A layered look at Pakistan

Other Rooms is an insightful collection of short stories

Nawab is an electrician in the small Pakistani village of Dunyapur. He works on the expansive farmland of K.K. Harouni slowing down electric meters on the wealthy landowner’s estate in order to cheat the electric company. Harouni lives in faraway Lahore and although Nawab has served him for much of his life he rarely sees the man responsible for his family’s livelihood. During one of these rare visits Nawab gains his master’s favour and acquires a motorcycle to replace his beat-up bicycle. In the small dusty world of Dunyapur the gift is a symbol of a great man’s patronage: “The motorcycle increased his status gave him weight so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs about which he knew absolutely nothing.”

“Nawabdin Electrician” is the first of eight stories in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut collection In Other Rooms Other Wonders. The story was chosen by Salman Rushdie for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories series and sets the stage for an absorbing immersion into Pakistani culture. Mueenuddin transports us to a country in the midst of economic and social transition with old powers bending to today’s pace of change while maintaining a firm grip on tradition. The broad themes of class and power of social stratification and gender roles are explored through the lives of individuals and their particular struggles and triumphs.

Mueenuddin takes us down rural roads lined with ancient rosewoods to raucous urban parties in Islamabad. His protagonists have almost nothing to do with one another. They range in class age and background yet all are in some way connected to the aging feudal landlord K.K. Harouni. Although the stories can easily stand alone together they inform one another to create a wider cultural context for the reader.

One such group of thematically connected stories is comprised of “Saleema” “Provide Provide” and the title story. All three feature young women who become the mistresses of older men above their station — not out of love or attraction but out of a need to empower themselves. The plot of each story is nearly identical: only the characters’ position in society varies. Juxtaposed they give us an intricate look at the experiences of women in different strata of society. In fact many of the stories in this collection cast female characters in a central role and it’s refreshing to read fiction in which the main characters are not always the same gender as the author.

Mueenuddin’s writing is subtle. His language is not overly descriptive yet the images he invokes are vivid and the characters he creates are particularly notable for their humanity. At times humorous often tragic and always memorable In Other Rooms Other Wonders is an excellent introduction to a talented new writer.