LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The writer we'll meet next straddles two worlds. His mother is American, his father is Pakistani. He grew up mostly in Pakistan, with frequent visits to his mother's family in Wisconsin. A graduate of Dartmouth and Yale Law School, he now runs his father's family farm in Pakistan's southern Punjab region. It's a rich source for his writing. In his new book, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders," Daniyal Mueenuddin creates a vivid picture of Pakistan through a series of interwoven stories. NPR's Lynn Neary has this profile of the author.
LYNN NEARY: Daniyal Mueenuddin sees himself as something of a translator, interpreting life in a remote part of Pakistan for a Western audience. Mueenuddin says he lives between those two cultures, but is not really part of either.
Mr. DANIYAL MUEENUDDIN (Author): In both cases, either in the West or in Pakistan, people always view me as being somebody slightly from the outside. And I think I view myself as being sort of from the outside. And that's something that's both - can be aggravating and painful, and also can be quite liberating and fun.
NEARY: Mueenuddin may feel like an outsider, but he writes like an insider. Set mostly in rural Punjab and the city of Lahore, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" re-creates a world that few Westerners have experienced firsthand.
The stories, which take place over several decades, explore the lives of both rich and poor under Pakistan's rigid ,feudal class structure. Whether writing about the lowliest servant girl or a privileged beauty, an ambitious politician or a clever electrician, one senses that these are people Mueenuddin understands well.
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: I know them very well. You know, I played in their houses when I was little. And now, I go to their houses when they're sick or when somebody dies or when they get married, and so I know them in that way. And also I've, you know, done business with them, and I think that doing business with somebody is a very intimate act. So that's also important. I've hired them and fired them and sold to them and bought from them. When you're doing business with somebody, you need to look at the world through their eyes.
NEARY: Mueenuddin moved to his family's farm in the Punjab right after graduating from college. After a stint back in America attending law school and then working for a firm in New York, he moved back there again, and has settled into a routine that allows him to do the two things he loves best: farming and writing.
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: So that I wake up in the morning and sort of meet my managers and then write until lunch. And then after lunch, I farm, you know, which means a lot of the time, unfortunately, looking at accounts books and going through budgets and so on, which is very dull. And then as much often as I can, I sneak off and go walk around the fields and look at various projects that are under way.
NEARY: Listen in on conversations?
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: Listen in on conversations, exactly, and meet all these peculiar characters. Of course, I mean, especially since I've become more and more conscious of being a fiction writer, there's always this other, little figure seated on my shoulder as I'm having a business conversation with some completely wacky person who I know is completely trying to rip me off in some fabulous and hilarious way. There's always this little figure who's sitting on my shoulder, saying, calm down, calm down. It doesn't matter what happens because this is going to be in your book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Each story in the book is a snippet from a character's life, a moment in time that defines them or changes them forever. In the opening story, Mueenuddin's portrayal of the crafty electrician who spends his days tooling around his landlord's estate on a motorcycle is so vivid that it's easy to think, I know someone like that, even though he lives in a world thousands of miles and light years away from contemporary America.
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: (Reading) Navad(ph) 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.
NEARY: Every character in the book is linked in some way to the wealthy landowner K.K. Harouni. The wealthy are related to him, the poor dependent on him. Servants are there to take care of him, and he's only vaguely aware of their tragedies and joys as they live out their lives in the other rooms on his land and in his homes. Mueenuddin says he had already started writing the stories when he realized that Harouni could provide the unifying element.
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: When I was writing the stories, I was quite consciously trying to create a sort of a picture of the whole society, from the lowest to the highest. But as I went to put them together, I realized that this one figure sort of ran through a number of the stories, and that by doing a little tinkering, I could make him the central line tying them together.
NEARY: So interesting that for some of the people, he is such an important part of their life. And when he's gone, their lives are really…
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: Yeah, ruined.
NEARY: …ruined. What does a character like that mean to those people?
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: Well, I mean, you know, your feudal patron is your patron, and he is the source of all good things, and also the source of all bad things. But especially, the feudal patron is the man who protects you. And it's by - your adherence to him is your, sort of, capital. So when he dies, you're nobody because you have no protector.
NEARY: In this strict hierarchy, no one is lower than the women. And in story after story, women, both rich and poor, use sex to manipulate men in order to get their way, change their lives, find some happiness. Time and again, the tactic fails, and they're left worse off than before. In fact, many of the stories end in tragedy. But somehow, the overall effect is more fascinating than depressing, which Mueenuddin explains this way.
Mr. MUEENUDDIN: The movement of the stories is always towards affirmation in some way, I mean, just by describing the life force of the characters. If you make it vivid enough, it's affirmative, even if there may be tragedies within it. I mean, life itself - real life is affirmative always. Life affirms because life goes on.
NEARY: Mueenuddin also manages his mother's family farm, which he rents out to the Amish. And he's already started writing stories about life in Wisconsin. It may not be the Punjab, but he says he feels intimately connected to the people there as well.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
WERTHEIMER: We just heard Daniyal Mueenuddin read from his book's opening story about a crafty electrician. If you want to hear the whole story, it's at our Web site, npr.org.
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