‘I have worked very hard’ | Daniyal Mueenuddin
The author on inhabiting two worlds and his ‘goonda’ origins
Daniyal Mueenuddin was born to a Pakistani father and an American mother in 1963. His debut collection of short stories set in contemporary Pakistan, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was released in 2009 to near universal acclaim for bringing alive the world of rural Pakistan to English-language readers worldwide. The book won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2010 in the best first book category for South Asia and Europe. Mueenuddin was in town for the announcement and the award ceremony for the worldwide winners. The prize for best first book went to Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest. A cheerful Mueenuddin met Lounge for an interview earlier this week. Edited excerpts:
Do you see yourself as an American or a Pakistani?
That is not a meaningful distinction for me. I am both and neither. I don’t fit in perfectly in the US or in Pakistan. But I inhabit both the worlds pretty completely. Till I was 13, I was in Lahore, and then I went to boarding school and college in the US. When I was 24, I came back to manage the farm, which was falling apart. My father was elderly and unwell and never went there himself. The munshis (managers) there went crazy; they became tremendously rich. The man who was formerly the head manager of the farm has more money than us now and is a member of the provincial assembly. It took me years to fire these guys; they had become so powerful. I had to inflict the death of a thousand cuts. By 1993, I got rid of everyone. I finally had my own team and then I went to law school at Yale.
So, you belong to an old landowning family?
All families are old. My family bought this land in 1916, but they had land before that. My great grandfather was the prime minister of the Bahawalpur state. Basically, we started out as goondas (goons) in the court of Ranjit Singh. That’s where we got property and land.
You must feel lucky to be able to inhabit two very different worlds.
I do feel privileged, but I worked very hard for it. (At one point) I felt very afraid, alone and ignorant. It certainly wasn’t handed to me on a platter.
Going by your book, feudalism is very prevalent in Pakistan.
Actually, the book is about the end of the feudal era. It is becoming less and less significant. (For instance those) who have gone into business have done better. In Punjab, the landholdings are smaller now and, more and more, owned by the locals.
As a writer, what do you see your role as in this time of turmoil in Pakistan?
There is no political intention in my work. My intention and aspiration is to be true to my stories. But books can have a political impact. The world I describe is new. No one has written about dehati (rustic) Pakistan. I read somewhere that (the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) Richard Holbrooke read my book and gave a copy to (US President) Obama. But that is not why I write, it’s a side effect.
According to your stories, if you are a poor woman in Pakistan with little hope, sex with a richer man is the way out.
In Pakistan, there aren’t a lot of ways for women who are disempowered to empower themselves except through men. All power is controlled by men. It is a very sexist society, and it is getting worse. When I first went to the farm, the women there didn’t wear dupattas; now they do.
Your characters include everyone from the very rich to the very poor. Can you point out any universal traits —Pakistani traits—among the people there?
One is that Pakistanis, like Indians, live much more social lives than in the West. Everyone is tied to everyone. It is like puppies lying on top of each other. People live very entangled, interlocked lives. Second, language shapes the culture. Urdu is a salacious and curvy language. It is easy to be funny and ironic. People are joking and often engaged in wordplay. The other side of the coin is that there is a very slippery sense of morality and integrity. Pakistanis are willing to cut corners in a way my very Lutheran American grandfather wouldn’t understand. Ghulam Rasool, the man who brought me up and was a substitute father to me, was the major-domo of the house. But I know for a fact that he was crooked. He, however, wouldn’t have thought that this compromised him.
Who are your favourite writers?
I have just been reading Francis Bacon’s essays. I go through enthusiasms but Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Joyce are constants. Among the poets, Auden, Lowell and Berryman. I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina many times. I almost always have Chekov next to my bed. I have many books by my bedside and I like to graze among them. Then the pile topples over and my wife makes me move them to the shelves.