In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Hardcover, 256 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $23.95
The following is the opening story from the collection "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders."
He flourished on a signature capability, a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of electric meters, so cunningly done that his customers could specify to the hundred-rupee note the desired monthly savings. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tube wells ran day and night, Nawab's discovery eclipsed the philosopher's stone. Some thought he used magnets, others said heavy oil or porcelain chips or a substance he found in beehives. Skeptics reported that he had a deal with the meter men. In any case, this trick guaranteed his employment, both off and on the farm of his patron, K. K. Harouni.
The farm lay strung along a narrow and pitted farm-to-market road, built in the 1970s when Harouni still had influence in the Lahore bureaucracy. Buff or saline-white desert dragged out between fields of sugarcane and cotton, mango orchards and clover and wheat, soaked daily by the tube wells that Nawabdin Electrician tended. Beginning the rounds on his itinerant mornings, summoned to a broken pump, Nawab and his bicycle bumped along, whippy antennas and plastic flowers swaying. His tools, notably a three-pound ball-and-peen hammer, clanked in a greasy leather bag that hung from the handlebars. The farmhands and the responsible manager waited in the cool of the banyans, planted years ago to shade each of the tube wells. "No tea, no tea," he insisted, waving away the steaming cup.
Hammer dangling like a savage's axe, Nawab entered the oily room housing the pump and electric motor. Silence. He settled on his haunches. The men crowded the door, till he shouted that he must have light. He approached the offending object warily but with his temper rising, circled it, pushed it about a bit, began to take liberties with it, settled in with it, drank tea next to it, and finally began disassembling it. With his screwdriver, blunt and long, lever enough to pry up flagstones, he cracked the shields hiding the machine's penetralia. A screw popped and flew into the shadows. He took the ball-and-peen and delivered a cunning blow. The intervention failed. Pondering, he ordered one of the farmworkers to find a really thick piece of leather and to collect sticky mango sap from a nearby tree. So it went, all day, into the afternoon, Nawab trying one thing and then another, heating the pipes, cooling them, joining wires together, circumventing switches and fuses. And yet somehow, in fulfillment of his genius for crude improvisation, the pumps continued to run.
UNFORTUNATELY OR FORTUNATELY, Nawab had married early in life a sweet woman, whom he adored, but of unsurpassed fertility; and she proceeded to bear him children spaced, if not less than nine months apart, then not that much more. And all daughters, one after another after another, until finally came the looked-for son, leaving Nawab with a complete set of twelve girls, ranging from infant to age eleven, and then one odd piece. If he had been governor of the Punjab, their dowries would have beggared him. For an electrician and mechanic, no matter how light-fingered, there seemed no question of marrying them all off. No moneylender in his right mind would, at any rate of interest whatsoever, advance a sufficient sum to buy the necessary items: for each daughter, beds, a dresser, trunks, electric fans, dishes, six suits of clothes for the groom, six for the bride, perhaps a television, and on and on and on.
Another man might have thrown up his hands—but not Nawabdin. The daughters acted as a spur to his genius, and he looked with satisfaction in the mirror each morning at the face of a warrior going out to do battle. Nawab of course knew that he must proliferate his sources of revenue—the salary he received from K. K. Harouni for tending the tube wells would not even begin to suffice. He set up a little one-room flour mill, run off a condemned electric motor—condemned by him. He tried his hand at fish-farming in a little pond at the edge of one of his master's fields. He bought broken radios, fixed them, and resold them. He did not demur even when asked to fix watches, though that enterprise did spectacularly badly, and in fact earned him more kicks than kudos, for no watch he took apart ever kept time again.
K. K. Harouni rarely went to his farms, but lived mostly in Lahore. Whenever the old man visited, Nawab would place himself night and day at the door leading from the servants' sitting area into the walled grove of ancient banyan trees where the old farmhouse stood. Grizzled, his peculiar aviator glasses bent and smudged, Nawab tended the household machinery, the air conditioners, water heaters, refrigerators, and water pumps, like an engineer tending the boilers on a foundering steamer in an Atlantic gale. By his superhuman efforts he almost managed to maintain K. K. Harouni in the same mechanical cocoon, cooled and bathed and lighted and fed, that the landowner enjoyed in Lahore.
