shadowy duck (pylduck) wrote in asianamlitfans,
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Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

The final book of my summer reading days as I dive into the fall semester was Daniyal Mueenuddin's debut collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Norton, 2009).

This community has reviewed some recent books by Pakistani/American writers that productively hint at or directly address a post-9/11 world and the relations of Muslims, particularly Muslim men, to and in America. Before the turn of this new millennium, I would have said that much subcontinent literature with some connection to American perspectives seemed to focus primarily on Partition--the world-changing moment of decolonization in 1947 when India became India and Pakistan with the bowing out of the British Empire as rulers--and a diasporic perspective of South Asians looking back to the homeland. I haven't read enough of South Asian American literature to be able to assess if there has been a substantive shift in topical treatment of the subcontinent in this way, but it seems a possible one.

In contrast, Mueenuddin's work seems uninterested in either Partition or post-9/11 relations though it is very much a work about contemporary Pakistan of the last couple of decades. Mueenuddin's short stories in this collection center around characters within the orbit of the feudal landowning family of K. K. Harouni. Moving between the servant classes and the feudal aristocracy that has lost much of its wealth and status to the industry-business classes that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, the stories explore the relationship between the various people that inhabit the numerous houses and farms of the Harounis and their peers. In one of the stories, the title character Lily encapsulates this focus: "It's a little dying world, she reflected, this household, these servants, the old man at the center. She had seen this before among her own relatives, one of her great-aunts who lived on into her nineties, quarreling with her maidservants, absorbed in prayer, ill-tempered, reputedly with boxes full of cash and gold salted away, though none of it turned up after her death" (191-192). As such, the stories are wonderfully wrought with a sense of loss--the slow crumbling of a world based on hierarchies of families and their servants as modernization and globalization re-center wealth and power in different hands. The older generation wastes away, and the younger generation fumbles towards an uncertain future (some ineffectually trying to carry on as if their aristocratic status still gives them complete power in their world and others taking up business wealth more proactively). Even the servants must learn to navigate the fracturing hierarchy of this outside world as it is mirrored in the hierarchy of servants in a household. Some life-long servants extract money and land from their oblivious masters, thereby making the transition to the business-political world of modernized Pakistan.

A number of these stories had been published in magazines previously--including in The New Yorker and Granta--as well as in the Best American Short Stories anthology. Clearly, Mueenuddin is a master storyteller in the vein of delicately and devastatingly crafted prose, the kind that weaves tales of intimate relations with startling pathos and poetry. Because the stories work in this particular vein of the contemporary short story, though, they also tend towards universalizing of human relations rather than exploring differences (cultural, racial, class, religious, etc.).

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is also set entirely in Pakistan, and the few invocations of America and transnational connections come in reference to men who studied abroad in America and returned or in reference to "American women" (white women) whom such men date and marry. The wealthy classes in this Pakistani world clearly have a cosmopolitan life, jetting around the country as well as the world--primarily to places in the postindustrial Global North like Paris and New York.

I like this kind of short story collection in which the world sketched out is that delimited by a singular set of characters. Though some characters and stories are more peripheral to the world of K. K. Harouni, all of them help to illuminate a particular affective orientation to the passing of a generation and a system of wealth and politics in Pakistan. The fates of some characters are often left unstated, but then they surface briefly in other stories in ways that clarify what happens to them after the stories they are featured in. Unlike a more deliberate overarching narrative that you might find in a novel, though, the stories are often elliptical in their relations to each other, and such a multi-layered narrative structure makes for a different kind of reading experience that gestures more towards ambiguously-generative analogies and possible connections between characters than a clearly delineated storyline would allow.

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