In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin

In the drawing rooms of Pakistan
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The Independent Culture

These eight interlinked stories take the reader from the mannered drawing rooms of Lahore to the mud villages beyond, describing the overlapping lives of an ageing landowner, K.K Harouni, his extended family members, many of whom have abandoned the feudal life for a metropolitan existence in Paris, London and New York, and his army of servants who are still all too dependant on the old way.

What Mueenuddin excels at is prizing out the complicated power structures that lie between master and servant, parent and child, husbands, wives, lovers. He describes the feckless ways in which abuse is inflicted onto a servant by his master. In 'A Spoiled Man', the family's loyal servant, Rezek, is thoroughly beaten by the police who are hungry for a confession after Rezek's feudal master informs them that the old man's wife is missing, presumed murdered; in another story, the patrician Harouni takes young Husna as his lover to relieve the lonliness of old age but his affections do not extend to including her in his will, so she is left exiled and dispossessed, after his death.

Women, as well as the poor, are Mueenuddin's other greatest victims, caught within the limits of a patriarchy that verges on the medieval, as well as misogynistic. But what jars at times is Mueenuddin's portrayal of these women not merely as victims but as ambitious, calculating ones. Servants in the first bud of womanhood are hard, knowing and keen to escape the limits of their life by whatever means, often using sex as currency. Yet this currency, all too cheap, always fails them.

It is not just poverty that deprives women of innocence. Wealthy women bear their own chains; they may be rich but they are still not free. Not unlike their impoverished counterparts, they strive to gain an advantage through seduction, or sexual entrapment. In 'Our Lady of Paris', the lower middle class American girlfriend, Helen is dazzled and maybe even motivated by her upper-middle class Pakistani boyfriend, Soheil's wealth. Lily, in the eponymous story, who typifies the profligacy of Lahore's high society, plays at being a clean living country wife to the morally upstanding Murad, before reverting back to sexual delinquency and a half hearted hedonism with which she has long become bored.

Mueenuddin's men have greater integrity, even if they lack backbone. Some suffer the fall-out when they give in to their emotions. In 'Provide, Provide', the wealthy Jaglani feels belittled for giving into his desire for his servant, Zainab, for example.

It is clear from this debut collection that Mueenuddin is a compelling storyteller whose drawing rooms, servants quarters and boudoirs are inhabited by men who are weak, often lonely, but always the masters controlling their women and servants, both of whom are as disposable as their livestock.

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