The final scene in The Grapes of Wrath is unforgettable: Rose of Sharon nursing a starving old man after the birth of her stillborn baby. And in the face of headlines daily declaring the worst economic collapse since the Depression, Steinbeck is worth remembering. It’s unexpected, though, to encounter echoes of his work in tales set as far from California as rural Pakistan. But Daniyal Mueenuddin, a half-American, half-Pakistani writer, has crafted a chronicle of poverty as detailed and revealing as any by Steinbeck, with the same drive to humanize his subjects. Mueenuddin’s collection of linked stories does for the servants of Pakistan what Steinbeck’s fiction did for the laborers of America, capturing the complicated lives of individuals whose suffering stems from their class situation.
In the case of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, this situation is set in the household of aging landowner K. K. Harouni, beginning in the late 1970s, the waning years of Pakistan’s feudal order, and continuing through the present day. Harouni himself appears mostly as a distant patriarch—dignified, passive, and negligent—an old man rendered irrelevant by relentless modernity: “For the third time in a week Mr. K. K. Harouni was forced to endure a conversation about a Rolls-Royce coupe recently imported by . . . new Pakistani industrialists who at that time were blazing into view. . . . Harouni greeted the emergence of these people with condescension overlaying his envy.”
But Mueenuddin’s sympathy lies not with Harouni (though a measure of the author’s skill is the subtlety with which he coaxes understanding for the landowner from the reader) but with the workers, managers, and servants who sustain his farm, city mansion, and weekend home and whose lives are destroyed by the failure of the old system. For example, Saleema, a twenty-four-year-old village girl employed in the kitchen, falls in love with a much older valet and bears his child. But when Harouni dies, “a pall fell over the house. . . . Already the bond among the servants weakened.” The valet leaves Saleema, and she and her son end up on the streets. Elsewhere, workers’ lives hang on the whims of the privileged. In “A Spoiled Man,” the American wife of Harouni’s nephew favors an old gardener by overpaying him and supplying his shack with electricity, causing him to be unjustly jailed and tortured.
Mueenuddin also turns his magnifying glass on the privileged class, especially the younger generation and the restlessness that afflicts it. The newly married protagonist in “Lily” contemplates her future: “She would be left . . . one of those thin sharp women from the cities who can hold their liquor but are desiccated by it, who are well dressed without taking pleasure in it, living much in London, bored.” Even Lily and her milieu, Mueenuddin suggests, are affected by social dislocation; she is one of many wealthy people attempting to find their places in a postcolonial system that destroyed traditional structures in Pakistan and then collapsed on itself.