Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: Journey through Pakistan

In the last five years or so, the number of books published in India has increased dramatically but their quality has hardly been good. Apart from some exceptions, the books being published are mostly shallow with very little or no literary value. I’m not particularly being critical of Chetan Bhagat. While he is not spectacular, his plots are good and, of course, he gets people to read who wouldn’t otherwise read helping expand the English reader base in India. But my point is his success has spawned many ‘trying to be Bhagat’ types and the market is milling with them. Their themes are limited – mostly college romance and such nonsense – and mostly they have nothing new to say.

On the other hand, Pakistan may not be producing as many writers but their outputs are of international standards. This has, of course, reasons other than literary. The west has traditionally been ignorant of the subcontinental countries, but even within India Pakistan has mostly been seen through the mist of current affairs issues that may reveal something about the politics of a country but hardly tell about anything else.

9/11 led to curiosity about Pakistan, its society and people. And that curiosity has been very well fed by writers like Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie etc. (Granta, a British literary magazine, published an edition on Pakistan last year where it published their work.)

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Danyal Muidduin comes from the same school. But where it’s different is it has completely steered clear of political issues and dealt with people and society.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders takes you through various layers of Pakistani society and power structure and tells about their cross connections and interdependencies. It ushers you into the drawing rooms of the rich as well as gives you the glimpses of how the poor live their lives.

The book is a collection of eight short stories with some interconnections such as recurrence of characters from same families in different stories that are otherwise disconnected. These families mostly form the elite stratosphere of Daniyal’s rich Pakistan – as if to suggest that wealth is so concentrated in the country as to be a preserve of only a few families while poverty is omnipresent. By bringing in a character or social setup something around which you read in another story, this inorganic interconnection gives you the feeling of being not very far from the world you exited some stories back.

While the plots of urban-centric stories are more intricate, the stories set in rural Pakistan bring about Daniyal’s flair for scenic description.

But of all things, the Indian reader would be surprised by the city life lived by the youth coming from wealthy families. Drugs, booze, night clubs, you have everything. So does the murder of Salman Taseer signify that this particular Pakistan is under attack from religious extremists and it's shrinking? While reading the book I had many such questions forming in my mind. And so will you.

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