No one can accuse Daniyal Mueenuddin of poor timing. His debut collection of linked stories about life surrounding a wealthy Muslim family in Pakistan arrives just as that country, an exotic blank to most in the West, presses itself ever more insistently upon our geopolitical anxieties.
The central figure of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is K.K. Harouni, the sophisticated patriarch of a rich land-holding clan, though he figures as a protagonist in only one of the eight interconnected stories. The others focus on peasants, servants, land managers, privileged Westernized children.
Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is a place of feudal stratification—the fabulously rich and the desperately poor. Corruption is ubiquitous. In the title story, Harouni condescends to help a young woman, a distant relation from a once-wealthy family, by training her to office work. Bitter and moody, she declines to apply herself. He takes her instead as his final mistress:
He would look down at her sleeping face, in repose and therefore cleansed of all ambition and anxiety and spite, qualities that he forgave her because he felt that the conditions into which he had thrust her brought them out. Seeing her there, he sometimes thought that he loved her, loved her brightness in these last years of his life, when he had become so lonely.
Amid the wealth, which brings little satisfaction, and the poverty, which fails to ennoble, romance abounds. Love, too, provides only passing happiness. Harouni’s elderly valet, Rafik, shares a passion with the young maid Saleema, who bears him a son. After Harouni dies, the house is sold, the servants dismissed, and Rafik returns to his wife.
After 31 pages of striving and sex and household politics, Mueenuddin wraps up Saleema’s fate in words no less heartbreaking for their brevity. Cast onto the street, she turns to drugs:
The man who controlled the lucrative corner where she ended up begging took most of her earnings. This way she escaped prostitution. She cradled the little boy in her arms, holding him up to the windows of cars. Rafik sent money, a substantial amount, so long as she had an address. And then, soon enough, she died, and the boy begged in the streets, one of the sparrows of Lahore.
Mueenuddin is equally good with all social classes. In “Lily”, a wastrel socialite decides to change herself by marrying a dashing but upright farmer with a large spread in the hinterlands. Life far from the discos of Islamabad proves intolerable, and she thoughtlessly sleeps with a worthless playboy, with immediate regrets. Yet she remains hardened against her husband.
Born in Pakistan, raised partly in Wisconsin, a graduate of Yale Law School, Mueenuddin may be uniquely situated to dramatize Pakistani life to a Western readership. His prose, never flashy, neither sentimentalizes the poor nor demonizes the rich, but noses out the humanity of each.
It is probably a mistake to lavish too much praise on a first book, but given the power and beauty and deeply affecting quality of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, I can’t stop myself from wondering if Pakistan has found its Chekhov.