Harouni of course became familiar with this ubiquitous man, who not only accompanied him on his tours of inspection, but morning and night could be found standing on the master bed rewiring the light fixture or in the bathroom poking at the water heater. Finally, one evening at teatime, gauging the psychological moment, Nawab asked if he might say a word. The landowner, who was cheerfully filing his nails in front of a crackling rosewood fire, told him to go ahead.
"Sir, as you know, your lands stretch from here to the Indus, and on these lands are fully seventeen tube wells, and to tend these seventeen tube wells there is but one man, me, your servant. In your service I have earned these gray hairs"—here he bowed his head to show the gray—"and now I cannot fulfill my duties as I should. Enough, sir, enough. I beg you, forgive me my weakness. Better a darkened house and proud hunger within than disgrace in the light of day. Release me, I ask you, I beg you."
The old man, well accustomed to these sorts of speeches, though not usually this florid, filed away at his nails and waited for the breeze to stop.
"What's the matter, Nawabdin?"
"Matter, sir? O what could be the matter in your service. I've eaten your salt for all my years. But sir, on the bicycle now, with my old legs, and with the many injuries I've received when heavy machinery fell on me—I cannot any longer bicycle about like a bridegroom from farm to farm, as I could when I first had the good fortune to enter your employment. I beg you, sir, let me go."
"And what's the solution?" asked Harouni, seeing that they had come to the crux. He didn't particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort—a matter of great interest to him.
"Well, sir, if I had a motorcycle, then I could somehow limp along, at least until I train up some younger man."
The crops that year had been good, Harouni felt expansive in front of the fire, and so, much to the disgust of the farm managers, Nawab received a brand-new motorcycle, a Honda 70. He even managed to extract an allowance for gasoline.
The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him "Uncle," and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing. He could now range further, doing a much wider business. Best of all, now he could spend every night with his wife, who had begged to live not on the farm but near her family in Firoza, where also they could educate at least the two eldest daughters. A long straight road ran from the canal headworks near Firoza all the way to the Indus, through the heart of the K. K. Harouni lands. The road ran on the bed of an old highway, built when these lands lay within a princely state. Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order within a few hours, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless. 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 tube well needed servicing, with his ears almost blown off, he shone with the speed of his arrival.
Nawab's day, viewed from the air, would have appeared as aimless as that of a butterfly—to the senior manager's house in the morning, where he diligently paid his respects, then sent to one or another of the tube wells, kicking up dust on the unpaved field roads, into the town of Firoza, zooming beneath the rosewoods, a bullet of sound, moseying around town, sneaking away to one of his private interests, to cement a deal to distribute ripening early-season honeydews from his cousin's vegetable plot, or to count before hatching his half share in a flock of chickens, then back to Dunyapur, and out again. The maps of these days, superimposed, would have made a tangle; but every morning he emerged from the same place, just as the sun came up, and every evening he returned there, tired now, darkened, switching off the bike, rolling it over the wooden lintel of the door leading into the courtyard, the engine ticking as it cooled. Nawab each evening put the bike on its kickstand, and waited for his girls to come, all of them, around him, jumping on him. His face often at this moment had the same expression, an expression of childish innocent joy, which contrasted strangely and even sadly with the heaviness of his face and its lines and stubble. He would raise his nose and sniff the air, to see if he could find out what his wife had cooked for dinner; and then he went in to her, finding her always in the same posture, making him tea, fanning the fire in the little hearth.
"Hello, my love, my chicken piece," he said tenderly one evening, walking into the dark hut that served as a kitchen, the mud walls black with soot. "What's in the pot for me?" He opened the cauldron, which had been displaced by the kettle onto the beaten-earth floor, and began to search around in it with a wooden spoon.
