Reading Daniyal Mueenuddin’s mesmerizing first collection, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” is like watching a game of blackjack, the shrewd players calculating their way beyond their dealt cards in an attempt to beat the dealer. Some bust, others surrender. But in Mueenuddin’s world, no one wins.
IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS
By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Set in the Pakistani district of Punjab, the eight linked stories in this excellent book follow the lives of the rich and powerful Harouni family and its employees: managers, drivers, gardeners, cooks, servants.
The patriarch, K. K. Harouni, of the feudal landowning class, owns a farm in Dunyapur and a mansion in Lahore. In the title story, we meet him in the final years of his life, living mostly in Lahore, apart from his estranged wife, having surrendered the management of his farm to the corrupt Chaudrey Jaglani. When Husna, a distant relative whose branch of the family “had not so much fallen into poverty as failed to rise,” shows up at his door, Harouni takes her in, first as a servant, then as his mistress. For the aging paterfamilias, Husna is a distraction whose unrefined speech and manners offer a temporary escape from the infinite politesse of his own class. For her part, Husna, a more hard-boiled Madame Bovary, envious of the glittering, jet-setting lives of the rich, ingratiates herself to the old man through calculated flirtations, believing sex is her ticket out of her lowly status. And for a while she is right. Until she no longer is.
The women in these stories often use sex to prey on the men, and they do so with abandon at best and rage at worst — in this patriarchal, hierarchical society, it is their sharpest weapon. Women in the lower classes sleep their way up only to be kicked back down, while those in the upper classes use their feminine influence to maneuver their husbands into ever-growing circles of power, until age corrodes their authority.In the only story in which the main characters are of similar social status, Lily, a girl from a reputable Punjabi family who has spent her youth attending stylish parties and having casual sex, hopes to improve herself morally by marrying a kind, hard-working man of her own class. Like all other attempts at betterment in Mueenuddin’s world, this too fails, as Lily slowly reverts to her old ways. Motion in Pakistani society — be it social or moral — can only be horizontal....