Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

By Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin is one of the new Pakistani writers-in-English brigade. His first book, a collection of inter-connected short stories, has created quite a bit of buzz in world media. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders has a fresh feel to its voice and its characters prove to be rather arresting.

There is something R.K.Narayan about the whole book – in the rootedness of the milieu, in the ‘almost-effacement’ of the author’s voice, in the ‘letting the story and characters do most of the talking’ type of writing. Of course, the Punjab countryside is redolent of Khushwant Singh in Train to Pakistan and a lot of other Indian books we have read in recent times (Manju Kapur and even Vikram Chandra’s strange partition story in Sacred Games).

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a set of 8 stories all set around the large Lahore house and the massive rural farm land of KK Harouni, an old feudal landlord whose lands and wealth are slowly being bled away by corrupt managers. The characters are those of cooks and drivers, managers and butlers, maid servants and electricians; as well as rich socialites who do not think twice about taking a flight to Paris on a whim. It depicts a very feudal society with a wealthy class that is all-powerful and an underclass that is completely dependent on the other – masters and their servants. And even within the underclass there are gradations of power – power that is wielded without compunction to further one’s own cause. What struck me was the complete absence of a middle class, a professional class – lawyers, teachers, doctors, managers. Even when we do encounter them, they are corrupt and completely under the thumb of the wealthy.

The women can go so far and no further. Sex is a weapon they use to get what they want. But even that is possible up to a point. Any further and there is ruin. In the story ‘Saleema’, she is a young maid servant who an older butler Rafiq falls in love with. For a while she is the queen in the servants quarters…yet when Harouni dies, Rafiq is pensioned off and he goes back to his family in his village. Saleema ends up with a child begging on the streets of the city. Similar is the case with Zainab in Provide, Provide. She is the driver’s sister who manages to get into the heart of the all-powerful corrupt manager Jaglani. She manipulates him to give her his son’s child to bring up as hers since she cannot have any of her own. Yet when he lies dying of cancer, her real worth in the scheme of things is brought home to her. His first wife and children are his real heirs and she is left with nothing, not even the child. In the story In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Husna is the impoverished relative who uses sex with KK Harouni to gain his favour and become part of his glamorous rich world. His daughters ensure she ends up with nothing when he dies. Even in the wealthier class, Sohail Harouni’s (Harouni’s nephew) American middle class girlfriend Helen faces off with her posh future mother-in-law in Paris – and in the end we know she loses. In another story, we find Sohail married to someone called Sonya.

There is a compelling narrative power in each of the stories. All the characters are flawed in a manner that is real, convincing and gripping. There is no winning for almost all. It is a wonderful un-put-down-able book – with an unsullied, refreshing, almost juicy feel to it. I did not want it to end… and that is an unfamiliar feeling in these book-crowded times.

Recent Joys

Re-discovering Plath and my favourite ‘Tulips’. To know that from the depths of darkness can come such beauty. The compact, precise needle-sharpness of every single line, every word.

…I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly

As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses

And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons….

….Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage -

My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,

My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;

Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks…

…Before they came the air was calm enough,

Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.

Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.

Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river

Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.

They concentrate my attention, that was happy

Playing and resting without committing itself…

Here is the full poem.

Discovering Jack Johnson's music. Upside Down has been featuring regularly on my play list.

…..And as my mind begins to spread its wings
There's no stoppin' curiosity

I wanna turn the whole thing upside down
I'll find the things they say just can't be found
I'll share this love I find with everyone
We'll sing and dance to Mother Nature's song
I don't want this feeling to go away….

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stories We Could Tell

By Tony Parsons

The boys are sweet; there is something unspoiled in them, as if they still believe that a world can be changed with the right music. It is London in the time beween the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Woodstock and the newer harder sounds of Kiss and The Clash and The Sex Pistols; the time between long hair, cool hippie-dom, universal love and the skinheads, race riots and unemployment. It is 1977, Elvis is dead and disco is in the air.

