Stendhal once wrote that “politics in a work of literature is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert, a crude thing and yet it’s impossible to withhold one’s attention.” His own example suggested that it was possible to reconcile the guns and the music—like the cannons in the 1812 Overture, perhaps—but it is not easy. Recent fiction in English set in Pakistan has had to face the challenge squarely, however. The rule of law has been violated there so often, and the public trust plundered so extensively, that the country’s damaged political culture now taints much of private life.
In the 1993 novel Season of the Rainbirds, Nadeem Aslam, a Pakistani-born novelist who was raised in London, presents Pakistani politics as a puzzle so bewildering that not even the most astute locals can solve it. The book opens with the delivery of a bag of mail accidentally delayed for nineteen years, which prompts a town’s residents to struggle to remember how their political feuds have changed in the interval and whether anything they wrote then might get them into trouble today. A judge is murdered, perhaps on account of one of these feuds. A night watchman is arrested and tortured for the crime, though a local strongman seems the more likely culprit. “I wish we could find out who actually runs this country,” says a schoolteacher. “The army? The politicians? The industrialists? The landowners?” The case of the judge’s murder goes cold.
The schoolteacher in Aslam’s novel has an intrinsic decency, a quality shared by a few characters, including one of the town’s Muslim clerics. By contrast, such integrity seems unattainable in Moth Smoke, the 2000 novel by Mohsin Hamid, another young and talented Pakistani writer. Hamid describes a young heir living in Lahore who justifies his feelings of hopelessness by referring to the socioeconomic chaos around him:
Some say my dad’s corrupt and I’m his money launderer. Well, it’s true enough. People are robbing the country blind, and if the choice is between being held up at gunpoint or holding the gun, only a madman would choose to hand over his wallet rather than fill it with someone else’s cash…. The roads are falling apart, so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser. The phone lines are erratic, so you need a mobile. The colleges are overrun with fundos who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad…. Thanks to electricity theft there will always be shortages, so you have to have a generator. The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. It goes on and on.
This is a crude voice—selfish, venal, and lacking in honesty. Hamid’s cynic breaks the law merely for his own comfort, which seems to rank even higher with him than love: when he finds his wife in bed with his best friend, he is too calculating to lose his temper.
In his 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid puts a similar assessment of Pakistan into the mouth of a middle-aged American businessman—“Corruption, dictatorship, the rich living like princes while everyone else suffers…. The elite has raped that place well and good, right?”—so that the hero, a young Pakistani working for an American consulting firm, may flinch at the condescension he hears in it and take his first mental steps away from Western liberal humanism. In both novels, Hamid makes a political disappointment easier for an outsider to follow by attaching it to a romantic one.
The American-educated Pakistani author Daniyal Mueenuddin has taken the literary treatment of Pakistani politics a step further in his first published work, a group of linked stories titled In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Like Aslam but less cerebrally, Mueenuddin concentrates on the local, and like Hamid but less sensationally, he is interested in the often unconscious effects of politics on a character’s morals. He adds an element of mournfulness. In Mueenuddin’s stories, the struggles of politics shape everyone, and everyone loses. It’s natural to turn away from the shame that attaches to losing, and such shame may add to the difficulty of politics as a subject for literature: shame makes people more petty about their injuries and more grandiose in their compensations—and therefore repellent to sympathy. Mueenuddin’s innovation is to show that the damage caused by shame may itself be a subject for grief. Feelings of being compromised by sex, a loss of dignity, an abdication of principle, a closed heart—these are wounds, even if sometimes a person inflicts them on himself.
Mueenuddin’s eight stories take place in a social world presided over by the family of K.K. Harouni, the owner of a mansion in Lahore and of farmland in the Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most powerful province. Mueenuddin writes that the Harouni family became wealthy under British rule, which ended in 1947; that K.K. himself still had enough power in the 1970s to arrange for the government to build roads connecting his farms to markets; and that he still had enough money in the late 1970s to invest foolishly in the industrial boom that occurred after 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator who sympathized with Islamic fundamentalists, deposed the socialist prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged two years later—events Mueenuddin does not mention.
By the time of the stories, the Harouni family has outlived its glory. They retain enough money to be comfortable, but their feudal prestige is little more than a memory. It persists fossilized in the minds of some of their dependents—in a crooked manager’s need to convince himself that he hasn’t “broken his feudal allegiance to K.K. Harouni” or in an aged odd-job man’s wish to be buried on family land. From time to time a peasant still touches a man’s knee to signal deference, but among some the gesture has become a joke.
Most of the stories are told in the third person by a narrator who is not himself a character but who seems to share in the twilight mood surrounding the Harounis. This narrator looks at the world with an enlightened melancholy, as a grandson might who expects to inherit no more from his old family than an education. He moves easily in different social milieus, from urban sophisticate to servant, and in this freedom, he resembles the narrator of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook, who also took advantage of his high status to cross into the world of peasants and woodsmen. Like Turgenev, too, Mueenuddin has an eye for the tragedy and beauty in lives that a lesser writer might regard merely as miserable or eccentric.