"Out! Out!" she said, taking the spoon and, dipping it into the curry, giving him a taste. He opened his mouth obediently, like a boy receiving medicine. The wife, despite bearing thirteen children, had a lithe strong body, her vertebrae visible beneath her tight tunic. Her long mannish face still glowed from beneath the skin, giving her a ripe ochre coloring. Even now that her hair had become thin and graying, she wore it in a single long pigtail down to her waist, like a young woman in the village. Although this style didn't suit her, Nawab saw in her still the girl he married twenty years before. He stood in the door, watching his daughters playing hopscotch, and when his wife went past, he stuck out his butt, so that she rubbed against it as she squeezed through.
Nawab ate first, then the girls, and finally his wife. He sat out in the little courtyard, burping and smoking a cigarette, looking up at the crescent moon just coming onto the horizon. I wonder what the moon is made of? he thought, without exerting himself. He remembered listening on the radio when the Americans said they had walked on it. His thoughts wandered off into all sorts of tangents. The dwellers around him in the little hamlet had also finished their dinner, and the smoke from the cow-dung fires hung over the darkening roofs, a harsh spicy smell, like rough tobacco. Nawab's house had all sorts of ingenious contrivances, running water in all three rooms, a duct that brought cool air into the rooms at night, and even a black-and-white television, which his wife covered with a flowered doily that she had herself embroidered. Nawab had constructed a gear mechanism, so that the antenna on the roof could be turned from inside the house to improve reception. The children sat inside watching it, with the volume blaring. His wife came out and sat primly at his feet on the charpoy, a bed made of rope.
"I've got something in my pocket—would you like to know what?" He looked at her with a pouting sort of smile.
"I know this game," she said, reaching up and straightening his glasses on his face. "Why are your glasses always crooked? I think one ear's higher than the other."
"Come on, if you find it you can have it."
Looking to see that the children all had become absorbed in the television, she kneeled next to him and began patting his pockets. "Lower . . . Lower . . ." he said. In the pocket of the greasy vest that he wore under his kurta she found a wrapped-up newspaper holding chunks of raw brown sugar.
"I've got lots more," he said. "Look at that. None of this junk you buy in the bazaar. The Dashtis gave me five kilos for repairing their sugarcane press. I'll sell it tomorrow. Come on, make us some parathas. For all of us? Pretty please?"
"I put out the fire."
"So light it. Or rather, you just sit here, I'll light it."
"You can never light it, I'll end up doing it anyway," she said, getting up.
The smaller children, smelling the ghee cooking on the griddle, crowded around, watching the brown sugar melt, and finally even the older girls came in, though they haughtily stood to one side.
Nawab, squatting and huffing on the fire, gestured to them. "Come on you princesses, none of your tricks. I know you want some."
They began eating, pouring the brown crystallized syrup onto pieces of fried bread, and after a while Nawab went to his motorcycle and pulled from the panniers another hunk of the sugar, challenging the girls to see who would eat most.
One evening a few weeks after his family's little festival of sugar, Nawab was sitting with the watchman who kept the stores at Dunyapur. A banyan planted over the threshing floor only thirty years ago had grown a canopy of forty or fifty feet, and all the men who worked in the stores tended it carefully, watering it with cans. The old watchman sat under this tree, and Nawab and others of the younger generations would sit with him at dusk, teasing him, trying to make his violent temper flare up, and joking around with each other. They would listen to the old man's stories, of the time when only dirt tracks led through these riverine tracts and the tribes stole cattle for sport, and often killed each other while doing it, to add piquancy.
Though spring weather had come, the watchman still burned a fire in a tin pan, to warm his feet and to give a center to the little group that gathered there. The electricity had failed, as it often did, and the full moon climbing the horizon lit the scene indirectly, reflecting off the whitewashed walls, throwing dim shadows around the machinery strewn about, plows and planters, drags, harrows.