Tony Parsons, best known for his lad lit books like Man and Wife, Man and Boy, now writes a quasi-fictional account of his years as a music journalist with NME, that becomes The Paper in his book 'Stories We Could Tell'. It's a story of 3 boys living their dream lives as young music journalists at The Paper, on the day Elvis died. Terry, Ray and Leon are barely out of their teens (Ray is in fact just 17), think their job is the coolest thing in the world and as in the tradition of the young, think this life is going to last forever. Of course it doesn't. And it takes the night of August 16th 1977 (the day Elvis died) for them to realize that all of them are on their one way journey to care-filled adulthood.

Terry is the working class boy moving into a more sophisticated, morally-ambiguous world. He is in love with Misty, the cool and hip young photographer at The Paper and they are an item, all sure of their future together until Terry introduces her to Dag Wood, a current hot musical favourite. When Dag and Misty get together that night, Terry does not know what to think. It is the time of free love and all that, but Terry is after all the suburban working class boy with all the trappings of that value system. Leon is kind of the opposite. He is the product of a privileged background, drops out of the LSE to work at The Paper and fight the System. On that night, he is on the run from the racist gangs he so abhors and ends up meeting the dancing queen of his dreams at a disco, of all the places. Ray, the baby in age but the oldest in experience at the magazine, cannot get himself out of the long-haired hippie years and music and is in danger of being sacked for the lost cool. Unless he can get an interview with his hero John Lennon who is in town.

By the next day, all the three are well into their new lives. Terry has discovered Misty is pregnant with his child and is looking half-apprehensively into a future as a husband and a father. Leon fakes a review, gets fired and moves back home with his parents and is all set to get back into the dreaded mainstream after hearing a speech from a certain Maggie Thatcher. And Ray, after he gets his interview with his hero now gets to call the shots at The Paper in a stunning reversal of fortune. All are on course to get back into conformity and the way of the majority. Adulthood has indeed struck.

Parsons gets the title from an Everly Brothers song and the stories he tells are obviously ones he and his peers have lived through. There are apparently characters and situations that mirror real life, so say the experts. Misty is a thinly velied representation of his ex-wife, the editor of The Paper has a real-life counterpart and so does Skip Jones, a legendary writer at The Paper. There are obviously parts of the author in all the three boys. It is a sex, drugs and rock and roll story, with the sub-text of the corruption of innocents (growing up, in normal words).

Parsons as always, is an easy and interesting read. Lad-lit has a votary in me.

Haruki Murakami's Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech

"I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies -- which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true -- the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. In Japan a fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The U.N. reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens -- children and old people. 

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me -- and especially if they are warning me -- "Don't go there," "Don't do that," I tend to want to "go there" and "do that." It's in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.

Please do allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is "the System." The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others -- coldly, efficiently, systematically.


I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories -- stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the battlefield. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.

My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong -- and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made the System. That is all I have to say to you."

The metaphor of the egg (the individual - unique and irreplaceable and fragile) and the high, solid wall (the System - power, authority and the ability to break the egg) will now am sure come into common parlance. It is new, interesting and rather apt for the times. The solid wall could very well be Israel with its tanks (as Murakami meant it to be), a corrupt political system, a totalitarian regime, a superpower, the Taliban. It is another stand-out acceptance speech in the pantheon of some rather great ones in the past by literary figures - Faulkner's Nobel one ("i decline to accept the end of man"), Marquez's Nobel one ("A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth"), Doris Lessing's tear-inducing Nobel Prize one ("The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative."), even Stephen King's controversial National Book Award one ("We can build bridges between the popular and the literary if we keep our minds and hearts open").

Pieces of me

A bohemia of unabashed colour, on walls, on clothes

The decadence of exotic silk, eastern, striking, brash.

The hoping-to-stop-time red shoes, forbidden red

The height of the heel, the inappropriateness of it.

Countless trysts with discipline, will power and Nike

Cut short by sloth, despair, distraction.

Love for a city, for independence, for growing up,

A big bad city for making money, for living, for loving.

A million words, good, tolerable, plain bad

Can't-stay-away-from words, not-enough-time-for words.

Kitchen creations, wholesome, soothing, happy-tiring,

Pleasurable from some deep primal inside.

The living in hope, building word castles in the air

The fear, dismissal, dissatisfaction all a part of it.

Tradition and its visible cloak

The flowers and the gold, the rituals and the roots.

All a life unaccounted, formless, everyday ordinary

Floating by in some mysterious significance, I hope.