by Azhar Abidi
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Random House, 2009
by Kamila Shamsie
The Story of a Widow
by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Although three of these four young Pakistani writers live outside the country, a profound concern about their homeland remains at the heart of their fiction. Kamila Shamsie, born in 1973 in Karachi into a writing family that includes her mother Muneeza Shamsie, great-aunt Attia Hosain and grandmother Begum Jahanara Habibullah, now lives in London. Azhar Abidi, born in Wah in 1968, studied in England and Australia and now lives in Melbourne. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who was born in Pakistani Hyderabad in 1968 now lives in Toronto, Canada.
The exception here is Daniyal Mueenuddin, born in 1963 to a Pakistani bureaucrat and an American journalist. He was brought up in Lahore and Wisconsin, and now lives in southern Punjab; in between, he attended Dartmouth and Yale, practiced law in New York, and received a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Arizona. Today, he manages a family farm in southern Punjab. In an interview to the literary blogger Mark Sarvas, Mueenuddin explained why he chose to live where he does: “Livelihood, loyalty to place, fascination with the landscape and people, desire to explore this aspect of my identity – and stories, characters, predicaments. Life here in Pakistan’s bushiest boonies is red of tooth and claw.”
fcThis land is also the setting of the stories in Mueenuddin’s superb debut collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. This is rugged Punjabi landscape, evoked by the proverb of the epigraph: “Three things for which we kill – land, women and gold.” Generous and fertile but also rough and demanding, the land is profoundly a part of the destinies of those who live here. It is richly described in these stories, an active player rather than simply the backdrop against which people conduct their lives. There is the “buff or saline-white desert dragged out between fields of sugarcane and cotton, mango orchards and clover and wheat” and the “hundred-year-old rosewood trees on the borders of each field”. And the village smells of “dung and dust and smoke and of the mango blossoms in the surrounding orchard”. All of this comes together at the wheat harvest, which begins in March, a ritual of community and continuity:
moving across the yellow fields and setting up the cut bundles into shocks, women and men working together. Their babies swung in cloths strung in the shade between trees, and the tractors pulled steel wagons, which bumped over the field rows and gradually filled with the loose sheaves thrown up by the man. The threshing machines ran all day and night.
This reviewer first came across Mueenuddin’s writing last year, when the unforgettable short story, “Nawabdin Electrician” was published in the New Yorker. Nawab is a remarkable character, with the miraculous ability to slow down the revolutions of electric meters. In the Pakistani desert behind Multan where he operates, this talent “eclipsed the philosopher’s stone”. The eight interconnected stories in this new collection are about the profoundly interconnected lives of people – an estate manager, a girl in need of a job, an American woman who has married into an extended family – who are dependant in one way or the other on K K Harouni, the head of one of Pakistan’s leading families. Harouni’s work in life is simply as a “landowner”. He features synecdochically in most of the stories, such as when his feet are being massaged or when his name is being dropped; or when, by the “superhuman efforts” of Nawabdin Electrician, the old man is kept in almost “the same mechanical cocoon, cooled and bathed and lighted and fed, that the landowner enjoyed in Lahore”. Those who depend on him, however – as we see in “Saleema”, the most moving story in the collection – live a far more precarious existence.
In the feudal culture of this household, where generations of servants serve generations of families, “a man who had served ten years counted as a new servant”. When the old man eventually dies, they know that an era has passed: “Gone, and they the servants would never find another berth like this one, the gravity of the house, the gentleness of the master, the vast damp rooms, the slow lugubrious pace, the order within disorder.” Rafik, Harouni’s personal valet, is especially bewildered, for Harouni “had been his life, his morning and night, his charge, his wealth.” Meanwhile what is the future of Rafik’s child, the child of the temporary servant Saleema whom Rafik had somehow managed to keep employed in the Harouni household, and who will now no longer have a livelihood? Saleema will beg in a corner of the city streets, holding up the child to car windows; and when she dies, the boy will beg alone in the streets, “one of the sparrows of Lahore”.