"Come on, old man," said Nawab to the watchman, "I'll tie you up and lock you in the stores to make it look like a robbery, and then I'll top off my tank at the gas barrel."
"Nothing in it for me," said the watchman. "Go on, I think I hear your wife calling you."
"I understand, sire, you wish to be alone."
Nawab jumped up and shook the watchman's hand, making a little bow, touching his knee in deference, a running joke; lost on the watchman these last ten years.
"Be careful, boy," said the watchman, standing up and leaning on his bamboo staff, clad in steel at the tip.
Nawab kicked over his motorcycle with a flourish, and in one smooth motion flicked on the lights and shot out the threshing floor gates, onto the quarter-mile drive that led from the heart of the farm. He felt cold and liked it, knowing that at home the room would be baking, the two-bar heater running day and night all winter on pilfered electricity. Turning onto the black main road, he sped up, outrunning the weak headlight, as if he were racing forward in the globe of a moving lantern. Nightjars perching on the road as they hunted moths ricocheted into the dark, almost under his wheel. Nawab locked his arms, fighting the bike as he flew over potholes, enjoying the pace, standing on the pegs, and in low-lying fields where the sugarcane had been heavily watered, mist rose and cool air enveloped him. At the canal he slowed, hearing the water rushing over the locks.
A man stepped from behind one of the pillars, waving a flashlight down at the ground, motioning Nawab to stop.
"Brother," said the man, over the puttering engine, "give me a ride into town. I've got business, and I'm late."
Strange business at this time of night, thought Nawab, the taillight of the motorcycle casting a reddish glow around them on the ground. They were far from any dwellings. A mile away, the little village of Dashtian crouched beside the road—before that nothing. He looked into the man's face.
"Where are you from?" The man looked straight back at him, his face pinched and therefore overstated, but unflinching.
"From Kashmor. Please, you're the first person to come by for over an hour. I've walked all day."
Kashmor, thought Nawab. From the poor country across the river. Each year those tribes came to pick the mangoes at Dunyapur and other nearby farms, working for almost nothing, let go as soon as the harvest thinned. The men would give a feast, a thin feast, at the end of the season, a hundred or more going shares to buy a buffalo. Nawab had been several times, and been treated as if he were honoring them, sitting with them and eating the salty rice flecked with bits of meat.
He grinned at the man, gesturing with his chin to the seat behind him. "All right then, get in back."
Balancing against the dead weight behind him, which made driving along the rutted canal path difficult, Nawab pushed on, under the rosewood trees.
Half a mile down the road, he shouted into Nawab's ear, "Stop!"
"What's wrong?" Nawab couldn't hear over the rushing wind.
The man jabbed something hard into his ribs.
"I've got a gun, I'll shoot you."
Panicked, Nawab skidded to a stop and jumped to one side, pushing the motorcycle away from him, so that it tipped over, knocking the robber to the ground. The carburetor float hung open and the engine raced for a minute, the wheel jerking, till the float chamber drained, and then it sputtered and died.
"What are you doing?" babbled Nawab.
"I'll shoot you if you don't get away," said the robber, on one knee, the gun pointed.
They stood obscured in the sudden woolly dark, next to the fallen motorcycle, which leaked raw-smelling gasoline into the dust underfoot. Water running through the reeds in the canal next to them made soft gulping sounds as it swirled along. When his eyes adjusted Nawab saw the man sucking at a cut on his palm, the gun in his other hand.
When the man went to pick up the bike, Nawab came and touched him on the shoulder.
"I told you, I'll shoot you."
Nawab put his hands together in supplication. "I beg you, I've got little girls, thirteen children. I promise, thirteen. I tried to help you. I'll drive you to Firoza, and I won't tell anyone. Don't take the bike, it's my daily bread. I'm a man like you, poor as you."
Without thinking, Nawab lunged for the gun, but missed.
Dropping the motorcycle, the man stepped back and shot him in the groin.
