As OneWorld is an organisation propelled by the potential of new technologies, I normally deem it prudent to suppress my Luddite tendencies in staff meetings.
Any day now I’m expecting one or other of my colleagues to wax lyrical about the new generation of electronic book readers. I will have to remain silent about the contribution of book design to content, the companionship of books on shelves. How can texts clamped within a uniform metal frame rise above the genre of the autocue?
At this fragile moment of cultural desecration, it has been a great relief to handle a book that takes pains with tradition. In the edition published in the UK, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders greets the reader with a dust jacket designed by Kari Brownlie, an appropriately teasing image of gentle movement, paths of uncertain destination and an absence of decisive lines. The publisher, Bloomsbury, awards an end page of notes about the chosen font.
In Other Rooms also happens to be the best book of the year, within my admittedly modest range of reading. With no conscious intent, I read it immediately after another novel from Pakistan, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif’s recreation of the circumstances of the last journey of General Zia ul-Haq.
I mention this as I cannot recall any fiction set in Pakistan since my standard British schoolboy fare of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Not that Kim strictly speaking belongs to Pakistan which was not even a twinkle in the eye of the 19th century British Raj. Nor is In Other Rooms a novel, its series of short stories connected only by association with the crumbling feudal estate of K.K. Harouni, a “retired civil servant and landlord.”
Nevertheless, the backstreets of Lahore loom large in both books. Whereas the opportunist Kim quickly makes his escape on a long journey south, the unfortunate retinue of Harouni lives in fear of being cast out in the city, their children condemned to become what Mueenuddin calls the “sparrows of Lahore.”
Appropriate to the theme of my own endeavours with OneWorld Guides, the book charts the territory of gaping social divides. The rich Punjabi families are divided between those that choose a life in the west and those that remain. And what the English call “upstairs downstairs” is presumably echoed in Mueenuddin’s “in other rooms”, the separate worlds and wonders of the landowners and their servants.
In Other Rooms is unerringly apolitical. No one tries to change anything or questions their lot when disaster strikes. There is no spiritual dimension, no consolation. In a Kafkaesque aside, Mueenuddin informs us that Harouni is working on memoirs with the working title Perhaps This Happened.
Strong narratives therefore lead to sad and indeterminate conclusions, for rich and poor alike. “It is as difficult to have a meaningful life with a lot of money as without”, sighs one of the listless dowagers.
The poor girls make bad decisions about lovers out of desperation; the rich girls, Helen and Lily, are led quickly beyond passion by their own perceptiveness in glimpsing the future through trivial but telling actions of their partners. Helen is enchanted when her man recites poetry but something makes her ask him to repeat his performance. She listens more closely to his curious choice of lines of James Merrill:
…the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent
The bleak house of In Other Rooms offers no distractions from the essence of fine writing, the power of words to illuminate and surprise, at which these stories excel.
this article was first published by OneWorld UK