In Other Rooms,
Other Wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin
The peasant Rezak lucked into a job with the Harounis and brought his rude hut to their spacious orchard. His dwelling was a delight to the guests who came to the Harouni parties, "the pipe that drained the inside spittoon ... thick rush matting on the roof to keep the inside cold or hot, with a rubber bladder fixed to the wall that shot water up through a pipe when he squeezed it, wetting the rushes, evaporative cooling."

But one day his wife disappears, the police are called, and they take him to the station house, where they

    hung him up on a hook by the manacles around his wrists, so that his feet touched the ground only when he stood on his toes.

"He hung on the wall all evening, long past the time when it seemed possible that the excruciating pain in his shoulders and back could be borne."

And so it goes: you're an old peasant, you find a job in a luxurious weekend home near Islamabad, they even find you a wife ... and, bang, she disappears. You are blamed, and you are left off in jail, hanging there by your wrists.

What does Rezak think?

    They gave him the money to live beyond his station, they made him hope --- for too much. And when he lost the girl, their instruments punished him for having dared to reach so high, for owning something that would excite envy, that placed him in the way of beatings and the police.

It's a Punjabi version of the story of Job. But, finally, unlike Job, Rezak gets nothing back, turns into a man broken by his temporary good fortune. If there is a theme in Mueenuddin's eight stories, it's just that: they'll come out of the blue, give you a job or a love or a fortune --- then, blap: it's gone, you're screwed. How dare you to have wanted to leave your station ... to defy your fate? Do it and you're toast.

Nawabdin the Electrician begs a new motorcycle so he can get around Harouni's vast estate to do his job. Someone comes along to steal the machine. He shoots Nawab in the groin --- "six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances." Both end up gravely wounded.

The "unusually pretty" Lily of Islamabad meets Murad, "his body slender and brown, legs muscular." His schtick is organic farming ... not exactly a show-stopper in Pakistan. So they marry and go to live on his farm Jalpana where "she found herself pulling away when he began to touch her ... he always did it the same way." Ho-hum. She gives a party for her rowdy friends from Lahore and one night sneaks out to play in the pool with a guy named, I kid you not, "Bumpy." Things go bump in the night.

Meanwhile, old faithful retainer Rafik runs K. K. Harouni's mansion in Lahore, falls in with one of the new serving girls, Saleema. They do the love and baby thing but then Rafik's wife arrives. He explains to Saleema, "My wife is sixty years old, little girl."

    She and I have been together for almost fifty. She stood by me, she bore me two sons, she kept my house, my honor has always been perfectly safe in her hands.

So much for Saleema. "She began using rocket pills [speed] ... lost her job, went on to heroin, leaving her husband behind without a word."

§     §     §

Mueenuddin's stories have appeared in all the proper places, The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Short Stories 2008. He's good. In the very short stories, his timing is artful, and he can be wonderfully comic. He knows when to stop for detail, when to speed up the action. His portraits of the idle rich of Lahore, the poor Punjabis, and those somewhere in the middle makes for a Pakistani "Upstairs, Downstairs."

In one of his best stories, "About a Burning Girl," our narrator is a "judge in the Lahore High Courts," who tells us "Imagine my wife as being the poor man's Lady Macbeth and you will have the entire picture." There is the judge's man who helps out when there are problems abroad, Mian Sarkar, who "wore a cheap three-piece suit and a pair of slightly tinted spectacles of an already outmoded design on the day that he emerged from his mother's womb."

    When he leaves the office in the evening, exactly at five, he doesn't turn a corner or get into a cab or a bus, he simply dematerializes.

§     §     §

Pacing is a problem for Mueenuddin. The longest story, "Lily," stretches out for over fifty pages, replete with hum-drum marital bickering and Bumpy's ridiculous appearance (and disappearance). Its makes us wonder where all the editors went.

But the short-shorts are impeccable and --- on occasion --- even manage to reward the virtuous, albeit with a few wounds. After the gun-battle over his motorcycle, "Nawab's mind caught at this, looking at the man's words and his death, a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it."

    Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.

--- Richard Saturday
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