The title story of this exceptional collection is the only one directly concerned with the presiding figure of K. K. Harouni, a wealthy Pakistani patriarch. In each of the others, a drama quietly unfolds among his extended family and dependents. In ‘Nawabdin Electrician’, Harouni’s Mr Fixit is attacked by a robber while driving his new motorcycle home to his wife and 12 daughters. ‘Saleema’ and ‘Provide, Provide’ describe girls giving themselves to employees. Saleema loses the protection of Rafik, the valet, when he is moved to a different house after his master’s death. ‘Within two years she was finished, began using rocket pills, went on to heroin . . .’ For Zainab, neither marriage nor love helps. Her husband is Jaglani, Harouni’s ‘formidable’ but corrupt manager. When he dies, she is walked ‘back through the gates of the compound and out into the busy street’: for there is a first wife, and grown up children. ‘And they didn’t even offer me a cup of tea’, she says.
It is not K.K. Harouni but another abandoned woman who occupies the centre of the title story. Husna is a poor, distant cousin, who cares for Harouni in his old age, only to be cast out by the brassy daughters who swoop in after their father’s death. As Sarwat dismisses Husna, she adds, ‘They tell me you have a number of trunks in your room. I will not ask what you have in them. You may take those with you. But nothing else.’ Collapsing in the annex, Husna reflects,
At the end their estrangements were less than their contempt for her. They had closed up against her, family, blood. She tried to tell herself that she had gone to the sisters hoping for nothing, with nothing in her heart but sadness at the death of their father, who had loved her.
It is beautifully related in simple, direct language which often achieves its effect by its absences. A dazzling instance of this is the title itself, which doesn’t appear as a phrase anywhere in the story and thereby alerts the reader to other, untold stories.
‘Our Lady Of Paris’ takes place in France, where Harouni’s nephew, Sohail, spends Christmas with Helen, his girlfriend from Yale. The difficulty here is not that love will be violently sundered by forces beyond the protagonists’ control, for they appear rich and free enough to do anything. Their love is touchingly evoked, but it remains doubtful whether Helen could manage in Pakistan. This East-West culture divide also looks set to make permanent damage between the rich but promising couple in ‘Lily’. The collection finishes with the Chekhovian ‘A Spoiled Man’. It is exquisite, not least for the delicate answer it provides to a question left carefully open in an earlier story.
Since the simplicity of these stories is of course supremely artful, it is surprising to find a chunk of James Merrill lumbering in the middle. Yet, quoted by the only character who might plausibly have it by heart (Sohail), it does not jar because its closing couplet (‘…the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent’) is profoundly reflected in the tensions between love, events, pain and necessity revealed in this wonderful book. Mueenuddin has sophisticated language and a powerful range of cultural references at his disposal, and a rare sensibility.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 16, 2009Tags: Fiction