I bought this book for Long Suffering Sister on Eid and recently she handed it back to me to read. I asked her what she thought and she thought it should be one I read myself and come to my own conclusions as she was undecided.
Having read the book, I can understand why. In Other Rooms Other Wonders is a series of eight interlinked short stories set in Pakistan. Each vignette showcases different aspects of Pakistan through a variety of different people – the rich feudal lord, his family, his poorer relations, his scheming servants, the poor that work his land. The stories are set in rural Punjab, Islamabad, old Lahore, the mountains of North Pakistan and Paris.
These stories aim to blow the cover on the realities of people's lives in Pakistan - the hard drinking, spoilt, not very bright but very self-congratulating elite classes of Pakistan, the ordinary man stealing everything he can from electricity to sugar to survive, the brutal, corrupt politicians who seem to be the devil incarnate with a sympathetic smile and the various women, whether rich, poor, respected or loathed, but always unhappy.
My first reaction to these stories was "No way! This is not the Pakistan I know", but on reflection I had to admit, I didn't know Pakistan as well as I pretend to. I know my family in Jhelum, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi, or what they choose to let me see of themselves, but what happens behind closed doors when no-one is looking? I know of the conservative attitudes and lifestyles of the people I have met, but again only what they choose to make apparent - who knows what people really think and believe.
On the other hand, I found it hard to believe that life really could be as miserable and brutal as these stories seem to suggest. I can believe it might be for many people, but for absolutely everyone? These stories don't spare anyone, no one is happy and very few seem to have many redeeming qualities - certainly not if they have any money. This book belied to beautiful country I know - the upbeat "zinda-dil" (lively-hearted) people of Lahore (yes including the poor) who love their food and festivals and jumping into their beloved nair (river) on a hot day with no air-con in sight. It certainly was a million miles from the my family and the lives they live. At the same time I cannot be dismissive of these stories as so many details ring true. One explanation that came to mind was that my family are from North Punjab which is more affluent and no longer has a feudal system and these stories are based in the poorer South Punjab where the feudal system is still strong. The same thoughts crossed my mind when I read Age of Innocence by Moni Mohsin (my review here) and In the Name of Honour by Mukhtaran Mai (my review here), both which were based in South Punjab.
Once I got past my initial scepticism, I found the stories interesting and engaging. Each story is beautifully written and flows along at a pace that means you don’t get bored. With many of the stories, the flawed, damaged characters captivated me and I did not want to leave them behind, worrying about what would happen to them next. The writing also evokes so many places so effectively - they dusty old haveli or manor house in the countryside, the luxurious town house, the streets of Paris and the tiny little wooden hut with fairy lights and pictures of Pathan actresses a servant constructs for himself.
Despite the beauty of the writing, the book does not stint when it comes to describing the common brutality of people - the cook who uses the servant girl and then humiliates her when he gets bored, the thief who tries to rob a man only to be shot and die begging for help, the poor old man who reports his young wife missing and is beaten by bored police men who can't be bothered to investigate and accuse him of pimping her out.
The last story above had a reference that not everyone will understand:
The big man brandished what looked like the sole of an enormous shoe, with writing on one side in thick, black script. “see what this says? It says “sweetheart where did you sleep last night?” Understand?”
I thought this referred to the famous line from an old song - "aaja morey balama, tera intazar hai" or "come my beloved, it is you I wait for". This relates to an urban myth (or maybe it is true) about policemen having this written on their truncheons. There are not too many of these kinds of references, but I can imagine this would have been lost on many non-Pakistani readers.
This is a well-written, engaging, thought-provoking book. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted or those who wish to remain sentimental about Pakistan and certainly not a light-hearted or upbeat read. I would say that this is worth the effort for the glimpse into a world that most of us never get any insight into.