True to lives

Business Standard,17 April 2010


True to lives

“My stories draw upon a harsh society,” Daniyal Mueenuddin tells Vineeta Rai

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, may not have fetched him the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, but he’s not particularly peeved — he just found out that he was nominated for the Pulitzer. He tells me right away about the three books he’s working on: a novel set in Pakistan and short stories set in New York and Wisconsin.

It’s difficult not to draw parallels between the stories in In Other Rooms and Mueenuddin’s own life. They deal with the land, in Pakistan, and the people whose lives revolve around it. The stories are not autobiographical, he says, but rather about the world he knows. As a writer, he values “empathy”, the “truly humble” ability to escape the “bubble of our own perspective” and inhabit the world of a character unlike oneself. Still, the obvious absence of the middle class in his book must be due to the “limitations” in his own perspective — because, snobbish as it sounds, Mueenuddin doesn’t really know the middle class. It’s not a world he’s moved in. He admits to being privileged and comfortable, albeit by dint of his own hard work.

Power relations lie at the heart of the stories, I venture. That is because, Mueenuddin explains, Pakistan is a harsh place, a “very poor country” where tremendous inequalities exist. In a “dysfunctional society” people are desperate, and power or its absence makes all the difference. Yet there is a growing middle class. He tells me that Bhola, the richest man in the town near his farm, started out as a vegetable seller, then moved into the wholesale business. Bhola and others like that could buy and sell me with their pocket change, he laughs! For Mueenuddin, this is the rising middle class, a “wonderful thing”.

In Other Rooms has been published in 12 languages in 14 countries, including Norway (where his sceptical Norwegian in-laws finally saw he was “legit”!). As in India, vernacular publishing in Pakistan languishes behind English. Mueenuddin is aware of a vibrant literary scene in Urdu and Punjabi but says it doesn’t attract as much attention as English. Among the many charming anecdotes he recounts is about the imam of the mosque on his farm, who also writes poetry in Saraiki, the local language. Mueenuddin helped him publish his book but was told that the copies would have to be given to the shops! Perhaps from the third book onwards, chhota Hafizsaab the Imam might make some money!

Mueenuddin is thankful that “English is my language” and he can live off his writings. This reporter is, too.