by Nicki Leone
In other rooms, wandering.
Standing there on the shore
What do you know of my troubles,
As I struggle here in midstream.
Daniyal Mueenuddin drops this small piece of (unattributed) Persian poetry lightly into one of his stories like he is tossing a pretty pebble or skipping a piece of softly colored sea glass across the water. It is there and gone, but the question ripples outward across all the works in his collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. It is one of those profound questions every writer is forever attempting to answer—one we constantly ask of ourselves and of others: What do you know of me? What can I know of you?
It is perhaps the question that was at the back of Mueenuddin’s mind when, called home to Pakistan after college to take over the family farm, he told his father he wished to be a poet, not a farmer. (His father was not impressed.) It may well have been the question he wanted to answer when, having got the farm back on its feet and returned West to law school, he found himself staring one day out of the windows of his Manhattan high rise office, unhappy and dissatisfied, and decided to quit his job as a corporate lawyer to become a writer.
Or perhaps not. When Elizabeth Rubin interviewed Mueenuddin for a piece in Bidoun, she asked if he had a question he was pursuing in his writing. “No question,” he responded. “I have no agenda at all. I don’t believe in having an agenda in stories.”
Which is another way of saying the writer has left his readers plenty of space to find their own agendas and meanings in his work. Like Chekhov, a writer he admires and emulates, Mueenuddin does not demand, he invites. And like Chekhov, the invitation is irresistible.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a constellation of stories set around K.K. Harouni—a wealthy planter in slow decline—and his family. The stories swirl among the Harouni sons and scions, neighbors and servants, lovers and rivals, enemies. The Pakistan of Mueenuddin’s stories has often been called “feudal.” It is a society of family hierarchies built upon loyalty to (and the manipulation of) local gentry by servants and overseers, who in turn demand the loyalty—and are subject to the manipulations of—those under them. Each play out their own smaller-scale struggles for influence over those above and below, a series of restive nesting dolls.
The kitchens of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are the small domains of the servant classes and the stage for their dramas. Ruled by the cook, presided over by the valet, they are where those in favor lord it over those in disgrace, and where those with ambition do their best to climb over the backs of those in decline.
In other words, it’s corporate office politics.
And as with any politics, influence has little to do with seniority or merit, and everything to do with more immediate gratifications:
The cooks tempted her, lording it over the kitchen, where she like to sit, with the smell of broth and green vegetables cooking and sauce….And then, the delicacies that Hassan gave her—the best parts, things that should have gone to the table, foreign things, pistachio ice cream and slices of sweet pies, baked tomatoes stuffed with cheese, potato cutlets. Things that she asked for, village food, curry with marrow bones and carrot halva. The entire household, from the sahib on down, had been eating to suit her appetite.
The kitchens and the people in them are governed by the most senior of the servants, venerable old men who have lived out their lives in service to their sahib and now face a new generation that does not value such loyalties. They watch over their charges, demanding a share in the profits when the accountant skims the books or the cook overcharges the house accounts when he goes to the market. They whisper mild suggestions into the ears of their malleable masters, sealing the fates of houseboys who have displeased them, or kitchen maids who have pleased them very much.
When Hassan the cook tires of Saleema, the young woman he had so enjoyed plying with pistachio ice cream, it is Rafik the butler and valet who takes her hand, transforming the cast-off kitchen girl into the acknowledged mistress of the servants’ quarters.
Mueenuddin begins In Other Rooms, Other Wonders with a Punjabi proverb:
Three things for which we kill—
— land, women and gold.
The women are the gold in this collection. They stride through the stories with a determination at odds with their precarious status. If the men reign in the kitchen and the rest of the house, the women have dominion over the bedroom—it is at once their field of victory and the place where they are doomed to fall. Having no money or position, owning nothing, the women have only themselves to trade as they make their way. They slip into the arms and then the beds of the men who desire them, with the sad understanding that theirs is an ephemeral triumph, destined to last only as long as their men still live and still want them.
But they carry a beautiful dignity. “You never ask for anything,” says Jaglani plaintively to his mistress, Zainab, “Let me give you some money. You can buy clothes.” A politician whose star is rising, he does not understand human connections that are not based on barter, trade, favors collected and favors owed.
“You buy me things and then later you’ll think you bought me,” she answers. “I was never for sale.”
When he pressures her, feeling powerless against her steadfast denial of even small tokens of affection, and her refusal to spend the entire night in his bed, she does not spare him the hard truth:
“The villagers! They knew the first night. They leave me alone because they’re afraid of you. It’s nice, it’s a proof of just how much they do fear you. If you dropped me they would call me a whore out loud as I walked down the street.”
Little Husna, the young mistress in the title story of the book, is left behind when her elderly protector at last succumbs to his age. She stands frightened and alone in front of his heirs while they inform her she has just one day to leave the house. “I have no power,” she says to the people casting her out onto the streets. “You are important people, and I’m nothing, and my family is nothing. I have to obey.” The daughters of her dead lover can hardly bear to look her in the eye.
