April 02, 2010
Daniyal Mueenuudin - Capitalizing on his Pakistani Identity and the Short Story Genre.
Reading Daniyal Mueenuddin's "In Other rooms, Other Wonders" felt like a walking-tour in feudal times, where one saw the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak interacting within the established parameters of a system which may or may not be justifiable to the onlooker. The onlooker, in the course of the tour, notices that there are no apparent hard feelings on either sides; both sides simply live out the given and the achieved, and all within the norms of a feudal Pakistan.
This debut collection of short stories by Mr. Mueenuddin won him the "Story Prize" for outstanding short fiction, and in his acceptance speech, he wondered, “If I were Bulgarian, no one would read my work...I should give half of my paycheck to the Taliban.” It was perhaps this comment of his that made me pick up this book, and finish reading it within a matter of a few hours. The stories are all linked, as they unfold in or about the house of a feudal landlord, Harouni, but the characters in each of the stories are different. There is Hassan the cook, Saleema the heroin addicts wife, Lily the socialite, Rafik the trusted servant, Murad the environmentally conscious businessman, Husna the landlords servant-mistress, and many more such colorful characters that have the reader entranced.
Despite the plethora of enchanting characters, the characterization per se, in all of the stories perplexed me no end and made me research the short story genre, and I was reminded that "the short story tends to reveal character at a crucial moment rather than to develop it through many incidents". This was truly an 'AHA!' moment for me. I felt I had finally put my finger on the theme underlying all the stories, and strangely enough, it was being delivered through some masterful characterization. All, or at least most of the protagonists in the stories are pro active, to begin with, and develop as they go along, even change, but then, all of a sudden, without an explanation or a fight, these protagonists stop and give up, with a sense of deja vu almost. This willful 'giving up' after a certain point, is replayed in almost each of the eight stories. It was this pattern that bothered me each time I finished a story. Now I see that Mr Mueenuddin was working to a plan! He did not want to sermonize or undermine the intelligence of his readers by handing out moralistic tales. Instead, he churned out eight interesting stories with intriguing characters, who all stop short on the last leg of the race they are in, and have the readers wondering why they do so. This was truly brilliant use of a literary technique by Mr Mueenuddin, to eliminate didactic without compromising on the power or the lure of the work.
To a western reader, the book has the lure of romance since it allows for an extended peep into 'other rooms' that are housed in a culture that is alien to a westerner, and thus the scenes witnessed are like the 'other wonders' that fascinate; perhaps a part of Mr Mueenuddin's plan as a writer. Having lived in the west for a major part of his life, Daniyal Mueenuddin must have sensed the cravings of western readership that is still intrigued by anything remotely associated with the Islamic world, and so Mr. Mueenuddin delivered and won. Not intending to undermine Mr Mueenuddins literary achievement in any way, but I would be curious to know how this collection of stories was received in Pakistan. Did it receive any national awards, or did it go by unnoticed like many other debut writings since there was no novelty in it for the Pakistani reader? I would also keep an eye out for his next book; will it have a different setting? Will he select a different genre this time?
"In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" is undoubtedly a very interesting read, and a must for those who enjoy or want to explore the short story genre.