A writer who farms too

TOI Crest,17 April 2010


A writer who farms too

He was bad news for the managers.When Daniyal Mueenuddin,freshly graduated with an English Lit degree from Dartmouth College,landed in a South Punjab farm in 1987 to take over its management,he was acutely ill-equipped for the job.He’d never farmed before,had been living abroad for years and his Punjabi was “virtually non-existent”.

“I just  jumped in,” he says taking a drag on his cigarette.”The managers weren’t too thrilled when I showed up.They’d thought “woh to America chale gaye,unhone kya wapas ana hai.” But the farm needed him.He says the managers had taken over and had been stealing from his father,then 81.One of them was even a member of parliament.He learned on the job;his Punjabi is now fluent.The volume of short stories that the seven-year stay inspired,In Other Rooms,Other Wonders,has made it to the ‘best books of 2009’ list of every respectable publication,and was shortlisted for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer.Mueenuddin,47,has also won the Commonwealth prize for the South Asia region.

His next book – a novel – will be set in 1970s Pakistan and “mostly in the city”.But Mueenuddin,after some to-and-fro and more stints as a student (including one at Yale Law School and another at the University of Arizona on a writing course),has been “more or less” settled in his farm since 2004.He grows sugarcane,wheat,cotton and mangoes.”Now we’re doing very intensive vegetable growing in greenhouses.It’s a new technology,” he says.He introduced it in his area.”It’s very new,” he continues warming to the topic,”There are only a few and they’ve come up in the last 2-3 years.It’s complicated and the inputs are expensive.What I’m seeing is a lot of people have jumped in and they are losing their shirts.They’ll pull out and the market will stabilise.We’re doing ok.”

The farm is home.”I think I look a little peculiar,” he says.Mueenuddin’s mother was American.”But I’m very comfortable there.I love the process of farming.It’s not just a business,it means I know their families,I know the names of people’s children and when they’re married or somebody dies,you go to their house.You become integrated into the community,” he adds.

Most stories in In Other Rooms,Other Wonders are not about the landowners.The main feudal aristocrat,K K Harouni,is the thread that ties the tales together but is,in most cases,an elusive character himself.Far more vividly drawn are the farmhands,maids,butlers and managers;their insular worlds have been “fleshed out” with as much care and detail as the jet-setting throng of gilded aristocrats in the stories.

“I am attached to the experiences I had on the farm,” he says,”I meet people in Islamabad or Lahore but their stories have much less juice.There isn’t this sense of things being at risk as there is in the lives of people around the farm.”

Mueenuddin begins his day planning the day’s activities with the managers,then writes till lunch after which he meets his managers again.”If I’m good,I look at the accounts and if I’m being naughty I look at the crops.If there are problems – like some pest attack – I’ll look at that and discuss how to address it.” Evenings are spent reading.His current read is Open Secrets by Alice Munro – “the best person writing short stories right now”.Before autographing a copy of his book,he scores out his name.”An author once told me you should cancel your name out when you sign.Seemed like a cool thing to do,” he says.