Friday, January 30, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: an interview with Daniyal Mueenuddin

To the cynical eye, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s back-story might read like a very imaginative publicist’s attempt to make an author sound interesting. The son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, he grew up in Lahore, went to boarding school in Massachusetts at age 13, and returned to Pakistan a decade later to help his aging father safeguard an ancestral property that was in danger of being taken over by crafty managers. After spending seven years more or less alone on this farm – 10 hours from Lahore by rough road – living a life that was very different from the one he had known in the US, he went back and studied law at Yale; threw up a job at a large New York law firm to return to Pakistan and write stories that were eventually published in The New Yorker and Granta; and now lives with his wife at the same farm, taking the occasional break for book tours and literary festivals.

It takes a while to realise that not only is this saga entirely true (and Mueenuddin himself quite matter-of-fact about it) but also that his short-story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders really is worthy of the buzz it has created in the literary world – a rare thing at a time when every new book is sold to us as being, in the language of the jacket blurb, “an extraordinary achievement”, “a work of uncommon depth”, “an essential book” or some combination of all these.

The eight stories in this collection shed light on the many faces of contemporary Pakistan, from poor people quietly eking out a living in the rural areas to bored nouveau riche youngsters snorting coke at Halloween parties in Islamabad; from the jet-setting upper class who think nothing of going off to Paris for a quick holiday on whim, to a feudal society comprising landlords and servants playing games of one-upmanship. But no synopsis can convey the richness and fullness of Mueenuddin’s writing, which is elegantly descriptive without ever coming across as self-conscious or as trying too hard. His prose brings to life such protagonists as the enterprising Nawabddin Electrician, a survivor in more than one sense of the word, an upwardly mobile young girl named Husna, trying to bridge the class divide by becoming the mistress of an elderly landlord, and the young couple Leila/Lily and Murad in the moving “Lily”, an outstanding portrait of the many crests and troughs of a relationship (and a story that also has perceptive things to say about people's complex relationships with their own selves).

From “About a Burning Girl”, here’s a sample of Mueenuddin’s talent for pithy yet evocative pen-portraits: a passage about Mian Sarkar, a briskly efficient Jeeves figure in the complicated world of the Pakistani judiciary.
So far as I am aware, Mian Sarkar wore a cheap three-piece suit and a pair of slightly tinted spectacles of an already outmoded design on the day that he emerged from his mother’s womb. When he leaves the office in the evening, exactly at five, he doesn’t turn a corner or get into a cab or a bus, he simply dematerializes. No one knows even what quarter of the city he lives in, much less his address...Before speaking he clears his throat with a little hum, as if pulling his voice box up from some depth where he secretes it for safekeeping. His greatest feature, however, is his nose, a fleshy tubular object, gorged with blood, which I have always longed to squeeze, expecting him to honk like a bus.

That would be a fatal act! There is nothing connected with the courts of Lahore that he has not absorbed, for knowledge in this degree of detail can only be obtained by osmosis. Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived. He sees the city panoptically, simultaneously, and if he does not disclose the method and the motive and the culprit responsible for each crime, it is only because he is more powerful if he does not do so.
I met Mueenuddin briefly at the Jaipur lit-fest and then again in Delhi. Excerpts from our conversation:

As a young man, you returned from the US to manage the family farm and lived alone there for many years. Was the change in lifestyle difficult?

Well, my father was in his late 70s at the time (there was a big age difference between him and my mother), and there were powerful managers who were threatening to take over the farm, so the choice was between losing the property and moving back to Pakistan. It was difficult, yes: my Urdu was good but I spoke no Punjabi, which was the language in which most of the legal dealings were conducted, and I had to pick it up on the job, so to speak. There was an element of personal danger too – these were powerful people I was dealing with, including a Member of Parliament.

It was a lonely life, but there's a stillness to living alone that I grew to love – I wouldn't do it now, but it was fine back then.

Did you develop your writing skills during this period?

Yes, there was a lot of solitude for reading and writing, as you can imagine – I wrote a lot of poetry and read endlessly. But also, I wrote hundreds of letters – there was no telephone, I had to travel to Lahore for that every week – and I kept carbon copies of all these letters; I still have them with me. They helped develop my sense of narrative. It was richer than diary writing, because the tone and focus of the letters changed depending on whom I was writing them to. If I wrote to my mother, I would downplay the danger. If I wrote to my American girlfriend, I would make the place seem really attractive, to entice her to come across and meet me. It added up to a construction of different narratives.

Also, I spent a lot of time observing the people around me – I observed how things worked, the crooked deals, the power-mongering, how people found ways to get around the law and transfer land in their own name. There aren't many people who have the ability to write and who also get to see the things that I have – to live that kind of life over a period of time. I suppose that helped.

Your stories show a dynamic, heterogeneous side of Pakistan, a country that often finds itself stereotyped. Do you see yourself as a political writer, correcting misperceptions?

No, that's not what I was thinking about when I wrote the stories. I do agree that it's important to highlight the diversity of the country – the international media shows only the most negative images of Pakistan – but I'm not very political myself, and in general I object to the idea of writers being too political. It gets them a readymade audience, of course, but I also think it also takes something away from the writing. That’s one reason I think Zola sucks, by the way, despite his great appeal for young people.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of this but, well (shrugs, looks wry), I am!

In general, I don’t think art should be political. Picasso’s “Guernica” is a brilliant political work, but what makes it so successful in my view is the artist’s horror at what has been done to his people, and that’s almost a personal thing. I prefer to write from a human perspective, to observe and to not be judgemental – which is something that political writing invariably ends up being.