In the first story, “Nawabdin Electrician,” for example, Mueenuddin tells the story of Nawab, who serves K.K. Harouni by rigging the electric meters on the pumps that water his farms and, when necessary, repairing the pumps themselves. When Nawab arrives at a broken pump he shows off his effort at concentration by insisting “No tea, no tea” when a cup is offered to him. Half a paragraph later, though, as he settles in, he coaxes the machine by drinking “tea next to it,” as if he and it were becoming companionable. Mueenuddin makes so little of Nawab’s tea-drinking inconsistency that the reader may not notice it on first reading; it seems certain that Nawab himself doesn’t notice it. Later, when Nawab brings home brown sugar and persuades his wife to cook sweetened bread for his twelve daughters and one son, the charm of the scene is in Mueenuddin’s observation of the delicate shifts of mood among close family members: the older girls are slower to come to the kitchen than the younger ones, and when the older girls do appear, “they haughtily stood to one side.”
One spring night, Nawab visits a night watchman and offers half-seriously to tie him up, so that he can pilfer gasoline from the Harouni family’s supply while leaving the watchman apparently innocent. The watchman declines—“Nothing in it for me”—and Nawab gets on his motorcycle to ride home. Between villages, he picks up a hitchhiker, who pulls a gun on him. “I’m a man like you, poor as you,” Nawab pleads. He makes a grab for the hitchhiker’s gun and is shot. The motorcycle’s engine has flooded, and the robber, unable to make his getaway, is in turn shot by villagers who came running at the sound of gunfire. Nawab is not seriously hurt, but the robber is, and as the two lie side by side in a pharmacist’s office nearby, the robber pleads for help—“I’m a human being also”—and then for forgiveness.
Nawab refuses. He doesn’t acknowledge any likeness between a man who steals at gunpoint and one who lives off the illegal adjustment of meters. When the robber dies, Mueenuddin writes that “Nawab’s mind caught at this, looking at the man’s words and his death, like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it. And then he didn’t.” Instead of an epiphany, a feeling of triumph comes over Nawab, who exults in knowing that he will live and will keep his motorcycle. The reader is allowed to see through Nawab—to see the parallels that he doesn’t want to—but Mueenuddin also allows the reader to enjoy Nawab’s triumph. Nawab has survived six gunshots. He has thirteen children; he loves his motorcycle. People who live on systematic theft may lose the capacity to show mercy to thieves, Mueenuddin seems to be saying, but they remain human, and one doesn’t necessarily like them any less for it.
At the other end of the social scale, the story “Our Lady of Paris” is set in France sometime after September 11. Sohail, a nephew of K.K. Harouni’s, is introducing Helen, the girlfriend he met at Yale, to his parents. Nawab the electrician knew the Pakistani countryside so well that when he heard crows cawing at night, he wondered whether one had spotted a snake in her nest. The Harounis are as much at home in Paris. They know the chic place to buy bouillabaisse, and they know how to dress for the ballet. For the visit, they have borrowed not one but two apartments from Pakistani friends. When Helen admires one of the apartments, Sohail’s father casually observes that “it belongs to Brigadier Hazari.” This branch of the Harounis is more bourgeois than feudal, having improved their inheritance through manufacturing ventures, but they, too, have so acclimatized themselves to corruption that they don’t think twice about accepting favors from a military officer who has no doubt enriched himself at public expense. Indeed there’s a suggestion that they’re a little vain about the connection, as if the brigadier were a member of the nobility.
Helen is more naive. In fact, she is so starry-eyed about Paris that when she meets Sohail’s poker-faced father and dragonlike mother, the reader worries that Sohail might be in the position of a wolf cub who doesn’t yet know himself to be a carnivore and has made the mistake of trying a romance with a rabbit. When Sohail quotes a poem by James Merrill about Paris, Helen hears only the sweetness of its sound, not its bitter sense, which is that no one can make a home in illusion. There is a fine tension between Helen and Sohail’s parents, as a rich family vets a potential in-law, each side careful to be enthusiastic about the right things and not overly impressed by the wrong ones, and to carry off the performance with apparent nonchalance.
Mueenuddin has a keen ear for the cadences of dialogue, which serves him just as well in rendering the way a mother disconcerts her son’s girlfriend as it does, in the story “Saleema,” in rendering the way a young maid establishes a romantic rapport with a valet several decades her elder:
She brought the cups and handed one to Rafik, hoping as she sat down on a bench that someone would come and see them together.
Touching the hot tea to her lips, she peered at him.
