This collection of short stories set in Pakistan's cities and rural villages make up Mueenuddin's first book, a fact that perhaps influenced my reaction. I thought the book very good for a first effort, though perhaps not good enough to be a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, both of which distinctions are trumpeted on the cover. It's not the first time my opinion has differed from that of prize judges and surely won't be the last.
The characters in these eight stories range from servants to villagers to modern young people racing from party to party. Some characters turn up in multiple stories, helping to tie the collection together. Women do what they must to survive, such as Saleema who wherever she works takes the cook as her lover in order to get extra food. Love arrives as an unexpected bonus but doesn't last. The characters I enjoyed the most were the eccentrics, such as Rezak who carries his homemade shack, a little wooden box “faced with tin and mounted on thick legs”, to wherever his next job is located. Or Nawabdin who fixes electric motors by circling them, drinking tea next to them, and beating on them with hammers yet somehow manages to improvise a fix. He reminds me of my friend Jonah, who while working as a potwasher and faced with a particularly stubborn burnt patch took the pot for a ride in the EasyGo. It seemed to work.
Some members of my book club were surprised by the cheerful cheating and outright theft seemingly practiced by everyone while the patron, K. K. Harouni, the one character who appears in all the stories, believes that his people love him too much to steal from him. So bills are padded; things disappear, and judges must be bribed. Even the thieves, though, are outraged when someone steals from them. A couple of the stories were a bit too elliptical for us; even putting our heads together we could not figure out the significance of certain sentences nor why the characters reacted as they did.
Although I enjoyed the stories, I found them somewhat repetitive. As one person in my book club said, the stories all follow a similar pattern: the unhappy protagonist begins to find a place of safety and sometimes joy before descending into complete misery. Several people complained about the unvaryingly gloomy outcomes, but as one person pointed out perhaps that is simply the reality of life in this area. In his Author's Note Mueenuddin says the stories are based on the stories he lived through while managing his family's farm in Pakistan and on his childhood experiences in Lahore and on the farm. The descriptive details and rhythms of speech embedded in his memory lend authenticity to the stories. For example, in one story Nawabdin goes to beg Harouni for a motorcycle:
“Sir, as you know, your lands stretch from here to the Indus, and on these lands are fully seventeen tube wells, and to tend these seventeen tube wells there is but one man, me, your servant. In your service I have earned these gray hairs”—here he bowed his head to show the gray—“and now I cannot fulfill my duties as I should. Enough, sir, enough. I beg you, forgive me my weakness. Better a darkened house and proud hunger within than disgrace in the light of day. Release me, I ask you, I beg you”.
The old man, well accustomed to these sorts of speeches, though not usually this florid, filed away at his nails and waited for the breeze to stop.
“What's the matter, Nawabdin?”
Saddest to me were the characters who have simply given up, such as in the story where Murad takes his new fiancé to visit his father in his huge, dilapidated house in Lahore:
The house had been built in the twenties, with many dark passages, musty fraying carpets, enormous ugly sofas and armchairs poked here and there, arranged quite irrationally, as if they had of their own volition waddled in from a furniture graveyard and huffed down and settled in for a long wait . . . It's a little dying world, she reflected, this household, these servants, the old man at the center.
Although I wouldn't go so far as some of the fulsome praise splashed across the back cover, I do think these stories are well-written and worth the time spent reading them. I agree with Tessa Hadley whose London Review of Books review is quoted: “Mueenuddin's achievement . . . is to hold open two perspectives at once: on the one hand, the long history that produces the individual profile and the individual plight; on the other, the sensation of the present, experienced on the skin and on the emotions.”