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• 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.

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• Friday, May 27th, 2011

Allison Hoover Bartlett was born in Toronto Canada. She is a journalist with a B.A. Degree in English literature from the University of Santa Barbara in the USA and is a member of North 24th Writer’s group and Word of Mouth Bay Area.

She has written articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and other publications about travel, art, science and education. A. H. Bartlett lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.

Bartlett’s original article on John Gilkey, the obsessed book lover thief, was published in the Best American Crime Reporting of 2007.

Her book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, published in 2009, is about book theft and book collectors. It’s non-fiction, written in novel form and the two main characters are: an obsessed book lover-collector, the bibliomaniac, John Gilkey and Ken Sanders, his sworn enemy and tracker.

Sanders, is an antiquarian book collector and dealer and in addition to that, a self-assigned dilettante “book detective”. He owns “Ken Sanders Books” in Salt Lake City and is accredited the security chairmanship of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. After receiving several complaints from book dealers about thefts, Sanders becomes obsessed with the arrest of John Gilkey and is determined to have him put behind bars.

Gilkey loves books as objects, as artistic items, regardless of their content. He doesn’t read the books he steals – he collects them in order to attain a certain stature in society with his pricey rare books. He thinks that by assembling an impressive library, he will forge himself a prestigious identity, which he desperately needs as he wants to appear a refined intellectual gentleman. He never steals a book from a shelf, it’s always by credit card fraud – that way he is under the delusion that he isn’t really stealing the books and consequently isn’t a thief.

According to Gilkey’s way of thinking, “all rare book dealers are crooks and fraudsters” so stealing from them is justified by someone like him who insanely loves books and feels the urge to acquire them but can’t afford them. This shows how much Gilkey lives in his own world and has completely lost touch with reality. The fact that he also wants these valuable books as a source of pecuniary wealth is hidden in his subconscious.

Bartlett questioned Gilkey, his family, Sanders and other book dealer victims of Gilkey’s thefts for three years about their involvement in this whole affair. In an interview, she mentioned the reasons that attracted her to write this book: “ I love books, not just for their content, but the ”thingness” of them and I wanted to explore what that was about”. In other words, how an obsession can turn into a glorified crime.

Perhaps the idea of touching and smelling a book has a rewarding feeling that an audio or electronic book can’t equal, at least for book lovers. As for handling rare, valuable books, it can be an unparalleled, magical experience for an enthusiastic connoisseur to the extent of having a clamshell box made to keep this old printed treasure in. As Gilkey told Bartlett: “when he holds a rare book, he smells its age, feels its crispness, makes sure there’s nothing wrong with it, and opens it up very gently”.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a fascinating story because of its authenticity. An interesting read, which would have been more intense in its impact if the character of the main protagonists were more searched, psychoanalysed and developed. The book would thus have gained more depth.

Gilkey and Sanders psychological behaviour is portrayed briefly by Bartlett as being inconsistent. Gilkey at times appears to be reasonable and sane and at other times seems deranged or irrational in his reasoning. As for Sanders, he appears friendly with Bartlett at the start, before turning hostile and irritated when speaking to her on the phone.

Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable easy read, specially that Bartlett provides a valuable and interesting insight into the world of books and its aficionados, whether it’s book collectors, book dealers, or book kleptomaniacs.

Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment