Mueenuddin’s linked stories – this has now become a convention in short fiction, but in this one instance the material demands it, for the characters are part of an ancient and elaborate hierarchy – wind their way leisurely through the great
But Mueenuddin’s stories are fascinating not only for what is present in them – the beautifully relaxed, wheeling exposition that recalls the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, the love of the natural world expressed in ripples of memorable language, the dramatisation of the jagged route that human beings take towards understanding themselves and others – but also for what is absent, which is a criticism of the feudal order through which these stories wander. His gaze is curious but uncritical; he sees the world as his characters, who mostly accept the rules of the game, see it; it is as if the world can only be this way. His interest, in fact, is in those individuals who are secretly ambitious in a world where everybody is expected to know their place; his gaze halts upon those who want to rise, and those who can raise.
In the story “Provide, Provide”, Harouni’s elderly and opportunistic estate manager Jaglani, who has long been appropriating his master’s property, takes as his mistress a married woman, Zainab. Zainab gives him whatever he asks for by way of service and bodily pleasure, but stoically, as if performing a duty. When she says she must return to her husband, Jaglani impulsively decides to marry her, although he has a family and children. Shrewdly tracking his thoughts, Mueenuddin tells us that Jaglani feels he is so powerful that “now he deserved to make this mistake, for once not to make a calculated choice”. Jaglani’s marriage brings him pleasure and pain in equal measure; he finds that “although he had made a career of fearing no one”, he fears his wife, and “yet his love kept increasing.” It is only later, when the deed has been done and its consequences have taken hold both in his home and in his mind, that Jaglani begins to regret his actions. Now he cannot even go back to the estate, which he loves, without being reminded of his folly. Here is a paragraph from Mueenuddin:
Yet Dunyapur has been spoiled for him by the presence of Zainab. He minded very much that he had given his sons a stepmother of that class, a servant woman. He minded that he had insulted his first wife in that way, by marrying again, by marrying a servant, and then by keeping the marriage a secret. His senior wife had never reproached him, but after Jaglani told her she quickly became old. She prayed a great deal, spent much of her time in bed, stopped caring for herself. Her body became rounded like a hoop, not fat but fleshed uniformly all over, a body thrown away, throwing itself away, the old woman sitting all day in bed, dreaming, muttering perhaps when left alone. He reproached himself for taking his eldest son’s daughter and giving her to Zainab, transplanting the little girl onto such different stock. Secretly, and most bitterly, he blamed himself for having been so weak as to love a woman who had never loved him. He made an idol of her, lavished himself upon her sexual body, gave himself to a woman who never gave back, except in the most practical terms. She blotted the cleanliness of his life trajectory, which he had always before believed in. She represented the culmination of his ascendance, the reward of his virtue and striving, and showed him how little it had all been, his life and his ambitions. All of it he had thrown away, his manliness and strength, for a pair of legs that grasped his waist and a pair of eyes that pierced him and that yet had at bottom the deadness of foil.
Among the many satisfactions of this passage is the way in which the pleasure of the thought – a kind of Macbethian regret at an expensive dream gone sour – is both paralleled and improved, the two linking hands as prose writing of a high order almost always does, by the acuity of Mueenuddin’s syntax. It is worth thinking about the impact of phrases which effect small, rueful inversions like “how little it had all been, his life and his ambitions” and then, immediately after, the similar, “All of it he had thrown away, his manliness and strength”. And also the sentence: “Her body became rounded like a hoop, not fat but fleshed uniformly all over, a body thrown away, throwing itself away, the old woman sitting all day in bed, dreaming, muttering perhaps when left alone.”
This observation is an example of a very characteristic and striking register of Mueenuddin’s prose, which is a sentence that seems about to close, to expire, until it suddenly takes a new breath and then runs on strongly again, as if it has seen something new late in the day (here the anticipated close might be “a body thrown away”, and the revival “throwing itself away”, which both changes the tense and, through repetition, better indicates the effect of continuous stress this is having on Jaglani’s mind). Her is another example of this kind of sentence, from the story “Lily”: “It wearied her that this memory came now as she turned and stood, appraising Murad’s clothes, loafers with unfortunate tassels, pressed jeans, white shirt tucked in – resembling somehow an army officer out of uniform, the effect touching to her, sincere, a gentleman calling on a lady.”
“Provide, Provide” works itself through to an exceptional conclusion that features neither of the principal characters, thereby greatly enhancing its beauty and strangeness (a strangeness seen again in “Nawabdin Electrician”, a story about a man shot by a thief, and who lies on the road thinking he is going to die, remembering, of all things, “the smell of frying fish”). In his attention to the minds of Zainab and Jaglani, or that of Husna, the impoverished distant relation who, in the title story, infiltrates the household and then the affections of Harouni himself, Mueenuddin serves up a series of masterful character studies set into the massive edifice of Harouni’s world.
In keeping with the need for economic security or love of luxury revealed by so many of his protagonists, Mueenuddin’s writing has a heavy, beguiling materiality. “The hard blue sky stood enormously tall over Paris,” he writes at one point, throwing us right into the scene with that unusual adjective “tall”, which is a tautology – what else could the sky be other than high, or tall? – and is yet expressive, here, a sense of freedom and possibility being experienced by the narrator. Describing Nawabdin’s prowess with tampering with electrical meters, Mueenuddin offers this bouquet of explanations: “Some thought he used magnets, others said heavy oil or porcelain chips or a substance he found in beehives.” When Husna begins to live with KK Harouni, she hoards a secret stash of goods in “two locked steel trunks, which she filled with everything from raw silk to electric sandwich makers.” A couple make love in a small hotel in the French countryside: “The loose bedsprings made long rusty sounds, like a knife leisurely sharpened on a whetstone.”
In Mueenuddin’s hands the material realm often seems to take off, almost become ethereal: “Nawab would fly down this road on his new machine, with bags and cloths hanging from every knob and brace, so that the bike, when he hit a bump, seemed to be flapping numerous small vestigial wings; and with his grinning face, as he rolled up to whichever tubewell needed servicing, with his ears almost blown off, he shone with the speed of his arrival.” It might be said that many of his characters, too, seem to be flapping “small vestigial wings” when they accrue for themselves some precious good. Some works of fiction, by their excellence of craftsmanship, singularity of worldview, and richness and precision of language, announce themselves instantly as classics, and this book of many wonders is one such.