Mueenuddin has put together a collection of stories that offers a less than flattering portrait of Pakistan. But while the social structures that come under his gaze are less than ideal, his writing is top notch, his ability to create memorable and accessible characters is superb. The organizing methodology here is that each of the stories connects with K.K. Harouni, patriarch of a family in a declining landed class. He is almost an innocent, not noticing that his servants are taking extreme, and criminal advantage of him. Were he to say he was “shocked, shocked” to learn that his servants were stealing from him he would be saying it honestly. Yet corruption is ubiquitous in this world.
Who in Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is able to get beyond their gender roles and sclerotic class structure? In Our Lady of Paris, the young, American-educated Sohail tries to do so, in a way, by marrying an American, but her conservative mother puts the kibosh on that. He later marries another American, but once married, she pretty much goes native, so represents an infusion of DNA rather than actual change. In Lily, the character of the title was and remains a spoiled urban child. In A Spoiled Man, the elderly Rezak, who is ultimately content with his place, is abused when, at least in his own mind, he aspires to something more. Women have to sleep with higher-level servants in households in order to get by. But even when they corral a member of a higher class, it ultimately ends badly for them. Corruption is rampant. In Provide, Provide a trusted servant is really a serpent. In A Spoiled Man we learn of a business that the police engage in outside their legal duties. Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is firmly rooted in its feudal past and those who would attempt to become bridges to the future fare poorly.
While the stories here would certainly go a long way to influencing one to cancel any relocation plans, they are tales beautifully told, with engaging, rounded characters. Through their eyes we get to know a bit of what the country is all about. The American, Helen, commenting on her fiancée, Sohail, notes that he is nicer in America, “It is easier to be gentle in a place where there’s order.” As chaos spread like a malignancy in today’s Pakistan, one might expect a dearth of gentility for quite some time to come. But at least one writer is attempting to create some order and beauty from the mess.