Tag-Archive for ◊ compassion ◊

• Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Daniyal Mueenuddin was born in 1963 from a Pakistani father and an American mother. His father and mother met in the USA in the late fifties. His mother was working as a reporter for The Washington Post and his father, a Pakistani civil servant, was posted to Washington for the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan brokered by the World Bank.

His parents moved to Pakistan soon after their marriage in 1960. Daniyal was brought up in Lahore where he attended the American School, but at the age of thirteen his parents separated and his mother returned to live in Elroy, Wisconsin and took him and his brother Tamur with her. Daniyal was enrolled in a boarding school in Massachusetts and after four years obtained a degree in English literature.

Daniyal Mueenuddin, after graduating from Dartmouth College and at his aged father’s insistence – his father, now in his late seventies, being a land owner from the old Punjabi feudal system – returned to Pakistan in 1987 in order to live on his father’s land in South Punjab to run the family farm efficiently.

In 1993 he returned to the USA, attended Yale Law School for three years, obtained a degree and worked as a corporate lawyer in a law firm in New York from 1998 to 2001. After resigning, he returned to live in Pakistan, dedicating his time to writing and managing the family farm in Khanpur. He still lives there with his Norwegian wife when he is not in Cairo.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Mueenuddin’s first book published in 2009, has been translated into several languages. It won the Story Prize in 2010, an annual book award for short story collections and he reached the finals for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Best First Book Award and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of eight short stories interlaced around a central protagonist, the wealthy landlord K.K. Harouni. It also follows the life of his family, his friends, his entourage and his staff. One of the stories is set in Paris and as for the others, they are mainly set in South Punjab. They originate from the author’s experience as a land owner in this part of Pakistan and many of them were written on the spot. The stories portray colourfully rich characters from the late nineteen seventies and ending just before the new millennium.

The author depicts the privileged life of prosperous Pakistanis, in contrast to their poor peasants, servants, managers and clerks, the lack of job security and government corruption. In each story we invade the intimacy of a master or a subordinate, what the author metaphorically calls: “another room”, in order to discover a new aspect of someone’s life or perhaps even unearth: “another wonder”.

The first story is dedicated to the ambitious Nawabdin, an electrician, handyman and father of thirteen children. He works on the Harouni estate and after begging his employer he obtains his permission to buy a motorcycle which becomes his most priceless acquisition and makes him highly regarded in his entourage. Such a valuable motorcycle enhances his status to such an extent that he will try to save it with his own life from a desperate, destitute thief.

There is also the touching story of Rezak, in A Spoiled Man (the eighth and last story). The indigent peasant, Rezak, has been abandoned and badly treated by his own family. He is a happy-go-lucky hard-working man who, for no fault of his own, is being unfairly tortured and threatened by the corrupt police. This leaves him overwhelmed with sorrow, never to be the same man again and to think that what happened to him was meant for his redemption.

Nawabdin’s story is followed by the story of another servant, Saleema, a young maid working in the Harouni’s household. She is married to a weak and depraved man who takes a few rupees from her everyday to satisfy his addiction to amphetamines, while she sleeps with Hassan the cook in order to obtain favours but ends up falling in love with Rafik, an old married valet from the same household.

In another story, Husna, the poor young secretary, cum companion, cum mistress of the retired civil servant and well-to-do landowner, K.K. Harouni, who lives separated from his estranged wife, is like Saleema, also pinning her hopes on an old man in order to escape poverty and secure herself. The two women’s expectations are unfulfilled and they find themselves once more in the street after their employer dies.

In Provide, Provide, the author, moves one degree higher in rank with K.K. Harouni’s estates manager, the shrewd, Jaglani. He is a devious schemer who manages to sell some of Harouni’s land in Southern Punjab at half price to people around him, earning commissions on each sale and keeping the best pieces of land for himself, convincing Harouni that the price of land has gone down.

In About A Burning Girl, Mian Sarkar, a sessions judge in the Lahore High Court, is another interesting figure in Pakistani society. He has an ambitious, haughty wife and an unpleasant problem with his servant, Khadim, who is accused of having murdered his sister-in-law. Sarkar’s character is humorously illustrated as a well informed detective of trivia: “Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived”.

The author dedicates his longest story, Lily, to the spoiled, idle rich Pakistani society. His very pretty heroin, Lily, leads a debauched life, partying almost every evening, drinking alcohol, taking drugs and getting what she wants. In order to redeem herself, she marries the wealthy landowner, Murad Talwan, lives with him on his farm, but feels terribly bored because she misses her former life of partying, despite inviting friends to stay over.

In Our Lady In Paris, the author takes us to France’s capital city, Paris. Harouni’s nephew, Sohail, is in love with his Yale university friend, Helen. He introduces Helen to his parents while everybody is on holiday in Paris during the Christmas/New Year holidays to the dismay of his mother, who would have preferred a Pakistani wife for him. Surprisingly, in the last story: A Spoiled Man, Sohail Harouni is married to an American woman he met at University in the U.S.A called Sonya and not Helen. The mystery is unexplained in the novel.

There are several themes that occur throughout the novel, like the feudal system, the array of established social classes and their very different ways of leading their lives: the unfulfilled love, the unhappiness, the corruption, the helplessness of women who more often than not have to resort to sex for survival like: Saleema, Zainab or Husna and the destitution of the poor servants once the master dies. A good insight into the different social strata and its complexities in the modern Pakistan.

