Stories are like windows in a train compartment. Offering a momentary glimpse of a stretched-out world outside. This short form of literature peeks into the complexities of your everyday lives and brings out feelings that stretch your thinking. It is, in the end, a means to look at things we look at everyday in our lives, only this time, through a quick and dirty telescope- zooming in and out as the author nudges and pokes, soaking in or puking forth as we come across the characters.
In Comédie humaine, the epic chronicle of french society by Balzac, an ingenious technique of using recurrent characters was used to bring out a sense of compassion towards those whose lives we earlier barely glanced upon. As we move from one story to the next, the ensemble resurrects the lives and times of people glimpsed earlier in passing or known through referrals in a different story of a different time. Likewise, Daniyal Mueenuddin, in his enthralling debut pitches us the story of an old-timer landlord in Pakistan and the cavalcade of people around him. Each linked to the other, albeit marginally and appearing as a shadow-ghost frequently.
Through the eyes of a critical observer we are pushed into the lives of the maid, the chef, the driver, the butler of K.K Harouni, the erstwhile landlord- now old and unable to rise above his ‘reality distortion field’ that heritage colonial riches and exploits pushed him to. Through de-linking each stories, other than the recurrent characters, the essence of the short-story is preserved while at the same time as we come across known characters, even if in passing, in each of those stories, the instigation of familiarity and acquaintance run common. This, to me is fascinating in that it mimics the reality of subjective perceptions ala Rashomon and is in a way strangely similar to A Visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan. Although, while the Kurosawa classic and Egan’s masterpiece is in-your-face and direct, Mueenuddin leaves it to the readers to interpret and even define the perceptions.
The book is set in the late-20th century Pakistan, where, as a judge puts it, “all things can be arranged,” and concerns both those young, wealthy, secular and globalized people who lead a trashy life-style like youngsters from any other country and those downtrodden and enslaved labor class whose definition of the world runs as an antithesis to that of those wayward profligates. Thus providing a spectrum of colorful and self-conscious characters through the prism of which Pakistani culture and principles disperse.
The book starts with a bucolic Punjabi saying that goes- “Three things for which we kill– Land, women and gold”. Indeed, as we move into the book, get encapsulated by the vivid yet simple imagery and marvel at the picaresque settings the one common theme of corruption shadow each of them. We see corruption, degradation to a eurotrash lifestyle and the corresponding regret with which the character reflect upon his/her decisions/choices. They barter one for the other of the three coveted belongings, becoming, at times violent and corrupt, and at times hauntingly sad and depressing.
In each of the stories, we learn about a character’s past, then zero in on the central crisis of his or her life and, even while we are expecting more development, suddenly find everything wounded up in a paragraph or two- the climax or the closing scene can therefore be interpreted either as too abrupt or simply making a home-run towards the soul that the author wishes to reflect upon. It is not merely the story of the main character but the particular phase he is going through which forms the bulk of his imagination.