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A Book Of Life Through The Cracking Glass

Piquant stories from feudalism's fading, twilight world and retainers who swirl about, for profit or loss

A Book Of Life Through The Cracking Glass
A Book Of Life Through The Cracking Glass
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Random House Pages: 247; Rs. 395
In Daniyal Mueenuddin’s fiction the meek shall not inherit the earth. They never owned the vast acres, and should they do one day, there will be no retribution, no easy social justice. Mueenuddin, hailed as the new comet of English fiction out of Pakistan, sets the scene swiftly: "In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tubewells ran day and night...the farm lay strung along a narrow and pitted farm-to-market road, built in the 1970s when Harouni still had influence in the Lahore bureaucracy."

In landholdings such as this, the old feudal gentry exercises benign, long-distance neglect. K.K. Harouni, absentee landlord and grandee, pays occasional visits from the fading splendour of his Lahore mansion. At first it seems that Harouni, glimpsed as a link to these seven stories, is a clever literary conceit, like Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby or Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada— not so much complete characters as emblems of an age and its manners.

But we are pulled into the lives of Harouni’s employees—farmhands, managers, domestic staff—with the clarity of carefully laid snares. Each story plunges us into a life-changing, often life-shortening, episode in the characters’ lives. In Nawabdin Electrician, the protagonist’s genius keeps the tubewells humming and his landowner "cooled and bathed and lighted and fed" as in his Lahore home, but as he sires 12 daughters, and progresses from bicycle to motorcycle, it holds no guarantee of safe passage.

In Saleema, the young servant from a small-town slum who migrates to the Harouni household is a slattern: her mother "slept around for money and favours" and her father was a heroin addict; a bad marriage "had not cracked her skin, but made her sensual, unscrupulous—and romantic". Saleema works her way through the kitchen, a viper’s nest of theft and favour-trading, to finally take up with the elderly retainer Rafik, a married man. The affair between the old manservant and young upstart is observed with piercing delicacy; once she bears his child under the baleful gaze of other servants, does her desire for release stand a chance?

Social and sexual politics below the stairs is a theme dear to Western writers and filmmakers in search of stirring period pieces (Remains of the Day and Gosford Park come to mind) but Mueenuddin’s stories are contemporary, their observation of the rhythms of rural life in Pakistan made acute by the glinting knife underneath. The outbreaks of disaster are presaged by illicit relationships across boundaries of class, community and the age gap. (In many of the stories, lonely married men set up with indigent younger women till the mirror cracks.)

Mueenuddin moves up the hierarchy in Provide, Provide in a portrait of Harouni’s farm manager, a taciturn, emotionally barren man, who grows politically powerful as his landowner begins to sell. As an astute entrez to the title story, he starts an affair with a woman on the farm who reminds him of a "cattle thief".

Finally we see K.K. Harouni, who "lived in a world as measured and as concentric as that of the Sun King at Versailles", moving up the driveway with Husna, a poor relative who could type his memoirs, ironically called ‘Perhaps This Happened’. Here is the dying gasp of the old elite—battered begums, rickety bridge partners and irritable visiting daughters who see the point of keeping a young girl in the house, "but to sit and have lunch with her, that’s too much".

Daniyal Mueenuddin knows these worlds. His father was an ics officer and his mother is American; he grew up between Ivy League colleges and returned to run his father’s farm. At the Jaipur literary festival he told me he has seen Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar repeatedly; and that he admired the stories of Fitzgerald, Nathanael West and Dorothy Parker.

One or two of the pieces are out of kilter with the Harouni stories, in particular the novella-sized Lily, about a dissolute young Pakistani on the prowl in "Isloo" (slang for Islambad). Consider the confidence of its opening sentence: "Lily had been to parties all week, month, endlessly, drinking, rarely having dinner". Mueenuddin is that convincing chronicler of how the Pakistani poor, and the rich, wreak revenge. He fills in the blanks that politicians and analysts fail to.

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