The garden and the orchard.
Pakistan is the Garden of Eden. It is Paradise. This may come as a surprise to the reader, but it is a feeling that is infused into each of the stories. The author describes fields and orchards like the farmer that he still is—reveling in the fecundity of the earth, in the heady power of being able to make it do one’s bidding.
That year he had planted seven hundred acres of wheat, and now he hired the villagers to cut it by hand, moving across the yellow fields and setting up the cut bundles into shocks, women and men working together. Their babies swung in cloths strung in the shade between trees, and the tractors pulled steel wagons, which bumped over the field rows and gradually filled with the loose sheaves thrown up by the men.
Every story is a description of a landscape, and every description is of a place beloved. Stands of banyan trees become retreats for illicit love affairs, mango groves are a refuge from the sharp infighting in the kitchens and the bedrooms.
When people want to feel free, they go outside. Rafik and Saleema discover their arrangement has become something like love while standing in the rain in the courtyard garden. Husna finally takes the hand of her Harouni on a warm day as they walk down a garden path, she barefoot and he helping her jump over the puddles left by a recent rain.
Even storms and natural disasters are embraced, rather than endured. “Look,” shouts a young man to his new wife in the midst of a dust storm:
When they were up on the roof, above the treetops, he lit a powerful searchlight and placed it on the ground, then led her forward.
At first she didn’t see anything, just the motes of sand streaming past in the light, like snow caught in the headlights of a car racing into a snowstorm. Then, in front of her, twenty meters tall, her shadow projected onto the dust flowing horizontally through the air. She waved her arms, the shadow mimicking her up in the sky, fuzzy, long-limbed. Running forward, right to the edge of the rood, balancing against the wind, she watched her shadow become tiny, diffuse, armless, headless. A line of eucalyptus trees close to the house waved and bent wildly, leaves being stripped away, leaves from distant trees in the garden swirling past, and she thought, in exultation, This is life, this is real and actual. This is ours.
In the house, people are what society tells them they are, but in the gardens and the fields one simply is.
The strongest story in the collection is “Lily.” A jaded, young, but thoroughly modern Pakistani woman, Lily has been searching for some meaning in her life in a desultory way, among the endless social engagements and parties her trendy friends never tire of holding. But although she hasn’t been looking very hard, “meaning” finds her in the guise of a serious young man called Murad. Murad is a farmer quite unlike the old Mr. K.K. Harouni of previous stories. He believes in hard work, for one thing, and does not spare himself, much less his employees. He embraces modern techniques, and is determined to make his farm a business rather than simply letting it bleed dry under the grasping hands of overseers and farm managers. (In this the reader can see an echo of the author himself, who upon taking over his own father’s farm began a policy of firing any employee caught cheating him, but paying three times the usual wage to those who proved loyal and honest).
But it is not Murad’s unusual work ethic that capture’s Lily’s attention, it’s the fact that he tells her he fell in love with her one evening when he saw her wandering near a pool in the moonlight:
You splashed the water so that the reflection of the moon broke up and then became whole again. You kept doing it, so much longer than I thought you would, looking so amazingly pretty, pale as you were, in the moonlight. Then some people came down, and I wondered if you would stay and talk to them, and I wanted so much that you shouldn’t. And quickly you stood up, so gracefully, and before they could see you, melting away like a wild animal, you disappeared, into the trees.
“That’s the nicest story I’ve ever heard about myself,” Lily tells him.
It’s tempting to call “Lily” an East-meets-West story: two young modern people pursuing a different kind of life in the face of tradition and familial disapproval. Murad’s driven nature and Lily’s defiant ennui are utterly unlike Saleema’s quiet pursuit of an old man’s indulgence, or Zainab’s fatalistic but dignified submission to her employer. But although Lily and Murad were both educated in the West, they are not “Western,” not determined to impose a borrowed culture on old traditions, or abandon their own in favor of more exotic pursuits. It is Murad, speaking to Lily, who quotes the piece of poetry at the beginning. He has just frightened her to death by swimming in a strong current, and he is teasing her a bit for being worried about him. “I’m not going to sleep with you, you know,” she retorts. “I decided that, while you were swimming or drowning or whatever you were doing.”
But she wants to.
Like the author’s own checkered life vacillating between his American upbringing and his Pakistani roots, the question for Lily and Murad is not whether they are more West or more East, the question is what kind of Pakistani are they?
So In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is really an East-meets-East story—a compassionate and beautifully complex kaleidoscope of people, each with their attendant dreams and dramas, whose lives come together and come apart like the designs on the Persian carpets that cover the floors they walk over. It’s as if Mueenuddin turns his eye in any direction, looks though the humblest of doors, and still sees something fresh and new and beautiful. Look, each story seems to say to the reader, look in this room. Isn’t this wonderful?
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.