In this game of love, women have immense power...much more power than we do,” writes the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano, whose works often depict couples netted by each other, oblivious to the world. “They can really tie us up in knots. We’re animals by comparison.”
It is a long stretch from Vettriano’s coolly erotic portraits of beautifully dressed (or undressed) men and women, bright in their own power, to the lawless longing, veiled wooing, insecure dependency and difficult mingling of unequal partners in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s startling debut story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. But the root feeling is the same.
Many of the best moments in Mueenuddin’s book involve men who are “wholly masculine”—that is, secure in their place and role in a man’s world, confident that they know what life is—being humbled by a power that disarms their own strength, being surprised by Eros or by an emotion they fear is love. Two of the eight stories in Mueenuddin’s book take their titles from the names of their female protagonists, and at least two more could have.
Home Bird: Mueenuddin’s stories are set in Lahore and its outskirts. AFP
Mueenuddin’s linked stories—this has now become a convention in short fiction, but in this one instance the material demands it, for the characters are part of an ancient and elaborate hierarchy—wind their way leisurely through the great Lahore house and even bigger country estate of K.K. Harouni. A pillar of Pakistan’s old feudal order, Harouni rules over a world “as measured and as concentric as that of the Sun King at Versailles”. But Harouni is now an aged man, unable to watch over his holdings with the same care, being squeezed of his riches by his extended family of servants, retainers, managers, and workers (many of whom figure as characters in their own right, and are therefore granted a higher status in fiction than by their master, who only cares for them in so far as they contribute to his comfort and standing).
But Mueenuddin’s stories are fascinating not only for what is present in them—the beautifully relaxed, wheeling exposition that recalls the works of Jhumpa Lahiri, the love of the natural world expressed in ripples of memorable language, the dramatization of the jagged route that human beings take towards understanding themselves and others—but also for what is absent, which is a criticism of the feudal order through which they wander.
Mueenuddin, lawyer-turned-author lives on a farm in Pakistan. Cecilie Brenden
His gaze is curious but uncritical; he sees the world as his characters, who mostly accept the rules of the game, see it; it is as if the world can only be this way. His interest, in fact, is in those characters who are secretly ambitious in a world where everybody is expected to know their place; he halts upon those who want to rise, and those who can raise.
In the story Provide, Provide, Harouni’s elderly and opportunistic estate manager Jaglani, who has long been appropriating his master’s property, takes as his mistress a married woman, Zainab. Zainab gives him whatever he asks for by way of service and bodily pleasure, but stoically, as if performing a duty. When she says she must return to her husband, Jaglani impulsively decides to marry her, although he has a family and children. Shrewdly tracking his thoughts, Mueenuddin tells us that Jaglani feels he is so powerful that “now he deserved to make this mistake, for once not to make a calculated choice”. Jaglani’s marriage brings him pleasure and pain in equal measure; he finds that “although he had made a career of fearing no one”, he fears his wife, and “yet his love kept increasing”.
Mueenuddin’s story works itself through to an exceptional conclusion that features neither of the principal characters, thereby greatly enhancing its beauty and strangeness (a strangeness seen again in Nawabdin Electrician, a story about a man shot by a thief, and who lies on the road thinking he is going to die, remembering “the smell of frying fish”). In his attention to the minds of Zainab and Jaglani, or that of Husna, the impoverished distant relative who infiltrates the household and then the affections of Harouni himself, Mueenuddin serves up a series of masterful character studies set into the massive edifice of Harouni’s world.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Random House, 248 pages, Rs395
In keeping with the need for economic security or love of luxury revealed by so many of his protagonists, Mueenuddin’s writing has a heavy, beguiling materiality: It is fascinated by the world of objects and natural phenomena around us. “The hard blue sky stood enormously tall over Paris,” he writes at one point, throwing us right into the scene with that unusual adjective “tall”. Describing Nawabdin’s prowess in tampering with electrical meters, he offers this bouquet of explanations: “Some thought he used magnets, others said heavy oil or porcelain chips or a substance he found in beehives.” When Husna begins to live with Harouni, she hoards a stash of goods in “two locked steel trunks, which she filled with everything from raw silk to electric sandwich makers”. A couple makes love in a small hotel in the French countryside: “The loose bedsprings made long rusty sounds, like a knife leisurely sharpened on a whetstone.”
Some works of fiction, by their excellence of craftsmanship, distinctiveness of world view, and richness and precision of language, announce themselves instantly as classics, and this book of many wonders is one such.
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