He poured tea into the saucer and blew the clotted cream away, then sipped. “It’s good, isn’t it?” he said.
…She beamed, her girlish yet knowing face lit and transformed.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Nothing. You look like my uncle, except he was huge and fat and you’re thin. He always blew on his tea and then he sipped it and looked sort of gloomy and important, like you do.”
“Gloomy?” He said it in the funniest way, startled.
I can get him, she thought, and it sent a shiver of happiness through her.
“I’m just joking with you. You’re completely different from my uncle. Is that better?”
…”You’re making fun of me. Well go ahead, I’m an old man. It’s time for me to be a fool.”
She thought of disagreeing with him, saying he would never be a fool—but stopped herself. Instead she said, “Well, whatever time it is, I don’t think foolishness wears a watch.”
“You’re full of riddles, little girl.”
Minor characters use religious rituals to soothe themselves and establish their place in life but Mueenuddin does not seem interested in ideas about God, and there is no portrait of a religious fundamentalist in his work. K.K., we learn, doesn’t believe there is any life after death. Nor are any of Mueenuddin’s characters at all prudish about sex. Men betray their second loves by returning to their first, but only because the first love has greater social resources and can exert power. One of K.K. Harouni’s adult daughters disapproves of a lover he takes, but she objects to the woman’s social rank, not the affair itself. (When the lover speaks up one day at lunch, Mueenuddin brilliantly captures the daughter’s scorn: “Sarwat looked at her in amazement, as if the furniture had spoken.”) Only one character, a very Westernized one who thinks of herself as something of a libertine, feels remorse about a sexual adventure as such. For the most part, Mueenuddin’s characters consider sex a part of human nature, and far from the worst part—something it would be foolish to try too consciously to control.
“Even I can remember when everyone knew everyone in Karachi,” Sohail’s mother tells his girlfriend. In the Harounis’ world, people are united by stories rather than ideology. The villagers know when their patron has taken a mistress. The servants keep tabs on one another and sometimes bring their misfortunes to their employers in hopes of an intercession. Everyone has a place, and mutual responsibilities attach to them. However, Sohail’s mother continues, “Pakistan isn’t like that anymore.”
The new dispensation is glimpsed in the last story, “A Spoiled Man.” An old man named Rezak stops working in a poultry shed to care for the orchard of Sohail’s American wife, who turns out to be a different woman than the one who met his parents in Paris. Rezak brings with him a wooden cubicle, covered in tin, that he built decades ago when his stepbrothers tricked him out of his inheritance. Rezak carts the cubicle with him wherever he goes. The narrator explains that this makes it easier for Rezak to leave town when he quarrels with someone, as often happens, and calls the cabin “his guarantee of independence.”
Rezak is granted a salary by Sohail’s wife in return for guarding the orchard and other odd jobs. He prospers. He buys lights for his cubicle, a radio, a television, and finally, at the end of his life, a bride—a mentally handicapped young woman who cooks but isn’t capable of communicating with words. They fall in love. The reader, like Rezak, knows that he has been granted a respite—that people like the Harounis can no longer offer such shelter to very many or very often.
One evening, Rezak’s wife goes missing from his cubicle. On Rezak’s behalf, the Harounis’ majordomo prompts the family to request assistance from the police. The majordomo himself explains the case, and in doing so emphasizes
the girl’s attractiveness to make it seem like an abduction by one of the gangs who kidnap or buy women for prostitution—the scenario in which the police could help, since these things generally happened under their protection and they received a cut of the take.
The instructions, however, are garbled as they pass down the chain of command, and soon Rezak himself is arrested, hung by manacles in a cell, and beaten. From the feudal protection of the Harounis the old man falls into the formulaic sadism of the police state, and though the police catch their error and release him, he can never return to the life he had.
He never tells anyone what happened in the police station. He never finds his wife; he gives up trying to. He wants only to be buried in the Harounis’ orchard. After he is buried there, his homemade cabin remains behind for a while as a memento. Bit by bit, his things are stolen out of it, until all that remains is the shell. “The door of the little cabin hung open,” Mueenuddin writes, and “the wind and blown rain scoured it clean.”
The word “Pakistan” has two etymologies. It was assembled in the 1930s with letters from the names of Muslim-majority regions that the new nation was planned to comprise, including p from the Punjab, a from Afghanistan, and k from Kashmir. But the word “pakistan” also means “land of the pure” in Persian, and perhaps Rezak’s cabin, “his guarantee of independence” made pure at last by wind and rain, can be read as an emblem of the country as a whole, suggestive of the losses it has suffered in its abrupt transition from a medieval to a modern society. It may look now like a ruin, but its owner lavished care on it and found love in it. In recent years, Pakistan has been regarded in the West with anger and horror. Perhaps Mueenuddin’s portrait will help to bring it a different kind of attention, colored with sorrow and even fondness.
November 5, 2009