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Author:
• 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.

Author:
• Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa was born into a middle class family in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, in 1936. His parents were separated a short time before his birth. Llosa spent his early childhood with his mother and maternal grandparents in Cochabamba in Bolivia, being falsely told by his mother that his father had died. Ten years later his parents reconciled, causing an abrupt change to Llosa’s life because, after being pampered by his mother and grandparents, he now found himself with an authoritarian, severe father. In 1947 Llosa went to the Christian middle school, Colegio La Salle.

Discovering his only child’s passion for writing when in his early teens, Ernesto Vargas, Llosa’s dictatorial father, wanting to prevent him pursuing a literary career – which he considered good for idle rich people – sent him to the rigidly disciplined Leoncion Prado Military Academy in Lima. This period will later be described by Llosa in his first novel, The Time Of The Hero, published in 1963 as “the discovery of hell”.

Living in a country led by an oppressive dictator and having a despotic father will make Llosa fight strongly to condemn any stifling, abhorrent dictatorship that suppresses individual freedom in any shape or form.

After dropping out of the academy, Llosa pursued his studies in Piura, north of Peru, while working as a journalist for a local newspaper. In 1953 Llosa studied literature and law at the National University of San Marcos and in 1958 won a scholarship to study in Madrid and later went to live in Paris. Llosa became a journalist, an essayist and a politician, running unsuccessfully in the presidential elections of 1990.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a prolific writer, having written many novels, non-fiction and drama. He has also received numerous awards and honours including the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature about which he was informed in a telephone call received in New York when teaching a semester at Princeton University. He has been married twice and has three children from his second wife.

The Way To Paradise recounts, in alternating twenty-two chapters and by moving back and forth, the historical biographical story of two extraordinary destinies: the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, and his illegitimate, socialist reformer and feminist grandmother, Flora Tristan. Flora was born to a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother and grew up in poverty following her aristocrat father’s death when she was just four years old. At the time, French law did not recognise her parents’ marriage and consequently she did not inherit her father’s estate as she was considered an illegitimate child.

Flora, who died in 1844 at the age of forty-one, never saw her grandson, Gauguin, born in 1848. Although they didn’t know each other and apart from their kinship, they both had one target, namely to aspire to achieve an insatiable and unrealistic dream in order to reach their much-coveted paradise on earth.

Flora wanted a complete change in the society of her time, where workers were poor, crushed and exploited by factory owners who worked them hard for a pittance in an unhealthy environment, while the destitute women and children were earning half a pittance for the same work. Flora was also campaigning for women to have a dignified and better life, whether they were poor, enslaved women workers or enslaved bourgeois women. Her fight for workers’ rights and women’s equality and emancipation from oppression is unprecedented and well ahead of her time.

In order to achieve her goal, Flora doesn’t spare any effort. She abandons her three children and André Chazal, the husband she detests and who made her hate sex. During the last months of her life she tours incessantly all over France for the sake of promoting her cause, travelling from town to city to recruit members for her Workers’ Union and encouraging workers to unite because unity is strength against the exploiters.

She publishes many works, her best-known being: Peregrinations Of A Pariah, published in 1838, Promenades In London in 1840 and her famous final work, The Workers’ Union in 1843, in which she criticises capitalism and its exploitation of workers in France. She is sometimes made fun of, threatened and rebuked but never gives-up her dream.

As for Gauguin, he quits his successful, well-paid job as a stockbroker in Paris in 1884 at the age of thirty-six and decides to become a full time artist. Soon after he abandons his Danish wife, Mette Gad, and his five children. In order to escape the civilised world, he looks for an unspoilt life in rural Brittany, in Pont-Aven then close by in Le Pouldu where he “went in search of the savagery and primitivism that seemed to him fertile ground for the flourishing of great art”. After a short, unfortunate conflictual cohabitation with Van Gogh in Arles, he travels to Panama followed by Martinique then Tahiti, which he finds a disappointment having been defiled by French colonialism.

Frustrated when realising that things are not as easy as he imagines and that his dream might never be fulfilled, and now consumed by syphilis, he goes to Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia which he thinks has maybe been slightly less spoilt by French colonialism, but to no avail. He spends the last two years of his life there and is buried in 1903 in the cimetière Calvaire, the main cemetery on the island, leaving behind a great collection of paintings, ceramics and wood carvings. Although not given the recognition deserved during his lifetime, after his death Gauguin’s paintings have made him immortal.

Gauguin believed that art had to be subjective to represent the artist’s vision and what goes through an artist’s mind and soul, he said when he was in Le Pouldu near Pont-Aven in Brittany: “Art is abstraction; draw art as you dream in nature’s presence, and think more about the act of creation than about the final result”.

The two lives had their differences: Flora was more concentrated on awakening the working classes to their rights in order to forge a better, brighter future for them, while her grandson, Gauguin, was searching everywhere for the unspoilt, “uncivilised” past. Nevertheless, Gauguin’s life was more colourful and interesting than his grandmother Flora’s, who spent a great deal of her time indefatigably touring in France, organising endless workers’ meetings to recruit support for her workers’ union.

They also had their similarities: Flora and her grandson Gauguin, both rebelled against the establishment and had one objective in mind, their endeavour to liberate themselves from the traditionalist society of their time. They were both obstinately tenacious in their quest, stoically enduring the hardship they encountered as well as both suffering lingering illnesses leading to their deaths. In order to reach their ideals, they both courageously reject the comfortable, bourgeois existence they could have both lived and opt instead for the hard struggle in the hope of attaining their idealistic life.

The Way To Paradise, although slow-moving and repetitive at times, is a well-researched novel. It is a fascinating double biography of a grandmother and her grandson who, through their eagerness, strong ambition and obstinacy, were unstoppable in their endeavours thus leaving their mark on the history of humanity.

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