Nawab fell to the ground, holding the place where it hurt with both hands, entirely surprised, shocked, as if the man had slapped him for no reason.
The man dragged the bike away from the fallen body, stood it up, and straddled it, trying to start it. It had flooded, and not owning a motorcycle, he didn't know what to do. He held the throttle wide open, which made it worse. At the sound of the shot the dogs in Dashtian had begun to bark, the sound fitful in the breeze.
Nawab, lying on the ground, at first thought the man had killed him. The pale moonlit sky tilted back and forth, seen through the branches of a rosewood tree, like a bowl of swaying water. He had fallen with one leg bent under him, and now he straightened it. His hand came away sticky when he felt the wound. "O God, O mother, O God," he moaned, not very loudly, in a singsong voice. He looked at the man with his back turned, vulnerable, kicking wildly at the starter, not six feet away. Nawab couldn't let him get away with this. The bike belonged to him.
He stood up again and stumbled toward the motorcycle, tackled the thief, fell on him, pushing him to the ground. The man rolled over, kicked Nawab, and stood up.
Holding the gun away at arm's length, he fired five more times, one two three four five, with Nawab looking up into his face, unbelieving, seeing the repeated flame in the revolver's mouth. The man had never used weapons, had only fired this unlicensed revolver one time, to try it out when he bought it from a bootlegger. He couldn't bear to point at the body or head, but shot at the groin and legs. The last two bullets missed wildly, throwing up dirt in the road. Again the robber stood the motorcycle up, pushed it twenty feet, panting, and then tried to start it. From Dashtian a torch jogged quickly down the road. Dropping the bike, the man ran into a little stand of reeds by the side of a watercourse.
Nawab lay in the road, not wanting to move. When he first got shot it didn't hurt so much as sting, but now the pain grew worse. The blood felt warm in his pants.
It seemed very peaceful. In the distance, the dogs kept barking, and all around the cicadas called, so many of them that they made a single gentle blended sound. In a mango orchard across the canal some crows began cawing, and he wondered why they were calling at night. Maybe a snake up in the tree, in the nest. Fresh fish from the spring floods of the Indus had just come onto the market, and he kept remembering that he had wanted to buy some for dinner, perhaps the next night. As the pain grew worse he thought of that, the smell of frying fish.
Two men from the village came running up, panting.
"O God, they've killed him. Who is it?"
The other man kneeled down next to the body. "It's Nawab, the electrician, from Dunyapur."
"I'm not dead," said Nawab insistently, without raising his head. "The bastard's right there in those reeds."
One of the men had a single-barreled shotgun. Stepping forward, aiming into the center of the clump, he fired, reloaded, and fired again. Nothing moved among the green leafy stalks, which were head-high and surmounted with feathers of seed.
"He's gone," said the one who sat by Nawab, holding his arm.
The man with the shotgun again loaded and walked carefully forward, holding the gun to his shoulder. Something moved, and he fired. The robber fell forward into the open ground. He called, "Mother, help me," and got up on his knees, holding his hands to his waist. The gunman walked up to him, hit him once in the middle of the back with the butt of the gun, and then threw down the gun and dragged him roughly by his collar onto the road. Raising the bloody shirt, he saw that the robber had taken half a dozen buckshot pellets in the stomach, black angry holes seeping blood in the light of the torch. The robber kept spitting, without any force.
The other villager, who had been watching, started the motorcycle by pushing it down the road with the gear engaged, until the engine came to life. Shouting that he would get some transport, he raced off, and Nawab minded that the man in his hurry shifted without using the clutch.
"Do you want a cigarette, Uncle?" the villager said to Nawab, offering the pack.
Nawab rolled his head back and forth. "Fuck, look at me."
The lights of a pickup materialized at the headworks and bounced wildly down the road. The driver and the other two lifted Nawab and the robber into the back and took them to Firoza, to a little private clinic there, run by a mere pharmacist, who nevertheless kept a huge clientele because of his abrupt and sure manner and his success at healing with the same few medicines the prevalent diseases.
