Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” – A Review

Guest Post by Libby Cohen.

In this book of interlinked short stories, the life of K. K. Harouni, a retired civil servant and  landowner in Lahore, Pakistan is intertwined with the day-to-day life of servants, family members, corrupt government officials, petitioners, and opportunists. The Harouni family, like other feudal families, had come into power under the British who used the landowners to help them govern. Some of the stories have been previously published in The New Yorker, Granta, Zeotrope: All Story, and Best American Short Stories. The author is deeply familiar with Pakistani society and,  as I read the exquisitely written, and, at times, heartbreaking stories, I felt as if he were offering a nuanced and jaded  tour of feudal Pakistani society. The physical landscape and rural life compose the backdrop for the stories. The author describes the mulberry trees, eucalyptus trees, mango trees, vegetable gardens, jasmine, rose bushes, and other plants with loving detail. The major themes that are interwoven through the enchanting stories include shame, power, wealth, humiliation, pride, low status of women, grinding poverty, hopelessness, distrust, and missed opportunities.

If you have previously read the stories, you will find them captivating in this book because of the way in which the author cleverly arranges and connects one story to the next. New characters are introduced and may return in other stories. In the story from which the book’s title is taken, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Husna, who seeks employment from Harouni,  brings a letter of introduction from his estranged wife, Begum Harouni. Although Husna is related to him, she comes from part of Harouni’s family that did not rise from poverty. Harouni assigns her to learn typing from his secretary.  Husna has a deep underlying rage against the wealthy and the poverty from which she will never escape. Later on in the story, Harouni’s daughters arrive and the deep abyss between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken is revealed.

In several interlinked stories, Sohail, one of Harouni’s more successful relatives, is a prominent character. In the story Our Lady of Paris, Helen is introduced as Sohail’s girl friend at Yale University and the two of them go on a trip to Paris. Sohail’s parents, who live in Pakistan, decide to meet the couple in Paris. In another story, Sohail has married Sonya and they live with their son on their estate in Pakistan. Sonya employs Rezak, a desperately poor man whose home is a small portable hut, to help care for her garden at their weekend home near Islamabad. Rezak’s life greatly improves when he is befriended by the estate’s old majordomo Ghulam  Rasool. Then, sudden and surprising events occur that transform his life forever.

One of my favorite stories centers on Nawabdin, a clever and obsequious electrician and handyman for K. K. Harouni. Nawabdin lives in poverty but feels blessed because he has a loving wife,12 daughters and one son. In order to feed his family, he constantly seeks opportunities to buy and sell items at a profit and to  use his mechanical skills, such as in the rather primitive and prolonged repair of various machines. He cleverly insinuates himself into his patron’s favor and requests a motorcycle for traveling around the estate, rather than use his bicycle, so that his repair work can be quickly completed. Nawabdin enjoys being able to zip from place to place on the motorcycle. However, as in many of the stories, good luck is coupled with bad, and Nawabdin’s life becomes entangled with other characters in the story and his life is changed.

According to the author’s website, Mueenuddin was raised in Lahore Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. He completed his university education in the U.S. and worked as a lawyer in New York. He currently lives on a farm in the southern Punjab of Pakistan. This book is the 2010 winner of The Story Prize, an award for short story collections, and it was nominated for Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and the LA Times Book Prize.

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