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A readable, luminous, economical and utterly absorbing picture of Pakistani society told in stories of lives of interconnected characters, from the rural poor to the jest-setting rich.
A chambermaid starts an affair with an elderly valet and bears him a child. A corrupt factor puts enough on the side to become a landowner and a politician and then falls in love with his driver's relative whom he employed as a servant. A man is accused of murdering his brother's wife by pouring kerosene on her and setting her on fire: his brother comes to ask a cynical judge for help. An elderly, rich landowner takes a young woman from a once grand family now fallen from grace as a companion and a lover. A young Pakistani heir to an industrial fortune, graduate of an Ivy league university, takes his fiancee to Paris.
All the stories from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are linked by a shared connection to the person of K.K. Harouni, an old-style Lahore landowner. Some are connected rather vaguely - the characters might be his distant relatives or even their employees; in others K.K. Harouni appears himself.
From the partying young jet-setters of the richest families , to the simplest of the peasants at the rural estates, the characters in Mueenuddin's stories are seen in the mundane intimacy of their day to day existence and at the crucial junctions when making decisions or subject to fates that change entire course of their lives; and in the web of connections that links everybody to everybody in the complex interplay of class, wealth and gender.
I thought that the two stories of the rich Pakistani young (Lily and Our Lady of Paris) were weaker, less stylish and marred by a curious note of moral sanctimony in the narrative voice; but they still work well enough in the collection as a whole.
The stories, while being utterly rooted in the particular time and place, also have a timeless quality, where a gentle humour and an ear and eye for the ridiculous combines with a profound sensitivity to the drama, tragedy and sadness of human life. Then tragedy tends to dominate (most of the stories fall short of conventional happy endings), but it's not dwelled upon: things are as they are.
It's possible (if perhaps not very rewarding) to see here a scathing social critique of an utterly corrupt system of patronage in its last and perhaps most degenerate stages, but there is no overt political message in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, just a resigned melancholy.
Told in a understated prose of spare elegance, these pieces reminded me of the works from the grand old tradition of European short story, perhaps particularly the Russian writers (dare I mention Chekhov or Gogol?). It might be because so much of the social structure depicted in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is still clearly - and painfully - feudal, but also because of a melancholy undertone to Mueenuddin's narratives, where even those fortunate or able to adapt to the change of times are either disillusioned or (especially the poor) never had any illusions in the first place.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a wonderful book: a luminous, curiously economical and utterly absorbing picture of Pakistani society seen through the eyes and lives of clearly individuated characters. It also makes a very readable, engrossing book: the author has genuine gift for narrative that keeps the reader turning pages.
It comes wholeheartedly recommended for pretty much everybody: the tales are compelling, the writing accomplished and the picture of the Pakistani society richly nuanced.