The bleakness of the stories, which are beautifully written with a great deal of observed detail, are softened by the author’s compassion for his characters, which can be read between the lines, similar to the shafts of light that pierce the dark gloom and are softened by some well-dispersed humour.

• Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 1972 but grew up in Wales and Scotland. She worked as a teacher, art administrator, as a journalist in Hong Kong and a Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent On Sunday newspaper. Presently she works as a full time novelist.

O’Farrell has written six novels thus far. Her first: After You’d Gone, published in 2000, won her the Betty Trask Award in 2001. For her third: The Distance Between Us, published in 2004, she won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. As for her fifth novel: The Hand That First Held Mine, published in 2010, she won the Costa Book Awards. O’Farrell’s latest novel: Instructions For A Heatwave, was published in 2013. She lives in Edinburgh with her novelist husband, William Sutcliffe and their two children.

The Hand That First Held Mine is the story of two women, two destinies at two different epochs which are skilfully intertwined by the author. In the fifties, the rebellious, twenty-one-year graduate, Alexandra Sinclair, leaves home in Devon, England to experience a new life in central London, following a chance meeting with Innes Kent, the ebulliently charming thirty-four-year old art dealer, journalist, critic and self-confessed hedonist.

Under Innes Kent’s love and guidance, the young, impetuous Alexandra becomes the newly emancipated, Lexie and experiences for the first time working with Innes and other journalists in the offices of “Elsewhere”, the avant-garde magazine, as well as having an early taste of bohemian life in Soho. The clever, motivated, Lexie will quickly learn to appreciate art and to become a successful art critic and reporter.

Lexie is in love with Innes and decides to live with him in his apartment following his insistence. They are happy together, the only blemish being Innes’s estranged wife, the opportunist, Gloria and her submissive young daughter, Margot. Later in the story, after Kent’s untimely death, mother and daughter in unison take their revenge on Lexie and her son Theo. Margot will marry Felix, the journalist, who is Lexie’s colleague as well as occasional lover and Theo’s father.

Margot’s revenge continues after Lexie’s premature death, when little Theo comes to live with his father, Felix and herself. Margot – who was unable to have children – changes the child’s name from Theo to Ted and pretends to be his real mother. Margot and her mother Gloria keep the family’s secret tightly hidden from him. Felix, being a weak character accepts to go along with their wicked deceit. This will create Ted’s instability and torment as an adult, especially when he himself becomes a father.

A generation later, the thirty-one-year-old Elina Vilkuna, a Finnish painter, is recovering from a traumatic first childbirth by cesarian which nearly killed her and is about to destroy her relationship with her thirty-five-year old boyfriend – and father of her newly born Jonah – the film editor, Ted, who has been behaving oddly ever since.

Following her release from hospital with her newly born son, Jonah, Elina feels bewildered. She appears to have lost all memory of her dreadful delivery and seems to be living in a world of make believe. She makes the effort of trying to recall what happened and can remember in little strokes, like when her red scarf falls, it reminds her of the “jets of blood…in the scrubbed white of the room”.

As Elina is starting to emerge slowly from her amnesia and state of lethargy, Ted’s childhood is returning to him frequently now, in a blurred, handicapping form. He is having an awakening of his long-buried subconscious and is desperately looking for a guiding hand as a beacon to shed some light on all these inexplicably shadowy areas from his infancy which don’t correspond to the stories that “his mother”, Margot, told him.

Being predisposed to hypnotic periods, there are gaps in Ted’s memory. There are many old memories that contradict his other childhood and he is under the impression of having lived two childhoods. There are things he wants to remember but is unable to. He recalls some scenes from the past, a few puzzling flashbacks, like the first outlines on a canvas, he needs to complete the painting, which is difficult with lots of mysteries left unanswered by his parents.

Feeling guilty after his son’s deep depression and collapse, Felix reveals the whole secret story to Elina. He confesses his culpability and remorse and asks her to mediate between him and his son in order for his son to forgive him for concealing the truth from him for all these years.

The two stories run in alternating chapters between Lexie and Elina, without being connected at first, but towards the end the author, with a twist, thanks to her skilful magic wand, makes them converge into one without any exertion but with extreme intensity, compassion and sensitivity.

The Hand That First Held Mine is about the destructive power of the unspoken among members of the same family and the impact on people’s life due to the loss of a family member. The power of the past in re-modelling the present and transcending it, as well as the gratification and richness that parenthood brings to a mother and a father but also how the birth of a first child can change everything in one’s life. It is also about a mother’s deep love and sacrifices – Lexie and Elina are two ambitious career women who try to re-adapt after being jolted to so many responsibilities with their first new-born.

In one of her interviews, Maggie O’Farrell says: “I was interested in writing about new motherhood … the shock and the emotion and exhaustion of it … which I haven’t read much about in fiction”. She also says she couldn’t have written this novel had she not experienced motherhood herself. This exact feeling is described in the novel at the time Lexie knew she was drowning: “She didn’t think in that moment of herself, of her parents, her siblings, of Innes, the life she left behind when she stepped into the waves … As the waves thrust her under, she could think only of Theo” her beloved son that she won’t experience the pleasure of seeing growing up.

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