Monday, March 9, 2009

In other rooms, other wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin writes with a certain old-world charm. His prose is florid, almost overly so. Almost. Just when you think he's let a sentence drift too far afield, he reels it back in with a light touch, often producing remarkable sentences with several little sparkling flourishes. Here's one example:

The next evening, when I drove through the gate of my house, a
sagging wooden affair once painted green, once perhaps in colonial
days a swing for little English children, I found an old man
standing by the portico with the timeless patience of peasants and
old servants, as if he had been standing there all day.

Here's another:

The ancient valet greeted Murad with affection, one of the old
school, corrupt, running the household for profit, taking a cut
from the cook, the drivers, but nevertheless proudly indulgent of
his master's ordered purposeless day, the master's hand which had
never turned to work, and his connections with the old Lahore

I spend several enjoyable hours this past weekend drifting through these sentences that form a loosely connected collection of stories about the remnants of a feudal Pakistan.

Mueenuddin's stories have an overwhelmingly feminine quality, and I don't mean that they will only be enjoyed by a female audience. For starters, very objectively speaking, Mueenuddin's frames six stories about women, in between two short ones about men. And even then, poor Nawabdin Electrician, the every-man of the first story, is the father of twelve girls, saddled with the impossible burden of twelve dowries! But, more than anything else, it's Mueenuddin's affinity for careful crafted women characters, all coping in their own way with being on the wrong end of familiar and frustrating power equations, that give this book its spirit.

I am impressed, but not yet entirely convinced by Mueenuddin's talent. For one, the trajectory of his characters are a little monotone. They cope, then hope, then fail, all rather too quickly. For this loosely connected set of stories, this works well enough (the connectedness being a nice device to convey the familiar, small world
of an Indian/Pakistani city). Despite being enjoyable, I'm not sure what Mueenuddin's point is---impressionist semi-documentary makes for a pleasant read, but I could have used a little more commentary in the sub-text. I can't help but wonder if Mueenuddin is equipped to tackle more weighty, substantial characters.

1 comment:

  1. This may be a somewhat unfounded comment, but could the perceived femininity of Mueenuddin's writing come from the quality of his (presumably) native Urdu? Having a genetic and historical link to the language, but lacking any real knowledge or skill in using it, I have been amazed by the sometimes strikingly feminine beauty of Urdu expressions, ghazals and words. It seems an exceedingly self-indulgent language, florid (as you noted of Mueenuddin's English) yet controlled and credible. If you read the work of Zulfikar Ghose (e.g. The Triple Mirror of the Self), you will notice the same quality. But Ghose is a true master, whereas I agree that Mueenuddin has yet to prove himself.