Posted by: koolwine | November 14, 2010

Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Eight short stories illuminate the lives of  landowners and servants in Pakistan’s Punjab region.

Country Focus: Pakistan
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin
Norton, 2009.
247 pgs.

Acclaim: National Book Award Finalist

To make a long story short: Punjabi landowner K. K. Harouni is the common denominator of these eight short stories, which feature either him, his relatives, his managers or his servants.  Five of the tales disclose the relationships of the following sets of doomed couples: two servants; a servant and a manager; a servant and Harouni, a Pakistani man and an American woman; and a city girl and a country boy.  In his remaining three stories, Mueenuddin explores the corruption and injustice inherent in the culture.

My opinion: Perhaps because the half-Pakistani, half-American Mueenuddin is writing about what he knows – he runs a farm in the southern Punjab, land that his father passed down to him – his fiction feels genuine.  His plain, profound style beguiled me into actually enjoying these depressing narratives.  From an American viewpoint, the thoughts and actions of the Punjabis are often strange; it is to Mueenuddin’s credit that he makes their behavior believable, if not always understandable.

The armchair travel experience: Although these stories are set in the present, the disparity between the wealthy and cosmopolitan landowners and the impoverished, uneducated servants is so great as to be reminded of medieval Europe.  Institutionalized bribery, polygamy, the taking of a grandchild to give to a secret lover to raise, sandstorms, torture as a police interrogation method – these are the Pakistani spices Mueenuddin has used to flavor his universal characters and situations, which include desperate women, easily seduced men, disapproving parents and dissolving couples.

In my book (or what Pakistan means to me and maybe you, too)

The Karachi Kid
In graduate school I got a job in the university bookstore, where I met two brothers from Karachi.  Shazad supervised the cashiers, but Aftab worked on the sales floor with me, pricing pens and showing students where the Scantrons were located.  Aftab was studying to be an accountant and dreamed of  getting his green card, managing the personal finances of Phil Collins (his hero), and cruising around in a Lexus.  Despite our vastly different aspirations, we became good friends.  Kind, funny, smart, and outgoing, Aftab engendered within me a positive opinion of Pakistanis, a sentiment that I think many Americans lack in these post 9-11 days.

No warm fuzzies in this Kashmir
Before I met Aftab, I was ignorant of the animosity between Pakistanis and Indians.  Aftab never met a person from India who he didn’t dislike on principle.  This cultural enmity dates back to 1947, when a Muslim-dominated Pakistan separated from a Hindu-majority India.  The northern area of Kashmir is still in dispute (it is also partially controlled by China) and has led to unsanctioned nuclear weapons build-up and testing by both countries.  Kashmir was familiar to me because rock band Led Zeppelin had a hit song with that name.  Lyricist Robert Plant paradoxically said he was inspired to write “Kashmir” after a road trip across the Sahara Desert – an environment vastly different from the cold and mountainous one that defines Kashmir.

Fundamental learning, not fundamentalists
In 1993, mountain climber Greg Mortenson stumbled into Korphe, Pakistan lost and exhausted from his failed attempt at summiting K2.  The villagers nursed him back to health, and a grateful Mortenson promised to return and build them a school.  Not only did he make good on his promise, he started a Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit called the Central Asia Institute which has since established 131 schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Due to Mortenson’s efforts, 58,000 students have been educated, 44,000 of them girls.  Mortenson is inspiration incarnate; boost your faith in humanity by reading his award-winning and bestselling book Three Cups of Tea.

Spotting leopards
During Missoula, Montana’s 2007 International Wildlife Film Festival, I watched a new episode from the BBC Planet Earth television series called Snow Leopards: Beyond the Myth.  Before this, snow leopards had never before been filmed in the wild.  Pakistani journalist Nisar Malik and British cameraman Mark Smith spent eighteen months in Pakistan’s Chitral mountain range tracking the elusive cats, and captured stunning footage of a nearly vertical mountainside hunt.  The ruggedly handsome Malik attended the screening and answered questions afterward; he came close to making a bigger impression on me than his endangered feline subjects.
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