The Axis of Empathy

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Much has been written recently about Pakistan, most of it having to do with George W. Bush’s War on Terror. Where exactly is bin Laden hiding? Is the Pakistani government doing enough to help find him? And what of A.Q. Khan? What does the Pakistani nuclear scientist’s release from house arrest tell us about the Islamic Republic?

With such acute focus on these issues, it’s easy to forget that much of the country leads lives unconnected to the headlines. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is an excellent reminder. The book’s eight stories, linked together by the feudal landowner K.K. Harouni, center on a farm in the country’s southern Punjab region. Spanning from the 1970s to the present day, Mueenuddin’s stories are told from the perspectives of both landowners and servants, offering up a look at Pakistani life rarely glimpsed in the media—or, for that matter, in other works of fiction.

In “Nawabdin Electrician,” Harouni’s prized handyman succeeds in supporting his wife and twelve daughters by cheating the electric company, only himself to be robbed and shot by a man who desperately wants the life Nawabdin has built. In “About a Burning Girl,” a ruthless look at deal-making within the Pakistani judiciary system, a High Court judge tries to free his servant, Khadim, who is imprisoned on charges of burning his own brother’s wife to death. In the outstanding “Provide, Provide,” the calculating Zainab abandons her husband to marry the powerful—and already married—Jaglani, then forces him to give her his granddaughter when she discovers she can’t have children of her own.

Mueenuddin is a deft and confident writer; his characters and their conflicts are rendered with nuance and authenticity. But what’s so impressive here isn’t simply that the author—who now runs the remote Punjabi farm on which he was raised—writes so intimately about his native land, about the “buff or saline-white desert dragged out between fields of sugarcane and cotton, mango orchards and clover and wheat.” It’s that he writes about the disparate lives of his characters as if he’s lived them himself. Reading these stories is like watching a brilliant method actor at work: every character feels lifelike and flawed as they struggle to make their way in a landscape sharply governed by class.

And yet, because Mueenuddin is such a gifted storyteller, he’s able to describe the chaos of these lives with lyricism and beauty. Take “Saleema,” one of the collection’s strongest stories. A young Muslim refugee from the Jhulan clan moves with her drug-addled husband to the cramped servants’ quarters on the Harouni estate. The daughter of a prostitute and an abusive heroin addict, Saleema hopes for something better than the slum that raised her—and yet her new life as a maid is no less bleak than her childhood.

Only Rafik, Harouni’s gentle and reserved valet, treats her with any dignity, and when they begin an affair, Saleema finally begins to feel her life open up. Before Rafik, “her love affairs had been so plainly mercantile transactions that she hadn’t learned to be coquettish. But that little hopeful girl in her awoke now,” and it’s that hopefulness that fuels the rest of the story. Saleema is so honest in her desire for a better life that it’s impossible not to want it for her as well, and impossible not to feel hopeful for her, even though it’s clear early on that Mueenuddin only allows his characters to feel pure joy when there’s a truck veering around the corner to run them down. When Harouni dies and his servants are let go, when Saleema’s alone with her baby, addicted to heroin and living on the streets, it’s all the more affecting because Mueenuddin has so skillfully built up his narrator’s, and his reader’s, hope.

Questions of fate carry over into the latter half of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, where the author tracks the intertwined lives of Harouni’s wealthy relatives and neighbors. Mueenuddin writes about Pakistan’s elite with as much compassion as he does its maids and valets. Even the vain and shallow Lily, a privileged girl from a successful Punjabi family who spends her weekends “drifting from party to party, flying . . . to Karachi, to Lahore, on the circuit in the spring weather, jet-propelled,” invokes empathy as she tries, and fails, to change her values by marrying Murad, a hardworking landowner. Lily isn’t likeable, but she’s real. Mueenuddin paints such rich and detailed portraits of his characters’ lives—especially his female narrators—that every one of their struggles feels complex and important.

This is certainly true for Helen, the American narrator of “Our Lady of Paris.” When she and her boyfriend, Sohail Harouni (they met at Yale), plan a trip to Paris, his parents invite themselves along. Mr. Harouni is reticent and withdrawn; Mrs. Harouni is domineering and intimidating as she demonstrates, over dinner and high tea and nights at the ballet, her blatant disapproval of her son’s choice of an American girl and what the relationship means for his future. The jockeying between mother and girlfriend feels familiar, but what stops Mrs. Harouni’s “I don’t think you can make him happy, and I know he can’t make you happy” speeches from sounding trite is Helen’s unfettered desire to fight back.

And yet the more Helen and Sohail try to save their relationship, the more painfully apparent it becomes that, like Nawabdin and Saleema and all the other characters that inhabit this book, Sohail will never break free from the constraints of his background. As Mr. Harouni tells Helen, “You (Americans) aren’t weighed down by your families, and you aren’t weighed down by history. If I ran away to the South Pole some Pakistani businessman would one day crawl into my igloo and ask if I were the brother of K. K. Harouni.”

Molly Antopol is a Jones Lecturer of creative writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction. She lives in San Francisco, where she's finishing a collection of stories and beginning work on a novel. More from this author →