Three of the stories in this impressive collection of first fiction were originally published in The New Yorker, which in the last few years has clearly made a concerted effort to publish more international writers, especially from the non-Western world. The last story in the volume, “A Spoiled Man,” has all the pathos of what critics in the past would refer to as “exoticism” and perhaps also would fit rather easily into Edward Said’s hot-button term, “orientalism.” It’s easy to understand why it appeared in The New Yorker, but to define the story solely by those categories would be a great disservice to the author, Daniyal Mueenuddin, a truly gifted writer who was educated mostly in The United States but who currently lives on a farm in Pakistan. Like most of the other seven linked stories in the collection, this one is set on that farm, apparently a place that is so much a part of Mueenuddin’s soul that he can’t escape writing about it.
“Spoiled” is certainly an ironic term for Rezak, the story’s main character. He’s worked at a number of farms—mostly strenuous tasks for an old man, such as unloading heavy equipment and moving things around. He’s moved from place to place with a portable shed that he refers to as his house. He’s tried not to be a burden to anyone, but clearly hard work hasn’t gotten him very far. Things turn around for him, however, when he begins working for the Harounis on their “weekend home above Islamabad” because his boss’s American wife insists that he be paid a decent wage.
That salary is more than he’s ever earned before, so suddenly Rezak can afford luxuries he’s never enjoyed, including a TV which he uses in his hut via an electric wire that’s been run from the main house. A distant relative who sees his success proposes that Rezak get married. It’s a bit of a trick to get some money out of him as payment for the woman, who is attractive but somewhat enfeebled. Still, Rezak loves her and she appears to return his affection. Then she disappears, possibly taken back by her family or by sex-traffickers. Rezak never knows because no one is able to locate her.
Then—consistent with the undercurrent in almost all of Mueenuddin’s stories in the collection—the narrative takes a darker turn. The police accuse Rezak of harming or even killing, and they cart him away and rough him up. Eventually released, he’s all alone again, as he was earlier, but he’s still being paid a good salary. He sells the TV and the other things he’s accumulated, saves his salary, and then waits for death. And the money? Saved for an expensive gravestone, the only thing that will mark his time on this earth. Is the marker a suitable legacy for such a difficult life?
Rezak’s brief period of happiness during his short marriage is consistent with the events of four other stories in the collection: “Saleena,” “Provide, Provide,” the title story, and “Lily,” also the longest stories in the volume. All have the narrative scope of novellas. The focus is typically on the female characters, women who experience brief periods of happiness in their relationships with men, either as mistresses or as wives. It’s a harsh world for women in Pakistan, Mueenuddin shows us, tenuous, at best, because if they are kept by a man, they can suddenly be abandoned or—even when married—rejected by their husband’s family once he dies.
In “Saleena,” the title character is made into an “honest woman” by a much older man who gets her pregnant just before he leaves her. In “Provide, Provide,” K.K. Harouni, the landowner, takes a peasant woman as his second wife, experiencing the love he never had for his first wife in an arranged marriage. Zauinab demands nothing of him, but that guarantees her insecurity because, when he gets cancer and quickly dies, she ends up with nothing. “In Other Rooms, Other Windows,” the situation is similar. Husna is left with nothing once her lover dies, not recognized by his children because of her lowly status. In these three stories the issue is class—women of a lower status can easily be tossed aside once the unexpected intrudes and the men they have served out of genuine love suddenly pass away or are moved, because of their work, to another part of the country.
That’s why “Lily” is even more disturbing. Murad and Lily are more or less equals, both in education and in class. When they get married, Murad knows that he’s taking a risk because Lily has a somewhat wild past and her jet-setting life may make it difficult for her to adjust to life on his farm. His hunches are sadly correct as the past intervenes with the arrival of several of her jaded friends at the farm for a weekend barely three months into their marriage. The devastation from that visit connects this story to the others: male/female relationships are at best tenuous, even when they supposedly are based on love and result in marriage.
These are powerful, even haunting stories. Mueenuddin will no doubt be called a pessimist about human relations, but his gifts as a writer—especially his memorable characters and settings–far outweigh his dark view of human fallibilities.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Norton, 247 pp., $23.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.