By Daniyal Mueenuddin.
Fellow tiny booksters, like many of you, this book came to me by chance. A timely encounter with a friend. A happy-happenstance! Alright, I may well have oversold it but here’s what happened. I was sat, in an airport cafe after meeting an old friend on his way to get married in Italy. Long after he left with his lovely bride-to-be, he returned after checking in his luggage to for a proper g’bye. He saw me reading A Room With a View, incidentally the book I had intended to feature as our next book-club title. That’s when he asked if I’d ever heard of a book by a Pakistani author who had studied and lived in the States that wrote a book inspired by what I was reading. Whether there is any truth in that I don’t know, but the title is certainly suggestive. Me reading a classic will not come as a surprise to anyone. But my new found interest in BAME writers and writing isn’t something I have discussed. Worry not, there will be a post up discussing that in more detail, but for now, this mention of a minority writer, writer of colour, diverse literary voice or whatever term is politically correct, immediately caught my attention. It’s worth mentioning too that my right honourable friend couldn’t remember the exact title. His hotchpotch of syntagmatic and paradigmatic constructions proved helpful however thanks to search suggestions!
I try to approach each book I read as neutrally as possible. I know, I know, it’s not actually possible to be completely neutral. We all bring meaning and context to what we read, sure, and that’s not a bad thing per se. What I mean is, I try to avoid reading or putting too much stock in reviews or turning googly-eyed over an author (I think I might be in love with a good few…). I just want to take the piece as it is, in its own right first. I guess knowing nothing about this writer, this book, or even the correct title was on one level a plus. On another level, of course, it raises questions of the relative obscurity of BAME voices which again, we’ll tackle in another discussion. It turns out, this book is a collection of short, interconnected stories looking at different people around the wealthy landowning K.K.Harouni family in Pakistan. At this stage, I should tell you that I am assuming they are interconnected. Again, I know, it’s wrong to assume! But I’m going to go with my gut on this one. Also, I felt just one overall discussion on this book wasn’t the way to go. Sure, Once we’ve been through each of the tales there will be a discussion to be had about the collection as a whole. But I want to do this book justice, and from the first few tales, I can safely say that they are each worth dwelling on.
I will continue to update this post with each tale once read rather than use separate posts.
A touching little tale of simplicity, ambition and fate. It’s an interesting thing to see such recognisable traits without being able to put your finger on any one definitive source. What I mean by that is that if you have spent any time in perhaps any South Asian country, community and I’m prepared to go as far as generalising the entire BAME community, I am sure you’ve either met or heard of the number-fiddler! This jack of all trades character, always looking to make a buck for a large family is one we are almost programmed to like. A bit of a Bob Cratchit? Not trying to ruffle any p.c feathers here, as you will have noticed, Old Bobby is White and I am not suggesting fiddling-the-system is exclusively an ethnic minority thing. But in this case, Nawab is part of a particular context and although knowing a similar character is almost universal, knowing a Nawabdin is a little more specific than that.
Anyway, side-stepping that awkwardness, his particular family make-up is also a familiar trope. He has 1 son which in itself is often considered unfortunate but the 12 daughters he had before the sought-after boy in at 13 would be downright unlucky. It’s not so much because they are substandard, but to quote the book, “If he had been governor of the Punjab, their dowries would have beggared him” (p. 2). Perhaps it’s because the narrative is so matter-of-fact or because of Nawab’s own canny and loving attitude, but the reader tend’s to trust he is ultimately happy. Indeed, the reader is lead toward actively making a judgement when the narrator opens with “Unfortunately or fortunately” which is deceptive in its apparent neutrality. Mimicking the thoughts of the protagonist, it seems a road well trodden by Nawab who will have often talked himself round to accepting his unfortunate of fortunate “fate.
His family set up, his attitude and his skills are very important to be aware of because they come rushing to the fore when the twist hits by the end of his opening tale. the moral questioning is also thrust up to the conscious level. What will he do about the burden of his children? Does he deserve to live rather than another fighting his own desperate circumstance? Why? Do not be fooled by the perceived simplicity of the happy-go-lucky Nawabdin Electrician. Once the reader is pushed to acknowledge the moral questions within the story, they are urged to actually attempt to answer them.