The clinic smelled of disinfectant and of bodily fluids, a heavy sweetish odor. Four beds stood in a room, dimly lit by a fluorescent tube. As they carried him in, Nawab, alert to the point of strain, observed the blood on some rumpled sheets, a rusty blot. The pharmacist, who lived above his clinic, had come down wearing a loincloth and undershirt. He seemed perfectly calm and even cross at having been disturbed.
"Put them on those two beds."
"As-salaam uleikum, Doctor Sahib," said Nawab, who felt as if he were speaking to someone very far away. The pharmacist seemed an immensely grave and important man, and Nawab spoke to him formally.
"What happened, Nawab?"
"He tried to snatch my motorbike, but I didn't let him."
The pharmacist pulled off Nawab's shalvar, got a rag, and washed away the blood, then poked around quite roughly, while Nawab held the sides of the bed and willed himself not to scream. "You'll live," he said. "You're a lucky man. The bullets all went low."
"Did it hit . . ."
The pharmacist dabbed with the rag. "Not even that, thank God."
The robber must have been hit in the lung, for he kept breathing up blood.
"You won't need to bother taking this one to the police," said the pharmacist. "He's a dead man."
"Please," begged the robber, trying to raise himself up. "Have mercy, save me. I'm a human being also."
The pharmacist went into the office next door and wrote out the names of drugs on a pad, sending the two villagers to a dispenser in the next street.
"Tell him it's Nawabdin the electrician. Tell him I'll make sure he gets the money."
Nawab for the first time looked over at the robber. There was blood on his pillow, and he kept snuffling, as if he needed to blow his nose. His thin and very long neck hung crookedly on his shoulder, as if out of joint. He was older than Nawab had thought before, not a boy, dark-skinned, with sunken eyes and protruding yellow smoker's teeth, which showed whenever he twitched for breath.
"I did you wrong," said the robber weakly. "I know that. You don't know my life, just as I don't know yours. Even I don't know what brought me here. Maybe you're a poor man, but I'm much poorer than you. My mother is old and blind, in the slums outside Multan. Make them fix me, ask them to and they'll do it." He began to cry, not wiping the tears, which drew lines on his dark face.
"Go to hell," said Nawab, turning away. "Men like you are good at confessions. My children would have begged in the streets."
The robber lay heaving, moving his fingers by his sides. The pharmacist seemed to have gone away somewhere, leaving them alone.
"They just said that I'm dying. Forgive me for what I did. I was brought up with kicks and slaps and never enough to eat. I've never had anything of my own, no land, no house, no wife, no money, never, nothing. I slept for years on the railway station platform in Multan. My mother's blessing on you. Give me your blessing, don't let me die unforgiven." He began snuffling and coughing even more, and then started hiccupping.
Now the disinfectant smelled strong and good to Nawab. The floor seemed to shine. The world around him expanded.
"Never. I won't forgive you. You had your life, I had mine. At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong. Look at you now, with bubbles of blood stuck in the corner of your mouth. Do you think this isn't a judgment? My wife and children would have begged in the street, and you would have sold my motorbike to pay for six unlucky hands of cards and a few bottles of poison home brew. If you weren't lying here now, you would already be in one of the gambling camps along the river."
The man said, "Please, please, please," more softly each time, and then he stared up at the ceiling. "It's not true," he whispered. After a few minutes he convulsed and died. The pharmacist, who had come in by then and was cleaning Nawab's wounds, did nothing to help him.
Yet Nawab's mind caught at this, looking at the man's words and his death, like a bird hopping around some bright object, meaning to peck at it. And then he didn't. He thought of the motorcycle, saved, and the glory of saving it. He was growing. Six shots, six coins thrown down, six chances, and not one of them killed him, not Nawabdin Electrician.
Excerpted from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Copyright (c) 2009 by Daniyal Mueenuddin. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. Audio of Daniyal Mueenuddin reading provided courtesy of KQED's "The Writers' Block"