The power of understatement: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

August 10, 2009 at 5:08 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

rooms I’ve been reading the stories in this slender volume over a period of several months. This is something I like to do with story collections, but it does mean that by the time I finish the book, precise memory of the earlier stories has begun to recede. Nevertheless, there’s been a cumulative effect from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; and that effect is quite simply admiration unbound.

The Pakistan in which Daniyal Mueenuddin sets his stories is largely rural, a place where a few well-heeled landowners, almost always male, hold all the cards and do not scruple to play them as they see fit.  It is entirely within purview of these men to be either kind or cruel to the workers on their estates; they show themselves capable of being both, depending on the circumstances and the personalities involved.

Even as Mueenuddin depicts this society with meticulous care, he acknowledges through his characters that it is fast disappearing:

It’s a little dying world, she reflected, this household, these servants, the old man at the center. She had seen this before among her own relatives, one of her great-aunts who lived on into her nineties, quarreling with her maidservants, absorbed in prayer, ill-tempered, reputedly with boxes full of cash and gold salted away, though none of it turned up after her death. (from “Lily”)

Mueenuddin is particularly adept at showing us the lives of impoverished women, who use their wiles and sometimes their bodies to get what they want; their goal, usually to secure a leg up in an age-old power struggle. Even when they succeed, their position within a given household often remains precarious.

Mueenuddin possesses formidable powers of description. In his hands, even minor characters – especially minor characters – spring vividly to life:

“The next evening, when I drove through the gate of my house, a sagging wooden affair once painted green, once perhaps in colonial days a swing for little English children, I found an old man standing by the portico with the timeless patience of peasants and old servants, as if he had been standig there all day. He wore a battered white skullcap, soiled clothes, a sleeveless sweater, and shoes with crepe rubber soles, worn down on one side, which gave each foot a peculiar tilt. The deep lines on his face ran in no rational order, no order corresponding to musculature or to the emotions through which his expressions might pass, but spread from numerous points. The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like a sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it. (from “About a Burning Girl”)

These tales are told with terse eloquence. Mueenudin’s writing puts me in mind of other masters of the short form:  Joan Silber, Jhumpa Lahiri, and William Trevor among them. Also, with their air of quiet fatalism, these stories made me think back to one of the most powerful, shattering novels I have ever read: mistry

Here’s one of my favorite passages from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; it comes from the title story:

” A servant came in with an armful of wood, threw it with a crash into the fireplace, then took a bottle of kerosene and poured a liberal splash. Hew threw in a match and the fire roared up. For a minute he sat on his haunches by the fire, grave before this immemorial mystery, then broke the spell, rose, and left the room.

It seems to me that one of the advantages of using the short story form to describe life in a troubled region is that a writer can confine his material to a small canvass. He can depict a particular town or household through the eyes of a single individual and concentrate on the relationships among a small cast of characters and more or less excluding the larger picture of the body politic. People do, after all, have personal lives, even in war zones. The first story in this volume, “Nawabdin Electrician,” also appears in Best American Short Stories 2008. In selecting it for that prestigious collection, Salman Rushdie comments:  “It had wit, freshness and suppleness of language, everything a short story should be.”  Rushdie then adds that up until the time that the story was referred to him as guest editor, he had never heard of Mueenuddin.

Here is this author’s brief biography, as it appears on his website:

Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin.  A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie.  For a number of years he practiced law in New York.  He now lives on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab.

I was much intrigued by this  rather elliptical summation of a life in which some interesting decisions about how to live have been taken. Then I came across a review, in the New York Times Book Review of July 26, of the novel The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi. In this piece,  Mike Peed observes that “…Sethi joins an ever-expanding roster of gifted young Pakistani writers who, after graduating from Western universities, have returned home with an urgent need to explain their misunderstood country to a global audience.” Daniyal Mueenuddin would appear to be part of this cohort.

I have not yet read The Wish Maker, but I recommend, with the greatest enthusiasm, In other Rooms, Other Wonders. It is superb.

Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin


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    […] pm (Book review, Short stories, books) Are we entering a Golden Age of the short story? First, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and now this hugely entertaining collection from Maile Meloy. The title is taken from a poem by […]

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    […] Beginning To Hurt – Lasdun Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin Too Much Happiness – Alice Munro Museum of Dr. Moses – Joyce Carol […]

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