The conventional wisdom that nobody cares about short story collections has more than a few shreds of truth (per Stephen King, editor of 2007′s Best American Short Stories: “American short story alive? Check. American short story well? Sorry, no, can’t say so”). But the fact remains that each year, at least one collection proves the naysayers wrong, drawing lots of fine reviews and public attention and perhaps even spending a few weeks on the bestseller list. Way back in 1998, the exception was Melissa Bank’s comic The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing; ten years later, it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant Unaccustomed Earth. In 2009, the counter-example should be — if there is any justice in book publishing — In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, a Pakistan-raised, Ivy League–educated onetime New York lawyer now living and writing on a farm in Khanpur.
Mueenuddin’s excellent debut combines a novel’s heft and gravity with a collection’s nimble intricacy. The eight tales within are linked by people and place — the fertile valley of the Indus River, the drawing rooms of colonial Lahore, the servants and masters who flit on and off stage — as well as by a powerful and consistent narrative voice. Neither self-conscious nor ironic but clean, assured, and often breathtakingly lovely, this voice slides effortlessly from the poetic to the matter-of-fact and back again. Here is cosmopolitan, libertine Lily, a newlywed, realizing that marriage to a kind and deliberate man has not transformed her character as she had hoped:
A little crack opened up as if in the perimeter walls of the compound at Jalpana, through which a poisonous scent, like very strong attar, overpowering, overripe, musky, seeped into their life together — the pull of her old life, of other lives. Why did he have to speak so slowly, to explain in such detail the mechanics of the sprinklers in the greenhouses?
Such a paragraph also demonstrates an enduring theme of this collection, the difficulty faced by people, especially lovers, when trying to comprehend (let alone satisfy) one other. In Mueenuddin’s postcolonial Pakistan, the daily exchanges between landlord and servant — the elaborate formalities, the painstaking manipulations — are still perfectly understood, while the most intimate relations between husband and wife (or husband and mistress) are clouded in misconceptions and cross-purposes.
This is in part due to the obstacles Mueenuddin puts between his men and women, who come to each other across gulfs of age, culture, and class. In the title story, Husna, a young woman from Lahore, appeals to her distant relative K. K. Harouni for work. K.K., an aging business magnate and feudal landowner whose vast array of residences, relatives, and servants give Mueenuddin’s stories their settings and casts, is the calm, inscrutable center of the collection — less important and interesting than the characters whose lives depend on him, functioning primarily as symbol of the shifting fortunes of the landed gentry who flourished during Britain’s rule.
K.K. takes Husna under his wing and thus into his bed, but can’t quite tell what to think of her, as she is “neither rich nor poor, neither servant nor begum.” Husna, who expected the surrender of her virginity to be “as simple as the signing of a check, a payment,” belatedly realizes that she has shut the door on a life she might have had, one in which she could marry a man of her class: “
While Husna allies herself with K.K., the maid Saleema, who comes from poorer stock, angles for Rafik, K.K.’s gentle old valet (in the story “Saleema”). Married to a drug addict, Saleema has extramarital affairs that are “plainly mercantile transactions” — a dalliance with the cook means foreign delicacies like ice cream and potato cutlets — until her studied courting of Rafik blossoms into real love. But her happiness, like Husna’s, is short-lived.
“Nawabdin Electrician,” selected by Salman Rushdie for inclusion in 2008′s Best American Short Stories, is perhaps the collection’s most lighthearted entry. In it, Nawab, an enterprising mechanic, talks K.K. into buying him a motorcycle and promptly ascends in the world. (“The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing.”) When a thief tries to steal the motorcycle, both men suffer gunshot wounds and end up lying side by side in a clinic. The facile lightness of the story’s tone takes a sharp turn when the mortally wounded thief begs Nawab to forgive him and Nawab refuses. After the thief’s convulsive death, Nawab’s sudden hardness lifts, becoming an almost transcendent glee: “He was growing. Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them had killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.”
Nawab is the collection’s closest approximation of a modern hero, a resourceful man capable of optimism and upward mobility. But the real principal in this volume is Pakistan itself, from its “ugly concrete buildings, crowded bazaars, slums, ponds of sewage water chocked with edible water lilies” to its “open country, groves of blossoming orange trees, the ripe mustard yellow with flowers.” As the old feudal relationships collapse, century-old trees planted by the British are burned to make room for new construction, and a jet-setting Islamabad playboy might cross paths with a peasant whose “oversized head had settled heavily onto shoulders, like a sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it.”
Comparisons have already been made between In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and classics such as Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches and Joyce’s Dubliners. Whether Mueenuddin’s debut, like those volumes, will stand the test of decades remains to be seen, but its vitality and subtlety make it an exciting, essential work for the here and now.