Daniyal Mueenuddin: The-nee-yaal Moo-ee-noo-deen
Daniyal Mueenuddin talks about his life and his first collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.
For many years I have run a farm in Pakistan's southern Punjab. Most of the
stories in this book have their origins in my experiences there, and many were
written there. Half-Pakistani and half-American, I have spent equal amounts of
time in each country, and so, knowing both cultures well and belonging to both,
I equally belong to neither, look at both with an outsider's eye. These stories
are written from that place in between, written to help both me and my reader
bridge the gap.
My father was a graduate of Oxford, a member first of the Indian and then after Partition of the Pakistani civil service and, most fundamentally, a land owner of the old Punjabi feudal class. My American mother, a reporter with the Washington Post, met my father in Washington, where he was negotiating a treaty. She was twenty seven years younger than him. They married and soon after in 1960 moved back to Pakistan.
We lived in Lahore, where I attended the American School until I was thirteen, my classmates the children of westernized Pakistanis or of the few foreigners pursuing their oblique lives in this marginal place. My family spent most vacations on the farm that I now manage, where I ran free day and night with the children of the village, was in and out of their houses, ate with them, explored with them, swam with them. In Lahore I was closer to the old servant who brought me up than to anyone else thirty years after his death I still wear the bracelet he gave me when I went off to school in America. Because I was a child, the servants and the villagers were not guarded against me, unaware that I was watching; and therefore I learned the rhythms and details of their lives in a way that I never could as a grownup. I heard the women in the village calling to each other over their common walls, walked out with the boys when they took their buffaloes to be watered at the canal. These people, their gestures and intonations as I observed them in my childhood, appear throughout the stories in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.
At thirteen I was packed off to boarding school in Massachusetts. Five years of full-dress dinners, Latin grammar, lacrosse, and daily chapel, lacquered me to a glossy Boston-Episcopalian sheen, so that by the time I arrived at Dartmouth College I more or less passed as an American. There I wrote poetry, protested against apartheid, sweated it out in the library stacks and popped out after four years with a degree in English literature, a debased currency. My aging father had been sending increasingly pressing letters, telling me I must return to Pakistan and take care of the family property, and so, after reflection, I complied.
My father, just turned eighty, had suffered a long series of heart-attacks. As his illness progressed, for years he had been losing control of his lands to the managers, who sent less and less money to Lahore each quarter, as they became increasingly confident that he could no longer visit the farm. In his calm and perfectly rational manner, my father explained to me soon after I returned that, if I wanted the land, I would have to go fight for it that otherwise it would be lost.
On arrival at the farm I went through the books with the accountants, walked the lands, met with revenue officials, trying to get some sense of what we owned, what we produced, what we spent. The place was a total disaster. There were no maps, no deeds, no titles. The accountants had wound the books into an impenetrable ball. The managers were all from the same extended family, and were unified against me. I returned to Lahore five weeks later, shell-shocked, hungry for company, but hardened, sunburned, and at least now aware of the scale of the problem. I decided to stay and fight it out.
For the next seven years I lived more or less uninterruptedly at the farm. It was a tense and yet intensely happy time, long days walking across the lands, or sitting in hot rooms poring over ledgers and then, against that, the early mornings, when I wrote poetry, looking out from the window of my study to the garden my mother had planted. In the evening I wrote letters and read endlessly, ordering crates of books from Blackwells in Oxford, who had supplied my mother's books in the nineteen sixties.
My father died soon after my return from college, and I lost his backing, the influence he still had wielded but I stayed afloat. Gradually I learned about the crops, about selling and buying, about fertilizer, diesel engines, the qualities of soil, the depths and shallows of the local politics, the depravity of the police. I learned to be a hard negotiator, to manage the farm rigorously, to form alliances, to deflect threats. These were very different lessons than the ones I learned as a child, much harder lessons, and equally valuable to the stories that I would be writing.
By the sixth year, I felt I had to get away and spend time in the West again. I applied to law school, got in to Yale, and spent three lively years there, my concerns far removed from Pakistan. After graduation I took a job at one of the large New York law firms.
Sitting in my office on the forty second floor of a black skyscraper in Manhattan, looking out over the East river, I gradually developed confidence in the stories I had lived through during those years on the farm. I realized that I was in a unique position to write these stories for a Western audience stories about the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities. I resigned from the law firm, returned to Pakistan, and began writing the stories that make up this book.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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