It is not often that you call a writer wowing literary circles across the world, and find him knee-deep in mud. "It's been raining heavily," explains Daniyal Mueenuddin from his farm "in the middle of nowhere"—the nearest town anyone would have heard of is Rahim Yaar Khan. The writer, whose debut collection of stories, In Other Rooms, Other Worlds, had 13 major publishers in the UK and US in a fevered bidding war last September, has been up at six, pumping water out of his greenhouses of cucumbers and bell peppers.
Life in an isolated village on the edge of the Thar desert in Pakistan's southern Punjab is not everyone's idea of a good life, but 45-year-old Daniyal, half-Pakistani, half-American, raised in Lahore and Massachusetts, says he couldn't have found a better place to write. It was here that his agent called him from New York several months ago, to tell him that The New Yorker had accepted the first of his short stories. "I wasn't a big sender-outer," says Daniyal. "It's pointless sending out to the New Yorker: they get 80,000 submissions in a year, and the likelihood of being pulled out of that heap is very small." His agent had to call him for days before he could reach him at the farm. "That evening," recalls Daniyal, "there was this remarkable euphoria." But it lasted less than 10 hours. "I remember waking up the next morning thinking, 'It's a fluke—accidents can happen to anyone.'" But when it happened again, and then again, he grew more confident. "I was writing more or less in a vacuum, so I didn't really have much sense of it, or even to develop literary friends. But when the second story got into the New Yorker, I was thinking, 'Hey! this can happen again.' And by the third one, you think: 'With a little bit of luck this may actually work'."
What's striking about his debut collection of "connected stories", being variously compared to Chekhov, Turgenev, Faulkner and even, inexplicably, R.K. Narayan, is that for the first time possibly in the subcontinent, we have a writer who is not only a first-rate craftsman of words, but is equally comfortable writing about a fading feudal aristocracy as about a class of characters that has been largely absent in English language fiction in the subcontinent: cooks, servants, electricians, hangers-on and thieves.
Luck has had a lot to do with his success, admits Daniyal. When his agent convinced him it was time to sell his book, he "certainly didn't expect to get any significant amount of money for it—some 15,000 dollars or whatever". He was in Egypt at the time with his wife, a student of Middle Eastern politics and history, and Arabic languages. An unprecedented 10 major publishing houses in the US bid for the book, crossing the magic six-figure sum. It was late at night by the time his agent got through to Daniyal with the stunning news.
The other stroke of good luck is that he finds himself at the right place at the right time. With Pakistan suddenly occupying world centrestage, "people are very interested in what Pakistanis have to say. If I was Bulgarian, no matter how well I wrote, I doubt if I would be published to this kind of success." Just a few years ago, Daniyal points out, when he showed some of his short stories to his stepfather in New York, his response had been: "Oh darling, they're marvellous, but who the hell is interested in reading about Pakistan?" But this has changed now, "and for all the wrong reasons."
A former lawyer practising in the US, Daniyal's career as a writer is fairly recent. He didn't start writing fiction seriously till he joined a Master of Fine Arts course at Arizona University in 2002. "The first of these stories was written while I was doing my Master's, in 2003."
Before that, Daniyal dreamt of becoming a poet someday. That was in fact why he first decided to live on the farm 20 years ago. His father, by then an old man, told him: "Look, if you want to hold on to this land, you'll have to go there, because it's a total mess." Daniyal did just that, moving there after his graduation from a Massachusetts college in 1987. He spent six years on the farm on his first stint, combining farming with writing poetry. "You hear of all these people who go to live on their farms and then go bananas because there's nothing to do other than farming. But it worked very well for me," he says. "From the very beginning, I wrote every morning, and I had a huge library, so I read a lot. The practice of farming was good and that's where I ultimately got my stories."
But eventually the budding poet decided to return to America "before I became completely junglee". His plan was to find himself another profession "because poets don't make money". So he joined Yale Law School. "I thought I'd come back to Pakistan after I graduated and get a job with a humanitarian organisation, and continue writing poetry."
To call someone from his class and background in Pakistan a farmer would of course be an exaggeration. His father, the late Ghulam Mueenuddin, was secretary of Pakistan's establishment department, and later the country's chief election commissioner. His mother, Barbara Thompson Davis, used to be a writer ("and a very good one, too; she won several Pushcart Prizes") and now lives in New York city with her second husband, a lawyer, Edward Davis. But Daniyal bristles at the word 'zamindar'. "A zamindar," he says, "has negative connotations. You can call me a manager."
So how did someone like him, born in Lahore where he lived till he was 13, then packed off to boarding school in Massachusetts, raised by a mother and stepfather who are American, end up writing about the underbelly of Pakistan with such insight? "I've lived this," he says, "seen it intimately. That's what it takes to write about it. You can't fake it. Even among my zamindar friends, I don't know anyone who comes and spends months and months on their farms." The other part is that he was "really brought up by servants". His parents, he says, "were very busy and then their marriage was on the rocks."
But this is his life now, he declares, and this is where he wants to raise his children. "It's not about money," he says, "I genuinely believe in what I'm doing."
(In Other Rooms, Other Worlds, to be published by Random House India, will be released on February 6.)