Monday, October 05, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

I recently published a review of Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, at To read the full text of the review, go here. Excerpts:

Though the stories do reveal and expose the poverty and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the human desire of doing better in life, escaping the trap of being limited by one’s circumstances, they also tell us about the dying feudal world of Pakistan—“the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” All this is happening in a Pakistan which was supposedly carved out of India to develop as an exemplary Islamic country (with secular values). Instead of establishing an egalitarian society, Pakistan came to be ruled by the feudal lords who control all levers of power in the country. The vast majority of its poor citizens, as a result, suffer, struggling for their survival, conniving and scheming to come up in life by any means. Religion is the last thing on their minds.

For an Indian, it is not difficult to understand the moral ambiguities of the feudal rich. But what surprises me, and must would have done to most other readers of this book in the West, is the lack of morality—be it in business dealings, law enforcement or matters of sex and matrimony—in the characters, cutting across layers of society (even though, perhaps Daniyal is a little biased as he shows Helen, an American in love with a Pakistani Sohail, in Our Lady of Paris, to be morally upright, and not deviant as he shows Husna in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or Zainab in Provide, Provide).

One might read a book on Pakistan and expect to read a story or two on fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists (his three fellow expat Pakistani writers’ recent books directly or indirectly deal with terrorism: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam). Daniyal’s book is about Pakistan but there is not a single character in his stories who is a fanatic. There are devout Muslims, they tell their rosaries, say their prayers but they still indulge in amoral acts. This juxtaposition, this revelation, must be interesting to most readers, affording one the satisfaction that Pakistani Muslims too are like any other people—the rich and poor not necessarily being gentle, innocent and benevolent. This (realization) was so at least in my case. That was the biggest reward of reading this book.

What do you look for in a great, even good, writer? A unique and exact way of looking at things and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, as Raymond Carver once said. In Daniyal’s case, that talent is very much on display. I rate Daniyal’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders very highly and can safely say that this debut collection can be put in the same league as The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (US/China). With his very first book, Daniyal has shown the talent of a special way of looking at his universe. A writer like him should be around for a time. I wish him longevity.



Ashish said...

Daniyel's book is quite interesting.
One item that should be reserached is the paucity of Muslim writers , in any language. They are very few in Indian regional languages, Hindi and in English. recently i red how few books are published in Arabic.
Is there a connection between this "lack of creativity" and terrorism?

Abhimanyu k Singh said...

something about his stories reminds me of Chugtai.

Berkeley Papers said...

A nice post covering an important issue. The only remark would be,
you never know what are the requirements for your editor, until you have completed at least a level.

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