In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

3.4 23
by Daniyal Mueenuddin

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Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the 2009 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. “The rural rootedness and gentle humour of R.K. Narayan with the literary sophistication and stylishness of Jhumpa Lahiri.”—Financial Times
Passing from the mannered drawing rooms of Pakistan’s cities to the harsh

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Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the 2009 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. “The rural rootedness and gentle humour of R.K. Narayan with the literary sophistication and stylishness of Jhumpa Lahiri.”—Financial Times
Passing from the mannered drawing rooms of Pakistan’s cities to the harsh mud villages beyond, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s linked stories describe the interwoven lives of an aging feudal landowner, his servants and managers, and his extended family, industrialists who have lost touch with the land. In the spirit of Joyce’s Dubliners and Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, these stories comprehensively illuminate a world, describing members of parliament and farm workers, Islamabad society girls and desperate servant women. A hard-driven politician at the height of his powers falls critically ill and seeks to perpetuate his legacy; a girl from a declining Lahori family becomes a wealthy relative’s mistress, thinking there will be no cost; an electrician confronts a violent assailant in order to protect his most valuable possession; a maidservant who advances herself through sexual favors unexpectedly falls in love.
Together the stories in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders make up a vivid portrait of feudal Pakistan, describing the advantages and constraints of social station, the dissolution of old ways, and the shock of change. Refined, sensuous, by turn humorous, elegiac, and tragic, Mueenuddin evokes the complexities of the Pakistani feudal order as it is undermined and transformed.

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Editorial Reviews

Emily Chenoweth
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: "[W]ithout meaning to, she had given herself completely." K.K. and Husna's time together is not unhappy, but when the old man fails to make arrangements for Husna's care after his death, she's banished by his daughters, her station in life so suddenly and precipitously reduced that she can't afford to make the final gesture of dignity she seeks.

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 [his] 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. --Emily Chenoweth

Emily Chenoweth is the former fiction editor of Publishers Weekly. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Bookforum, and People, among other publications. Her first novel will be published by Random House in early 2009.

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

What People are saying about this

Nadeem Aslam
Under Daniyal Mueenuddin's gaze, Pakistan is lit up as though by a lightning flash, clear, sharp-edged. This is a debut as auspicious as something arresting, beautiful, or wise (as opposed to clever) on every single page. I can remarkable, I admire it so deeply.
Mohsin Hamid
A stunning achievement. This superb collection ranges across a vast swath of contemporary Pakistan—from megacities to isolated villages, from feudal landlords to servant girls—and such is its narrative power that I couldn’t stop turning the page. Daniyal Mueenuddin is a writer of enormous ambition, and he has the prodigious talent to match.
Manil Suri
Daniyal Mueenuddin takes us into a sumptuously created world, peopled with characters who are both irresistible and compellingly human. His stories unfold with the authenticity and resolute momentum of timeless classics.

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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
idoc_dewinter More than 1 year ago
This was unlike most books I have read, consisting of short stories that interweaved into a larger theme. What interested me towards it was the idea of writing about the Pakistani feudal system that continues to resonate in the present day, something that is not commonly written by contemporary Pakistani authors, unless one can translate the novels into English. It was well written: the characters were purposeful and had substance, and the situations they were faced with were direct consequences from the choices they made. Most of the characters did have a complete end, while the fate of others were left up to the reader even though one could easily assume what would be the result of their exploits. Each story dealt with a different social class, focusing on the hardships they must face because the of the lives they are forced to lead. It is easy to make judgements about the charactes and their lives, such as the rich being too powerful, fattened up by their gluttonous behaviors, however after seeing the social constraints placed upon every class, the upper class are no exception to the rules of culture and aristocracy. Mueenuddin is careful not to make any exception or hold any one class in regard over another allowing the reader to form their own opinions about the way each class lives. Although each story fit into another, there was a feeling of incompleteness at the end. There was no real hope for most of the characters, and instead of feeling that each character was going to upgrade from their present lives, they were either forced to endure their continued life of misery or their lives just became worse. The lack of at least one instance of happiness was probably the only disappointing aspect the novel because it left a yearning, a desire to achieve the ultimate goal of self-satisfaction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Insightful, descriptive, diverse stories of the many landscapes and people that make up Pakistan - a complex country with complex people. Loved it and would recommend it to anyone who likes reading South Asian fiction with a focus on relationships and characters.
momwifeattorneygolfer More than 1 year ago
Thank you, Mr. Mueenuddin, for sharing your gift!! This will probably go down as one of my favorite novels of all time. Although it is written in short stories (which I am not a huge fan of) all the chapters connect, and it fairly reads like a novel.
ResearchGuy More than 1 year ago
This is a set of short stories from an author who has published short stories previously in various periodicals. I received a publisher's advance reading copy 9 January 2009, and read selections over the next month or so. The stories take place in the author's native Pakistan, and portray various lives in different situations. The settings vary from rural to urban, but there is a continuity of characters, tying all the stories together. For instance, the rich land owner K K Harouni lives in Islamabad, but own land in a rural area. Most of the stories take place in the worker's village on his farm, in the neighbouring villages or in other villages connected to Harouni's workers or other members of their community. In one story we are with Harouni at his death, learning more of the intrigues and trials of the rich upper strata of Pakistani society. The stories vary in style. Mueenuddin reveals the inner dynamics of Pakistani culture through his characters and the events in their lives. He reveals the pitiful, exploited poverty of the majority of the people we meet. Likewise he evokes a sympathetic lament from the reader over the entrenched corruption. Everything has a price. No justice is objective. The police and magistrates, and any level of civil administration is open for bribes. Those with money can make the wheels move in the direction of their favor. Yet he also includes a stream of reaping what you sow. There is even a murder mystery in this collection. This illustrates the injustice of the justice system in Pakistan. This tale involves the police and judges, entailing false accusations, a falsified charge, bribes, counter-bribes, and finally a resolution that might surprise you. On a couple of these stories, I was left puzzled about just what it was supposed to mean. Overall, though, I think other readers will agree with my general conclusion that these are rich portraits of people and a cultural milieu many would not otherwise see.
BillPilgrim More than 1 year ago
This is a book of short stories that are slightly linked, in that the main characters are all related on some level to a feudal landowner who lives in Lahore, Pakistan. They are either relatives or servants of the man, who himself is the main character in one of the stories. The books presents a different picture of Pakistan than what we usually get here in the USA. The main family is not religious, and they live in a mostly secular society. We do not hear much of the religious people of the country, only rarely in passing. The stories are primarily rather sad, ending badly for most of the people. Life there is still very hard for the non-religious people, and they struggle to try to find any happiness. This is especially true of the women, of either class, who have little freedom in a very patriarchal country. In a few of the stories, there are women who become mistresses or second wives of wealthy men, and who are then discarded. If you are interested in learning about life in Pakistan, and if you don't need a feel good ending, the stories are very well written and interesting. I found the book very enjoyable.
Emmyfa More than 1 year ago
This collection of somewhat connected (some barely connected) short stories did not hold my interest. I read it for my book group so I stuck with it. Some of the book group members really liked this book. Others, like me, did not. It depends on what you like. I am not a fan of short stories but thought this would be ok since they were touted as connected but the connections are so far away that they might as well not be connected. All of the characters are troubled and there are no happy endings. I will say it is well written.
madfry More than 1 year ago
This collection of short stories is amazing. Muenuddin has a way with words that often takes your breath away. I can't wait for his next book!
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On the positive side, the author sheds a lot of light on the feudal system in Pakistan. But he also seems to go out of his way to write in a nebulous, almost frustrating style.
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Great way to read about the historical and personal perspective in Pakistan.