In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 256 p. $23.95
Reviewed by Basima Shaheen
University of North Texas
Like a nomad’s experience in wondering from one place to another, Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders takes the reader on a tour from one Pakistani city to another. As half-Pakistani and half-American, Mueenuddin’s double culture allows him to produce this authentic collection of short stories about a feudal proprietor (K.K. Harouni) and the rural lands and lives of Pakistanis. In clear, plain language, Mueenuddin skillfully leads his reader to explore the complexity of contemporary Pakistan’s social structure. He uncovers and sheds light on tragedies through his characters, who live in the top and the bottom of the hierarchical structure.
His characters’ postures and manners toward their own lives and those of others are various: indifference, timidity, impudence and stinginess are shared by both his male and female characters. Mueenuddin provides us with an emotional landscape for the lives of his characters. Most of his male characters are old, wealthy and powerful. These old men are prone to fall prey to young women’s sex appeal. In contemporary Pakistani society, some of these men are presented as lonely, adrift and yearning for company. In order to fill and end this loneliness, they exploit the nearest available young women around them (their maids, sweepers, cooks, etc.).
out of the eight stories in this collection have female protagonists.
Mueenuddin’s tragic female figures are predestined and ruined in pursuing their
existence in this malicious world. Women in these stories are young, poor,
vulnerable and powerless. They manipulate and have been manipulated by their
males. In order to achieve their purposes, they often use sex as a way to
empower themselves by being close to those powerful men. They have never beaten
around the bush about what they desire and plead from the males around them:
intimacy and fortification. Nevertheless, the weapon of sexual subjugation does
not allow them to thrive in this patriarchal society; they are all misguided by
this power. The women of
For instance, in “Saleema”, Saleema after the death of K.K Harouni and the abandonment of her fragile lover starts taking “rocket pills,” and begs in Lahore’s streets. Saleema dies in the street, leaving behind an illegitimate three-year-old boy who also begs in the streets. In “Other Rooms, Other Wonders” young, beautiful Husna has the courage to try to change her fate in exchange for Harouni’s protection and shelter. In her first night with Harouni, Husan acknowledges her misfortune and her ruined future. She is aware that by doing this, she loses the chance of living as a respectable woman and experiencing a respectful marriage, thinking “[g]oodbye to the life [I] would never have, a life[I] despised, economies that [I] would never make as [I] cooked and kept house for a clerking husband in the Old City, one of the boys who might have accepted[my] hand” .
In “Our Lady of Paris” and in “Lily”, Mueenuddin’s female characters negotiate the fine line between the transition from their native, feudalistic and primitive culture to the Western capitalist, liberal culture. Both Lily and Rafia experience the western life in different ways. As bourgeois women, they are able to attain a certain intensity with the outside world, but not within their inner worlds. For Rafia, her artificial solidity is shaken when she meets her son’s girlfriend. She is unable to endure the fact of losing or renouncing her son to an American woman. She believes that she has “misspent [her] life helping [her] husband’s career and more or less having a career [herself], as someone who knows where the power lies and how to focus it,” to guide her husband and to protect her son’s future . Rafia reinforces a stereotypical image of how a Pakistani woman must acknowledge the public and power structures in her society to utilize and perform their role in supporting and assisting her male. Rafia accesses power through the male figures in her life, such as her husband or son. Thus, this role does not provide her with inner security; even she is not content with this role, which relies on the presence of male figures in her life.
Mueenuddin’s young, wealthy, American, and educated Pakistani male characters also are struggling to establish their identities and find a place in this peripatetic society. In “Our Lady of Paris” Sohail is puzzled about how to approach and resolve the issue of his future, whether to stay in America with his love and working there, or to return back home and commit himself to “his fathers sprawling business” . While the new generation are looking forward to the economic and modern social transmission of Pakistan’s society, other characters are confused and imprisoned by their past. In “Lily” Murad, a Princeton graduate, who “drove around in a Porsche,” is dispirited, trying to escape this fake, modern, boring life: “I was goddamned bored… I really don’t like my friends from Aitchison anymore, they all work in banks or do something in textiles, becoming politicians, or doing nothing if they can afford it. I hated myself, and I hated my life. So I went to my father’s farm and swore to myself that I’d stay there…” .
Mueenuddin in this collection produces a grand piece of literature, in which he constructs his characters as individuals. Their sentiments regarding the absurdity of life are durable. Their stoic manners are sustained and maintained through their journeys and experiences in this country. In “A Spoiled Man,” Rezak, after his wife’s disappearance and his experience with the police, blames himself for being ungrateful for having the essential means of living. He thinks he does not have the right to dream about having a wife who can bear him a son, and he deserves this punishment: “[w]hy should I complain? The policemen did as they always do. The fault is mine, who married in old age, one foot in the grave. God gave me so much more than I deserved, when I expected nothing at all…… [The Hourani] 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 owing something that would excite envy… this was how he understood justice” . Some of these characters are not able to negotiate or even approach the questions of justice.
this collection and within its short span of time, Mueenuddin introduces his
reader to the complexity of individual characteristics and realities in
contemporary Pakistan. He attempts to uncover the veil, from his readers’ eyes
Cercles © 2010