Daniyal Mueenuddin on Writing In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
For many years I have run a farm in Pakistan's southern Punjab. Most of the stories in this book have their origins in my experiences there, and many were written there. Half Pakistani and half American, I have spent equal amounts of time in each country, and so, knowing both cultures well and belonging to both, I equally belong to neither, look at both with an outsider's eye. These stories are written from that place in between, written to help both me and my reader bridge the gap.
My father was a graduate of Oxford, a member of first the Indian and then, after Partition, the Pakistani civil service, and—most fundamentally—a landowner of the old Punjabi feudal class. My American mother, a reporter with the Washington Post, met my father in Washington, where he was negotiating a treaty. She was twenty-seven years younger than him. They married and soon after, in 1960, moved back to Pakistan.
We lived in Lahore, where I attended the Lahore American School until I was thirteen, my classmates the children of westernized Pakistanis or the few foreigners pursuing their oblique lives in this marginal place. My family spent most vacations on the farm that I now manage, where I ran free day and night with the children of the village, was in and out of their houses, ate with them, explored with them, swam with them. In Lahore I was closer to the old servant who brought me up than to anyone else—thirty years after his death I still wear the bracelet he gave me when I went off to school in America. Because I was a child, the servants and the villagers were not guarded against me, unaware that I was watching, and therefore I learned the rhythms and details of their lives in a way that I never could as a grown-up. I heard the women in the village calling to each other over their common walls, walked out with the boys when they took their buffaloes to be watered at the canal. These people, their gestures and intonations as I observed them in my childhood, appear throughout the stories in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.
At thirteen I was packed off to boarding school in Massachusetts, and by the time I arrived at Dartmouth College five years later, I more or less passed as an American. In college I wrote, protested against apartheid, sweated it out in the library stacks, and popped out after four years with a degree in English literature. My aging father had been sending increasingly pressing letters, telling me that I must return to Pakistan and take care of the family property, and so, after reflection, I complied.
My father, just turned eighty, was ill. For years, he had been losing control of his lands to the managers, who sent less and less money to Lahore each quarter, as they became increasingly confident that he could no longer visit the farm. In his calm and perfectly rational manner, my father explained to me soon after I returned that, if I wanted the land, I would have to go fight for it—that otherwise it would be lost.
On arrival at the farm I went through the books with the accountants, walked the lands, met with revenue officials, trying to get some sense of what we owned, what we produced, what we spent. The place was a total disaster. There were no maps, no deeds, no titles. The accountants had wound the books into an impenetrable ball. The managers were all from the same extended family and were unified against me. I returned to Lahore five weeks later shell-shocked and hungry for company, but hardened, sunburned, and at least now aware of the scale of the problem. I decided to stay and fight it out.
For the next seven years I lived more or less uninterruptedly at the farm. It was a tense and yet intensely happy time, long days walking across the lands or sitting in hot rooms poring over ledgers—and then, against that, the early mornings, when I wrote poetry, looking out from the window of my study to the garden my mother had planted. In the evenings I wrote letters and read endlessly, ordering crates of books from Blackwell's in Oxford, who had supplied my mother's books in the 1960s.
My father died soon after my return from college, and I lost his backing, the influence he still had wielded—but I stayed afloat. Gradually I learned about the crops, about selling and buying, about fertilizer, diesel engines, the qualities of soil, the depths and shallows of the local politics, the depravity of the police. I learned to be a hard negotiator, to manage the farm rigorously, to form alliances, to deflect threats. These were very different lessons than the ones I learned as a child, much harder lessons, and equally valuable to the stories that I would be writing.
By the sixth year, I felt I had to get away and spend time in the West again. I applied to law school, got in to Yale, and spent three lively years there, my concerns far removed from Pakistan. After graduation I took a job at one of the large New York law firms.
Sitting in my office on the forty-second floor of a black skyscraper in Manhattan, I gradually developed confidence in the stories I had lived through during those years on the farm. I realized that I was in a unique position to write these stories for a Western audience—stories about the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities. I resigned from the law firm, returned to Pakistan, and began writing the stories that make up this book.
1. The figure of the wealthy landowner K. K. Harouni is the recurring thread that connects the lives of the disparate characters in Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Describe the nature of the feudal system as defined by this figure sitting atop the pyramid and all his subordinates, acquaintances, and relations.
2. Even as Mueenuddin reveals that his stories are set in the present-day, the reader is struck by the timelessness of the stories, as if they were fables. How is this effect achieved, and to what end?
3. Many of Mueenuddin's characters fall into predicaments beyond their control, and these predicaments define the conflicts at the heart of their stories. Women and the poor, in particular, are powerless and suffer because of it. At the same time, the characters reinforce their disadvantages by the choices they make, and so to a degree are agents of their own misfortune. Describe the interplay of these two factors in the fates of his tragic characters. Are the characters responsible for the tragedies that befall them? In the context of these stories, how are responsibility and blame defined and apportioned?
4. The Pakistani society that Mueenuddin describes contains a striking blend of spirituality and materialism. Spirituality is generally thought to be undermined by materialism. Is this true in the world that Mueenuddin describes? What form does spirituality take in these stories?
5. The feudal world is sometimes described as being dependent upon a complex system of responsibility and privilege among the different classes. What are the responsibilities and privileges of the lower and higher classes in these stories? Is the system stable? Why or why not?
6. What is revealed about the possibilities of social mobility in contemporary Pakistan in stories such as "Provide, Provide," "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders," and "Lily"?
7. "About a Burning Girl" is the only story narrated in first person. How does this set it apart from the others in the collection? Why do you think the author chose to tell this story in first person? Are the stories generally uniform in tone or perspective?
8. Some critics and readers have dwelled on the darkness of this book. How does humor enter into Mueenuddin's stories?
9. "Our Lady of Paris" and "A Spoiled Man" feature prominent Western characters. How does the inclusion of these characters, as well as of Pakistani characters who have returned home from abroad, serve to broaden the scope of the collection's depiction of Pakistan?
10. How sustaining is sexuality as a form of power for the women in these stories?
11. How do the stories "Lily" and "A Spoiled Man" reveal the idealization of rural life by the wealthy? Why do their characters retreat to the countryside? Do the lives of the poor characters in Mueenuddin's collection support any of their fantasies?
12. Might these stories be called morality tales?