Book Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

By Lajla Cline

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s first collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, straddles both east and west, rural and urban, upper and lower class, just as the author has in his own life. The son of a Pakistani father and American mother, Mueenuddin lived his early childhood in Pakistan where he shared time between the urban and country homes of his family. He moved freely as a child is most easily able to do amongst both the rural lower class surrounding him and the land-owning upper class to which his family belonged. Mueenuddin attended high school in the United States and then continued his education at Dartmouth College, Yale Law School, and the University of Arizona’s MFA program in creative writing. He now lives in Pakistan and works as the manager of his family farm and as a writer.

Mueenuddin’s background leaves him poised to convey in this collection of fiction, written in English, a unique perspective of both the cultural overlap and the chasm between contemporary Pakistani and American societies. Tender portrayals of the relationships between his characters and their struggles within this vividly and carefully rendered picture of place and time make Mueenuddin’s work unforgettable.

This collection of linked stories describes the lives of a wealthy Pakistani landowner, K.K. Harouni, and those of his family, friends, and his servants. These stories weave a cultural fabric of place as the reader moves between snapshots that span decades, regions, and social classes and chronicle Pakistan’s shift away from a feudal land-based system to the new industrialism of the 70’s and 80’s. And foremost it is people who comprise this cultural fabric. We are introduced to Harouni, who lives in the city of Lahore and runs the land his family has owned for 100 years in Dunyapur; his daughters who live in cities—Karachi, Paris, and New York—far away from their father’s home; his more distant relatives, friends, and acquaintances also negotiating the expectations of the upper class society to which they belong; and the servants from rural villages who’ve managed to escape the poverty of their homes and find employment with the Harouni family.

Mueenuddin’s stories are propelled forward by a dedication to portraying both sides of things—a village is described as smelling of “dung and dust and smoke and of the mango blossoms in the surrounding orchard”—and to the tension between these two sides that oftentimes tries our emotional selves.

Though they may not ultimately do the right thing, or may give into the convincingly sketched pressures of the world around them, the humanity with which they are portrayed dignifies Mueenuddin’s characters and endears them to us.

“Saleema” is the story of a girl who, at the age of 14, escapes her poor village by running away with a “city-bright” man from Lahore. Ten years after leaving her home and still married to this man whose drug addiction has reduced his life to basic dependency, Saleema is hired as a servant at Harouni’s Lahore mansion and finds love with Harouni’s most respected servant, Rafik, a man 40 years her senior who has never before strayed from his marriage. The tender and complicated depiction of their intimacy identifies for us the line between love and obligation, desire and need, and then nimbly walks this line. And it is this tension—this depiction of the two sides of things—that elicits the reader’s compassion. Saleema is a girl from a poor village who marries a man who, like her own father, falls victim to drugs, and who, for a time, follows in the footsteps of her mother who “slept around for money and favors.” And Saleema demands our respect. In one instance, when the servant men of the house laugh at her as they often do, Saleema says, “I’m trying to live here too, you know…I also come from somewhere.” This claim of a past, which Saleema puts forth as reasoning for her right to respect, could be Mueenuddin’s claim for all of his characters. Though they may not ultimately do the right thing, or may give into the convincingly sketched pressures of the world around them, the humanity with which they are portrayed dignifies Mueenuddin’s characters and endears them to us.

“About a Burning Girl,” a story sandwiched in the middle of the collection, is the only story told in the first person. This narrative choice is used to create a portrait of several characters that stands apart from the more complex and multi-dimensional characterization of the other stories and, at moments, feels more like caricature than realistic portrayal. The narrator, a sessions judge in the Lahore High Court, professes his venality almost too completely and obtusely for realism. Of his job he says, “I render decisions based on the relative pressures brought to bear on me.” Confessions of this sort, of the judge’s unadulterated corruption, continue throughout the story. Of his morning paper he tells the reader, “I enjoy this paper because it gives me absolutely no information except that which is sponsored by the government. It never disrupts my morning.”

While this characterization, initially, feels detached from the complexity of character and humanity we see in his other stories, as the story progresses we are able to see Mueenuddin’s purpose in his one-dimensional depiction of character flaw in this story. We come to see that the narrator is merely one small part in a complete system powered by kickbacks, favors, and clout. The judge’s continued confessions of unapologetic complicity, unmatched by compassion or essential humanity, are not representative of this individual’s singularity of character, but, instead, of his complete powerlessness in an utterly corrupt and, at moments, seemingly hopeless system. The sense of vulnerability we see in brief flashes—while describing his house, the judge says, “ …our greatest fear is that someone senior to me will see it and covet it and take it”—is futile; what choice does this man have but to partake in the unjust system around him? By the end of the story, we come to understand the very tragic and personal effects of words spoken to the judge: “In Pakistan, all things can be arranged.”

The notion of the American Dream, the idea that one can make what he wants of himself in this country, exists in the negative space of the collection for an American a concept worthy of our consideration.

To an American reader, the stories beg a comparison between the perceived social structure of this country and the depicted structure of Pakistan, specifically between the reality of the possibilities for upward social mobility in both places. The notion of the American Dream, the idea that one can make what he wants of himself in this country, exists in the negative space of the collection for an American audience, not so much as either a confirmation of its validity or as a condemnation of its falsehood, but as a concept worthy of our consideration.

“Our Lady of Paris” brings this question out of the shadow of the earlier stories as the protagonist’s father, Mr. Harouni, a cousin of K.K. Harouni, the linchpin of this linked collection, explains his reason for choosing America as the place he’d most like to have been born. Harouni, who acknowledges that he was “born into a comfortably well-off family” in Pakistan and has lived a blessed life, tells his son’s American girlfriend that the only thing he’s missed in life is “the sensation of being absolutely free.” “I suspect that only an American ever feels that,” he explains. “You aren’t weighted down by your families, and you aren’t weighted down by your history.”

The reader knows, now, what Harouni means, as the reader has felt in the earlier stories of the collection the futility of dreaming for something outside of one’s social class in Mueenuddin’s Pakistan. Harouni’s wife, though, in her response to her husband’s comments, refutes his claim about America and suggests a more central purpose of Mueenuddin’s collection: “Americans aren’t any more free than anyone else. Just because an American runs away, to Kansas or Wyoming, doesn’t mean that he succeeds in escaping whatever it is he left behind. Like all of us, he carries it with him.”

Together, the cast of characters in Mueenuddin’s collection creates a moving portrayal of the contradictions we face and our struggles to make sense of them.
Mueenuddin doesn’t offer a solution to the difficulty of negotiating these tensions, but, instead, gives us an authentic and touching sense of the complexity of our lives. Our pasts are testaments to our humanity—for Saleema, her past is proof that she is deserving of acknowledgement and respect—but, like Mrs. Harouni says, the past can also be a roadblock in our imagined paths upward as it is for so many other characters in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s first collection of short fiction is an enjoyable work worth reading because of its vivid and evocative depictions of a culture, people, and a part of the world not often experienced by Americans through contemporary literature. But perhaps more significantly, Mueenuddin’s work is a collection worth rereading because it is a rich and saturated discussion of the questions threaded throughout our lives, none more central than the question of what roles our pasts—cultural, familial, or individual—may play in our lives and our capacity (or incapacity) to escape those pasts.

Lajla Cline is a fiction student in the University of Arizona’s MFA program in creative writing.
She is originally from Houston, Texas.

Arizona Board of Regents