girl, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Our Lady of Paris, Lily and A Spoiled Man.

Though most of the stories (especially Saleema and About a Burning Girl, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and Provide, Provide) have gripping storylines and strong characters, the strength of this book, for me, lies in its power of narration, it voice, its beautiful fluid language, its celebration of precision, accuracy and exactitude in expression and its evenness of narrative quality (a signature style). I also like the way the storyteller shifts between showing and telling, a difficult but necessary balance many short story writers fail to achieve.

Each story is well-crafted with a rhythm and tone that is pitch-perfect as if it all were conceived super-naturally. I love the way Daniyal builds up his mise en scene, draws up portraits of his characters, defines their actions and motives—every sentence builds a picture, and there are no weeds, no padding, nothing out of place, only what needs to be there in the picture—“the fundamental accuracy of statement,” Ezra Pound’s requirement for a good story, is going well for him here. Sample these:

“K. K. was sitting under a tree in a railway chair, with two cups of green tea on table.”

‘Hello, girl,’ he said, pleased to see her, fed and mellow. ‘How lovely it is.’ Old trees were scattered around the receding lawn, creating areas of shade where the grass woudn’t grow. A row of mulberry trees just ripening at the far end attracted sugar-heavy bees, which sipped the purple berries hanging from the branches and littering the ground. In the bleached sky, kites are vultures wheeled at a great height on the afternoon thermals, as if the sky itself were slowly turning. (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) (Italics mine)

Look at the (italicized) precise descriptions in the above passage with which he builds the story. I just randomly picked up this paragraph. You will find such exact images in almost every paragraph throughout the book.

Or look at this picture of Lily in Lily where he describes the eponymous central character, an Islamabad girl, who moves from party to party, enjoys drinking champagne and does not think twice before giving a total stranger a blow job after taking Ecstasy in a party:

“Leila, or Lily as her friends called her, sat perched on a stool, her slender legs held in her bare arms, chin on her knees, looking out at the water. Not yet thirty, she was unusually pretty, her hands and feet and small upturned nose –her high cheekbones, her lips—sharply defined and yet giving the impression of softness, as if she had been trimmed out of soft brown velvet with fine scissors….” (Lily)

The characters in Daniyal’s feudal world often indulge in acts of sex (more than licentiousness than as a lever of power, an offering made to survive, to climb up the social ladder) but he has dealt with the issue delicately, without being vulgar or tasteless. In his stories, moments of sexual congress become moments of epiphanies, revealing the inner thoughts and their meanings of the parties involved in the act. Here are two examples:

“When the harvest ended he still found some pretext to come everyday or two to the farm. He would do his business and then go to the house, where Zainab would serve him the meal she had cooked earlier. He would bathe, she would massage him and feed him, and then they would make love. He said her name in a particular way, pronouncing the first syllable in his throat, and this became the emblem of their closeness, which otherwise they did not refer to. In the bedroom, with the lights off, she kissed him hard and soft and gradually persuaded him by her supple actions to lose his inhibitions. She had a way of falling on the bed, with her face buried in the pillow, on her knees. As he drove around the farm, or in the city, the vision of her giving herself so trustingly would come to him.” (Provide, Provide)

“Of course she a virgin, and that touched him. Letting him do exactly as he wanted, she wore a look in her eyes that he misunderstood as surprise and shyness, and later identified with moods that verged on madness—sequences of perplexity and focus in her eyes, expressing a hooded rage to get what she wanted. She had expected this to be as simple as the signing of a check, a payment. Instead, for a moment the romantic girl awoke, one who would have accepted another man, a man her own age, from her own station.” (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders)

Since all the stories in this collection are inter-linked, perhaps it is rightly so that the “narrator’s” voice is more or less similar in all the stories—barring About a Burning Girl—in which there is more energy in the narration (also it is the only story with a first person narrator).

Amazingly, the writing style of Daniyal is so measured that he does not seem to evoke strong emotions, that is to say, he does not manipulate the reader’s emotions. He writes with a cold detachment and his characters, though fighting to break free of the shackles of their circumstances, don’t show anger; they seem to be resigned to their fate. They briefly try to rise above the situations but when they hit a wall, they accept their lot. In that sense, they are not heroic. But if tragedy is the fate of a hero, then they are heroic, they are ordinary heroes.

As a writer, what Daniyal does is that he puts our imagination on a slow burn, takes us into the life of a character and makes us watch him or her do the wretched things that he/she needs to do to survive, and then when it is the time for a climax, like a god controlling his universe, he pulls the strings and makes us walk out of the scene—aware but light. That is a very strange and unique effect to achieve.

Also, these are not get in, get out stories. They seek our involvement. The stories are sometimes quite lengthy and reading them gives you a feeling that you are reading a collection of novelettes (maybe, that is a feeling that I get, maybe I suffer from attention deficit disorder?). Sometimes, they plod on, familiar tales of life, only to end at a surprising, poignant turn. V S Pritchett’s definition that a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing” does not apply here (in most cases). Daniyal gives a full eye to the situation at hand. As a story writer myself, I am more interested in exploring the micro-moments of life, as Pritchett has suggested and Carver has endorsed. Daniyal, in some of his stories, follows a character until its tragic end, which in effect feels like one is reading a novella. But thank god for small mercies. There are no cheap tricks in Daniyal’s stories. Nor are there any formal innovations. But there is plenty of ambition on the writer’s part which is a good thing.

Though the stories do reveal and expose the poverty and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the human desire of doing better in life, escaping the trap of being limited by one’s circumstances, they also tell us about the dying feudal world of Pakistan—“the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” All this is happening in a Pakistan which was supposedly carved out of India to develop as an exemplary Islamic country (with secular values). Instead of establishing an egalitarian society, Pakistan came to be ruled by the feudal lords who control all levers of power in the country. The vast majority of its poor citizens, as a result, suffer, struggling for their survival, conniving and scheming to come up in life by any means. Religion is the last thing on their minds.

For an Indian, it is not difficult to understand the moral ambiguities of the feudal rich. But what surprises me, and must would have done to most other readers of this book in the West, is the lack of morality—be it in business dealings, law enforcement or matters of sex and matrimony—in the characters, cutting across layers of society (even though, perhaps Daniyal is a little biased as he shows Helen, an American in love with a Pakistani Sohail, in Our Lady of Paris, to be morally upright, and not deviant as he shows Husna in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or Zainab in Provide, Provide).

One might read a book on Pakistan and expect to read a story or two on fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists (his three fellow expat Pakistani writers’ recent books directly or indirectly deal with terrorism: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam). Daniyal’s book is about Pakistan but there is not a single character in his stories who is a fanatic. There are devout Muslims, they tell their rosaries, say their prayers but they still indulge in amoral acts. This juxtaposition, this revelation, must be interesting to most readers, affording one the satisfaction that Pakistani Muslims too are like any other people—the rich and poor not necessarily being gentle, innocent and benevolent. This (realization) was so at least in my case. That was the biggest reward of reading this book.

What do you look for in a great, even good, writer? A unique and exact way of looking at things and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, as Raymond Carver once said. In Daniyal’s case, that talent is very much on display. I rate Daniyal’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders very highly and can safely say that this debut collection can be put in the same league as The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (US/China). With his very first book, Daniyal has shown the talent of a special way of looking at his universe. A writer like him should be around for a time. I wish him longevity.