Four Good Stories — but a Missing Ingredient
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As the first story came to its emotionally startling end, I thought eagerly: yes! The plot of “Nawabdin Electrician” had quietly reversed my sentiments without my realizing it was happening, and left me surprised and disturbed, stranding me in a morally complicated place which was not at all where I thought the story was going.
A very nice performance opening Daniyal Mueenuddin’s collection of linked stories on a Pakistani farm, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.
Sure, Nawab the electrician is a scoundrel, but a likeable one, and happily married. When he’s held up at gunpoint by a robber who wants his motorcycle, you certainly worry about Nawab, and it gets worse when he tries to fight the robber and is shot. Both Nawab and the robber are wounded and incapacitated, and both are taken to the same medical facility. There a strange and unexpected reversal occurs. Completely conflicted by the end of the story, uncertain whose side I was on, I found myself smiling in delight – that’s a perfect response for a book club selection. These linked short stories on a Pakistani farm might be exactly right for next month’s book. The author actually lives on a farm in Pakistan, and there’s an authenticity and lack of sensationalism to his narrative style. He knows what he’s writing about.
If the first story could have been written by Flannery O’Connor, the second story was more in the style of Flaubert or Maupassant. “Saleema” is the story of a pretty, twenty-four-year-old Muslim refugee from India, hired by the wealthy landlord who appears in all the stories, K. K. Harouni, to serve his daughter. It’s a maid’s story, an unexpectedly tender love story between her and the much older valet, Rafik, who is already married with children and gets Saleema pregnant. The story includes one delightfully original scene where marijuana-enhanced samosas are served to the servants. It’s conclusion is so appallingly sudden and bleak the reader is left gasping at the sheer power of Mueenuddin’s narrative.
Unfortunately, none of the charm or moral complication of the first two stories makes it into the third and fourth. The third story, “Provide, Provide,” is actually quite similar to “Saleema” in plot but instead of being told by the bewitching young girl, it’s seen from the point of view of the older man who falls in love with her, Jaglani. Too bad Jaglani isn’t likeable. His behavior is utterly unsympathetic. There are no emotional stakes in his rise or fall. It’s just unpleasant.
If the third story is long and emotionally uninvolving, the fourth story is short, tight, lean and mean as a Rubik’s cube and – just as emotionally uninvolving. Written in the style of a succinct little Borges mystery, it runs nicely around in its calculated circles, ticking off its surprises like clockwork, but it’s so cold-blooded, without a single character to like, that all the fancy footwork comes to nothing.
That’s it. I’m bidding farewell to K. K. Harouni and farm staff. Somebody tell me if the last four stories are worth going back to read.