Guest post by Sonal Tarneja
“Zainab! I won’t be able to read all the stories. I’ve read the first two – which other ones should I prioritise?” I texted frantically. In about 15 hours we were going to be discussing Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders at the second DWL London Readers’ Club meet-up.
I arrived at the Notes Café in Covent Garden, all nervous and conscious I’d be the only person who hadn’t done her homework, but I was in good company as it turned out. Two new faces, Kirin and Beenish, sipped on their coffees, the ochre book prominently displayed on the table so that we could all recognize each other. We had barely introduced ourselves, when Kirin and Beenish admitted they hadn’t read the entire book, and then Sumaira walked in, apologizing sheepishly for having just read the first two stories. I breathed a sigh of relief. And as the rest of the group trickled in slowly – Zainab and Nadia and Holly and Nigham – I knew this second meet was going to be a success.
So there we were, sitting around a table adorned with cheesecakes and coffees, and a few signed copies of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. A show of hands confirmed most of us had not done our homework, except Zainab, who had both her hands up for being a super prepared organizer, and Nigham, who had suggested the book, and came endearingly armed with her iPad full of notes from when she had heard Daniyal speak at the London School of Economics a few days before.
So what did we all like about the book, Zainab asked. “It takes you back to Pakistan,” Nigham nicely summed up. “You can picture things so vividly,” Beenish agreed. “Daniyal presents things exactly as they are in reality. It’s evocative, it’s authentic, it offers a good balance, it’s not patronizing” – and we all nodded our heads.
For me, personally, the book couldn’t take me “back” for I have never been, but it amazed me how this could easily be a bunch of stories set in Delhi and need no alterations whatsoever (except maybe the ease with which the most ordinary person brought out a gun every now and then). The same people, the same relationships, the same issues, the same everything Daniyal talks about exist in India. And as with everyone else, it gave me a good understanding of the everyday lives of a section of society we interact with everyday in Pakistan or India, but know so little about. A parallel universe we almost choose to ignore.
So how exactly did an author who spent his early years outside of Pakistan, and knew the country as an outsider until he moved there very recently, offer such vivid and detailed insights into this stratum of society? How did he get such a deep understanding and awareness of their social lives? And would he have written about it if living in Pakistan, versus dipping in and out of the country? Perhaps one observes and perceives more when they’re not entrenched in the setting on a day-to-day basis.
And what differentiates Mueenuddin as an author? It was generally agreed that he was one of the finer Pakistani writers of our time, one with the ability to put himself in the shoes of the characters and really bring them to life. But what really stood out in his writing was his realistic depiction of women, the importance given to women, the concern about unequal relationships, and the ability to be critical of his own class, but in a contained way. And the central part that romance plays in his books.
Mueenuddin’s next novel will be a love story set in Madison. A question was raised about whether he will be able to display the same objectivity in portraying characters and narrating the plot, and pull off an American identity as easily as he did a Pakistani one in this book. A fascinating challenge, but all of us had enjoyed what we had seen of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders enough to find out for ourselves – even the ones who had seen/heard him speak at the LSE and felt that he was not quite as charismatic as they’d thought him to be through his writing! (“It’s a bit like Sachin Tendulkar. He’s great on the cricket ground, but you lose all hope the minute you hear him speak.” Oh Beenish… Beenish! That comment alone could spark the fourth IndoPak war!)
And so it all came to an end, but only with the promise of another interesting book and another enjoyable conversation for our next DWL London Readers’ Club meeting. In May, we will be discussing Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. To sign up for an engaging discussion, a cup of coffee, and sugar, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
This is a guest post. The author’s opinions are her own and do not reflect the views of Desi Writers’ Lounge.
Sonal lives in London and has a deep interest in South Asian history, with specific focus on the Partition. Her personal blog can be found on sonaltarneja.blogspot.com.