Saturday, July 17, 2010

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

*********SPOILER ALERT*********
I'm going to write about the book I read today. This means spoilers. Don't read this post if you don't want to know.

I feel like I should sit down and write a formal English paper with a thesis and backing arguments. It's just what it feels like you should do after reading a book like this.

But I won't.

Let me tell you why I think In Other Rooms, Other Windows is important. As well-written and alive as it is, I think the themes that come to light upon examining the meta-structure of the narrative are an indictment on the (Western, and especially American) reader.

The book begins with stories of the servant classes. The first story, Nawabdin Electrician, describes the robbing of a servant whose creative on-the-side enterprises fall outside the law. He is a father who has a hard time providing for his wife and twelve children. Next, Saleema recounts the life of the "underprivileged" in Pakistan - generations affected by drug abuse, and a girl who appears to step up, only to be dragged backward in the end.

The next two stories tell of the poor who make claims, successful and otherwise, of reaching the upper reaches of society.

The only story narrated in the first person is About a Burning Girl, told by a judge. Amilynne pointed out to me that the judge being in the first person opens the way for interpretation that judgement would be made on the other characters in the book. Additionally, as the judge and his family do not appear to be relations of characters in other stories, they are uniquely qualified to judge the other characters, although a certain level of self-interest (although not really corruption) is present in that the judge's wife is very attached to her servant and does not want to see him punished for murder. That the only "I" of the whole book is a judge, though, makes the judge the only character to interact directly with the reader, and opens up the possibility of the reader being judged by him (or by the book) as well.

The reader should take this as a warning, but foolishly continues along, enjoying one more story of a servant who tries to find happiness beyond her station.

And then the book shifts gears, and Our Lady of Paris, the story of Sohail and his American girlfriend Helen unfolds not in Pakistan, but in Paris. In Our Lady of Paris, Sohail's mother, who believes firmly that Helen and Sohail have cultural incompatibilities that would make for a miserable marriage, masterfully breaks them up.

Then comes the emotional tour-de-force. Lily is told in two parts, each as long or longer than the other stories in the novel. The first half is an exhilarating account of a party girl (educated in the West) who, after a serious car crash, believes she has a chance at a clean slate. She falls in love with the most manly (also Western-educated) man (who takes her on a romantic picnic in his manly jeep, carrying his manly pistol and binoculars, takes a manly swim in a dangerous river, and then quotes her poetry in a manly way - remind you of someone else you may have seen recently?)

Yeah. So at any rate, in the first half of the story, they fall in true love and get married. And I am not a girl who likes chick lit, but let me tell you, I about had an estrogen overload by the time we hit the mid point. And, not knowing that this was a story in two parts, and knowing the average length of the stories leading up to this one, I was actually ready for this story to end happily ever after and mark a sea change in the direction these narratives had been heading.

I was so naïve, and so ripe for an emotional devastation. Maybe I have been watching too much of the Old Spice channel on youtube. Let me tell you, I think that Mueenuddin, as author, judge, and executioner, had me right where he wanted me.

Of course the party girl resents her newly antiseptic married life. Of course she wants to party it up with her pals from her wild single days. And of course she has meaningless sex with the first party guy to walk in.

But that's not all. She then goes and reads what her new husband (who in normal life seems a little less manly and a little more boring) wrote in the journal he showed her but asked her never to read.

And *BLAM*! There go some more lives down the toilet.

Pearls Before Swine

Yeah. That's the American version of lives down the toilet. Let me remind you that even though both Lily and her new husband had lived in the West, their marriage fell apart in Pakistan. No Vegas.

I had to put the book down. My reaction was visceral - as described in my previous post on the book. I had to go away for a couple of hours because I could not face whatever would come next.

And it ended with the story of another low person raised up to be a servant. But this time, he was not a trickster. He had chosen to beg in order to be free of the infighting and bullying he had been subjected to by his stepbrothers. He had left behind disappointment and was living life on his own terms. He expected nothing, lived simply, and had only a box of a shack that he moved from place to place. This story also has an American - Sonya, who had eventually married Sohail from the story of Helen in Paris. Sonya is well suited for life in Pakistan, although that does not make it easy. She is disturbed by the everyday corruption that she sees everywhere, and she has to escape to her own little world from time to time when it becomes too much. There is never a real explanation, though, of why Sonya was better for Sohail than Helen would have been.

At any rate, Sonya the American winds up giving Rezak the former independent a position as a servant, and she pays pretty well too. And this ruins Rezak's life.

The end.

So at this point, we are only left to ask why: Why these stories? Why these characters? Why in this order?

And at least for me, I had a bit of a light bulb go off.

I loved reading the stories at the beginning. In my mind, the characters were caricatures of foreign people doing foreign things. I got to see a big feudal farm and how the people attached to it survived. Some got shot, others slept their way to a position, but they were people I didn't have much in common with, interesting, and subjects of some good stories, but that's that.

But the more western these characters became, the more I felt what they felt. I could see myself in the Loire valley. I could sympathize with the westernized party girl who wanted to reform herself but found habits stronger than will. These are characters I've met before - characters I am trained to understand.

But then, when I feel the most attached, one more foreign protagonist appears. My life is nothing like Rezak's, although I do like to avoid conflict. But I do not understand living in a box - in fact, I am peering in, much like the people at the party who make a little trip to see the box. How am I going to experience his story?

Most naturally, from eyes like Sonya's. Which means that I did not feel sick after reading Rezak's story, even though I recognized the tragedy in it.

What Mueenuddin appears to be saying is that no matter how sympathetic we may feel we are to another person or group - no matter how many experiences we share or cultural practices we adopt - we are still judging and judged as outsiders. We still respond most sympathetically to people who are like us. We still see people unlike us as a "wonder" - or an other - in another room. Even the use of the word "other" in the title signals us to the realities of cross-cultural relations in a multi-caste world.

And in vein with the tone of the stories, there is not much hope for any one group to dissolve the barriers and see the lives of the people surrounding them. Much more impossible, and here is the book's inherent paradox, is understanding the lives of anyone half a world away, especially through a story. We are left with metaphors and empathetic feelings, but we will always, always, see the world through our own culture and experiences. And I just don't know exactly what to make of that.


Izzybella said...

This sounds amazing-I need to pick it up. It is a really interesting paradox and it's something we spent an inordinate amount of time on every single one of the social work classes I took. You bring up race and most of the students (I'm including myself here) are in a hurry to prove how racist they *aren't*. You get equality, melting pot, blah-blah. And then you get another argument that the concept of the melting pot is a horrible concept that doesn't allow for celebration of individual cultures and the identities formed from them.

Just, wow! What a unique way to play with those belief systems and bugger the read up. I kind of like it when a book makes me think about it for days and days after.

Melissa said...

Yeah, Amilynne is going to do a project on this one for her grad class this semester. I can't wait to see what she drums up.