Digging up stories

Digging up stories


Digging up stories

In the steamy heat of central Pakistan, a novelist is writing. He describes a hidden world of servants and their feudal masters, the powerlessness of poverty and the corruption that glues it all together. These lives, tucked away in the mango groves, grand estates and mud-walled villages of rural Pakistan, are rarely seen by outsiders. But the writer, Daniyal Mueenuddin, a Pakistani-American who lives here, has brought them into focus in a collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, published this year. They are intimate portraits that raise some of the biggest questions in Pakistan today.

Why does a small elite still control vast swaths of land more than 60 years after Pakistan became a nation? How long will landlords continue to control the law and the lives of the peasants on their land in the same way British rulers did before them?

Mueenuddin, 46, offers a richly observed landscape that is written with the tenderness and familiarity of an old friend. The estate Mueenuddin lives on in southern Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, belonged to his father, a prominent Pakistani civil servant, and he used to come here as a boy.

His parents met in the United States in the 1950s. His father was negotiating a treaty, and his mother was a young reporter for The Washington Post. They later moved to Pakistan, but the country proved difficult with its web of expectations and relationships, and she took her sons back to the United States when Mueenuddin was 13. Memories of this land stayed with him, however, and he returned after college in 1987 as an aspiring writer. He found upon arrival a decaying, colonial-era system, whose owners — his own family — had long stopped paying attention.

The farm’s profits were declining, and its borders were shrinking: The managers were pilfering land and planting their own crops. “It was in their mouths when I pulled it out,” Mueenuddin said, speaking on the estate, where he now lives with his Norwegian wife.
Mueenuddin slowly became part of the changing Pakistan he wanted to capture in fiction. The managers were powerful when he arrived, and extracting them from the business of running the farm was a delicate procedure. He was alone, without a phone or Internet. He slept with a gun and worried that his food might be poisoned. “It occurred to me that they could kill me,” he said.

He began to assemble a team of people he trusted: a driver who, as a child, was his playmate, and the Quran instructor in the mosque, Hafiz Sahib, who had been low in the pecking order of the village but was honest. Slowly, he reclaimed the farm, which now does a brisk business in mangoes, sugar cane and cotton.

In person, Mueenuddin is more American than Pakistani. He speaks Urdu, the national language, but his frenetic energy and fast gait sets him apart in this languid, sweltering land, where men walk with their bellies ahead of their torsos. His characters, however, are convincingly local: corrupt farm managers, conniving, spoiled children of wealthy landlords and servant girls desperate to improve their station in life.

The stories explore the power dynamic between servants and their masters. In one, a cunning young house servant, Husna, becomes the lover of an elderly landowner, K K  Harouni, the patron who is present in many of the stories and is from the same class and generation as Mueenuddin’s father. She gradually improves her status through her connection to him, moving into better quarters and getting servants of her own, but is cruelly cast out when he dies. The final scene offers a view of just how precarious servants’ fates are. Confronted by the man’s manicured daughters who are evicting her, Husna blurts out: “You are important people, and I’m nothing and my family is nothing. I have to obey.”

Mueenuddin is also a landlord, though he prefers not to think of himself that way. His family’s wealth started in the 18th century with his great-great-great-grandfather, who grew rich as the governor of Kashmir, a territory that is now disputed between India and Pakistan. “I’m not a lanDlïbd,” he said, cringing. “I hope I don’t act that way.”

He argues that he is a farm manager whose business does well because he treats his workers fairly. He pays them $84 a month, triple the going rate, and instituted an American-style annual bonus system for managers. Last year, the most profitable producer on the farm received the equivalent of more than two years’ salary. That is unusual for Pakistan, where landlords rarely delve into the business of their farms in detail and workers are paid around $25 a month.

“These guys don’t understand their own people,” Mueenuddin said of that class. “The hierarchy is so bred into them that they condescend to people.” But the cast of characters is changing, a shift that Mueenuddin’s prose captures. Farm managers, the most powerful servants, have now become part of politics in some places. The two brothers who rule Mueenuddin’s district are sons of a spiritual leader, who was not a wealthy man. But instead of making the system fairer, he says, they have seized their own chance to profit, perpetuating feudalism.

Meanwhile poverty has become more pronounced. Local residents now get only a few hours of electricity daily, down from around six several years ago, and with Pakistan’s exploding population, jobs are ever harder to find. “People are getting more and more desperate,” he said.

In recent years, there has been another shift in society. Mullahs of the fundamentalist Deobandi school have grown powerful in southern Punjab, spreading an aggressive, anti-Shiite, anti-state message during Friday sermons in the religious schools, or madrasas, that have proliferated since the 1980s. The spread has touched Mueenuddin. A religious group was building a mosque on the edge of his property, and one day a young man standing on its roof shouted at him, “The first thing you’ll know is when the bullet hits you in the forehead.” He ordered a wall erected along the property line.

The religious extremists’ view of world is not unlike that of the Utopians in W H  Auden’s Horae Canonicae, Mueenuddin said, whose rigid views of the perfect society, oblique references to Soviet Communism, are just as true today. “I find it scary that extremists in Pakistan are trying to force their rigid prescriptions down our throats,” he said, invoking a comparison with Stalin, who ruthlessly consolidated his power by crushing any dissent.
But is the Pakistani elite in the same position as the Russian aristocracy before the revolution? “It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” Mueenuddin said.