Far from sprawling rural Punjab, Musharraf Ali Farooqi takes the reader to a completely different Pakistan, to bustling Karachi. Farooqi first received acclaim with The Adventures of Amir Hamza, his 2007 translation of the 19th-century epic “Dastan-e-Amir Hamza”, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, about the exploits of the Prophet Mohammed’s uncle Amir Hamza. Against the grand epic style of that work, Farooqi’s first novel, The Story of a Widow, is told in a simple and unadorned style. It is the story of the recently widowed Mona Ahmad, 50 years old and the mother of two married daughters, living alone in Karachi in a house that her husband left to her when he died. As she slowly begins to explore the freedom of reinventing her life, alone and on her own terms, she receives a proposal of remarriage from her neighbour’s lodger. With his coloured hair and flamboyant gestures, Salamat Ali seems very different from Mona’s late husband and, indeed, the proposal does not quite seem suitable in other ways too. Nevertheless, against the advice of her extended family, Mona decides to accept. The novel subsequently proceeds to become a gentle exploration of the reawakening of desire and freedom after a lifetime of decorum.
Twilight Azhar Abidi’s second novel, is also set in Karachi, and tells the story of a marriage and a family. But the detailed setting of the novel, in the midst of the turmoil of the General Zia ul-Haq’s 1980s, is very different from Farooqi’s fable-like tale. Twilight is the story of Bilqis Ara Begum, aristocratic and strong-willed, who is celebrating the wedding of her son, Samad, to Kate, an Australian woman. It is March 1985, and when the novel opens Bilqis is presiding over the dinner table in her sprawling Karachi home. Patrician, proud, inflexible and nostalgic for her liberal generation’s lost glory – these are the markers of Bilquis’s personality. After dinner, the conversation turns to the Islamisation of the country under Gen Zia’s martial-law regime, and the recent referendum under which the general received a 97.7 ‘yes’ vote.
“Democracy does not work for us,” declares Shahid, Bilqis’s brother-in-law, a Punjabi politician from Lahore whose future within the new regime is very promising. “It works in countries where everyone is educated and secular and thinks alike … It doesn’t work here because we are poor. Our people are illiterate … What are they going to do with democracy?” Bilqis, however, remains committed to the liberal ways of her upbringing. While her evenings are sustained by memories of her childhood in Calcutta and holidays in Darjeeling in undivided India, her days now are spent discussing Tolstoy, Hugo and Maupassant with her students at the university. But certainties crumble slowly around her, and as the Mohajir troubles increase, the only thing that remains clear is that this is the twilight of the old way of life. How things turned out this way is the unspoken question at the end of the novel.
How things turn out the way they do is also the question at the beginning of Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows. After the Karachi setting of Shamsie’s earlier novels, this latest work is an ambitious one, beginning in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945; and, after interludes in Delhi in 1947 and Pakistan in the early 1980s, ending in New York and Afghanistan in 2002. The prologue, set in an unspecified location that is meant to be an offshore detention centre such as that at Guantanamo Bay, sets out the question that the novel seeks to answer: “How did it come to this?” wonders a man in a prison cell, waiting for the orange jumpsuit that will be his only identity from that moment on. The novel presents its answer in the person of Hiroko Tanaka, a woman who once worked as a schoolteacher and translator in Nagasaki but whose identity is now as a hibakusha, a survivor of the American atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroko’s life takes her from Japan to pre-Partition Delhi, to Pakistan and finally to New York City. It is clear that the novel aspires to gain epic status. But the interconnections between the characters, especially in the intertwining of the lives of two cosmopolitan families with German, English, Indian/Pakistani and Japanese roots, often seem contrived for the sake of the turns in the plot.
Yet the question at the heart of this thought-provoking novel is clear. The attacks of 11 September 2001 were a tragedy, but surely they cannot be taken merely as an isolated incident. Instead, they were the culmination of a tortured history, one the novel traces back through imperialist arrogance, proxy wars and the weapons trade. Hiroko finally realises how easy it is for killing to be sanctioned, and how some lives are always more expendable than others. “You just have to put them in a corner of the big picture,” she says. “In the big picture of the Second World War, what was seventy-five thousand more Japanese dead? Acceptable, that’s what it was. In the big picture of the threats to America, what is one Afghan? Expendable. Maybe he’s guilty, maybe not. Why risk it?”
In the world today, Pakistan’s place in the global ‘big picture’ is similarly a question occupying academics, politicians and citizens from Kandahar to New Delhi and Washington, DC to Moscow. The strands of thought explored in these four novels – out-migration, the absolute power of feudal landowners, the choices and limits imposed on women, and religious fundamentalism – are all a part of that elusive answer. After all, the big picture is made up of many little ones.
~ Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is a writer based in Bombay.