Even so, with the attention being given to In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, you’re inevitably going to become a spokesperson for your country. Are you comfortable about that?

A “bloviator”, you mean? (Laughs) No, I most certainly don’t want to be a spokesman for Pakistan. My hope – and of course, practically speaking I know this won’t happen – is to be left alone, to not be seen as representing one position or another.

I know that writing and publishing a book is a very public act, and I have to resign myself to that, but personally for me, writing is my play. It’s something I have enormous fun doing, I don’t have to try too hard or get worked up over it – this is probably not a reflection of my skill so much as of my approach to writing. And I hope it stays fun. One thing I dread is that it might become harder for me to do.

It’s interesting that you say it’s such fun, because your stories give the impression of being carefully polished over time, looked at again and again until you’re perfectly satisfied with them. Do you make several drafts?

Oh yes, multiple drafts for every story. The polishing, the careful craftsmanship, is something I owe to the reader. I mean, if a guy makes a car you don’t expect the wheels to fall off when you take it for a drive. Writing is no different. The least I can do is to write the story as well as I possibly can. If people are spending their time and money on the book, I owe it to them.

But that doesn’t take away from the joy. What I meant about the writing being fun is that I sit down and do it and enjoy it, and if I’m not in the mood I don’t do it and I don’t worry about it. I can’t understand this idea of people getting a whiff of the “midnight oil” and then sitting down to work. I can’t write unless I have a song in my heart. And I’m perfectly okay with not writing anything at all for six months if I don’t feel like it.

Is the short story your chosen medium or are you also looking at longer-form writing now?

Well, I have written a story that's around 110 pages long – it's a work-in-progress – and I'm now working on a novel. Different forms of writing have different disciplines...there's a cliché about everyone starting out with poetry, then moving to short stories and then – once you realise you've failed at both! – working on a novel. But seriously, I think that as you gain in confidence you become more extravagant. A short story has a fixed narrative line – it's like an artillery shell, which is fired out, goes up and lands at a fixed point – but a novel can be more discursive. And I’m looking forward to long-form writing now, because I’m keen to carry on telling the stories of some of the characters who appear in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. People like Husna, for instance (from the title story) – her story ended on a downbeat note but I want to see her triumphant in the next aspect of her life. I’d like to try and emulate what Proust does – bring unexpected turns and trajectories in a character’s life over time.

Since you mention Husna, she’s an example of a person trying to bridge the class divide, by making herself indispensable to a rich landlord. However, by the story’s end, she has been “put in her place”, so to speak. Are class struggles and upward mobility big issues in Pakistan, as they currently are in India?

Well, the class divide is really the human condition, isn’t it? In each strata of society, the complexities are the same. Thankfully for the world though, the majority of people are more or less content with their place – they aren’t in a desperate rush to “better” themselves (and I do put “better” in quotation marks). But Husna is an outlier, she isn’t content. She could have married a nice boy and settled down, but she doesn’t want to.

In another of the stories, “A Spoiled Man”, there’s a character who becomes a victim of lack of understanding of foreigners – people who, with the very best will in the world, end up causing damage because they fail to understand the circumstances of Pakistani lives. And there’s no getting away from that cultural disconnect. One thing I admire about Henry James is that he so precisely described the ways in which different cultures don’t understand one another. Of course, he did this in the context of British and American relationships, and you might think those cultures are relatively close to each other...but then, as Dylan Thomas put it, they’re up against the barrier of a common language!

Anyway, to get back to what I was saying...for me, one of the more interesting aspects of writing is trying to personify different voices; trying to capture the many ways in which people completely fail to understand one another.

That sounds bleak, but there’s a warm, humanist quality to these stories.

Well, I strongly believe that one thing an artist is not allowed to do is to despair. We all have our own dark nights of the soul, but if you take bleakness and desperation far enough, you basically have nothing to say: you might as well just say “Fuck it!” And writers are entertainers, no different really from the guy who juggles or blows fire out of his mouth. We’re all looking for an audience, and no audience will accept a narrative that’s utterly dark. Even if you look at someone like Kafka, whose work is seen as so pessimistic, within his darkness there is the lightness of humour – he’s very funny! There’s an affirmation present there. I don’t think unremitting negativity works.

You’ve mentioned Proust and Henry James, and your stories are written in a cool, classical style. Has most of your reading been from the 19th century?

I have to admit I’m lazy – which means that I mostly read writers who have been winnowed by time, rather than seek out new stuff. That’s probably been one of my failures – not reading enough contemporary writing.

What's your favourite story in this collection?

The longest one, "Lily", probably because it's the one I wrote most recently. As they say, the most recent child is the dearest one. It's also reassuring to have done something very recently – it lets me know that I'm still a writer!

(A version of this conversation appears in this week's Tehelka)


  1. A story about the same author also appears in today's Wall Street Journal.

  2. Nice post, Jai. The author seems like an interesting chap from the excerpt. As an aside, the polishing of the drafts may well be a force of habit from his training as a lawyer! This has piqued my interest in the book.

  3. Sonia: and in dozens of other publications everywhere. Like I said, there's a huge buzz around the book - it'll probably get tiresome very soon.

    Pranav: yes, he's very interesting to talk to as well.

  4. loved the interview...looking forward to doing the book now!!!

  5. I enjoyed this interview very much. It is always interesting to understand a writer's ideas on writing. I agree so much with the positive aspect needed.
    However I better read James and Kafka again, I find them both unremittingly lacking in humour!

    Good prose must 'flow' according to Henry Longhurst (just read that this morning)!

  6. I just ordered the book. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Iam ordering the book now :)
    Thanks for the intro. The author appears to be a very interesting person - both from the background as well as from the interview..