Daniyal Mueenuddin

Stranded gentry

Daniyal Mueenuddin lives and works on a farm in Punjab, and it’s done wonders for his writing. While headlines warn of Pakistan’s imminent implosion, Mueenuddin, the son of a Pakistani father and American mother, has carved out an idyllic life for himself, writing in the mornings and overseeing the planting and harvesting of mangoes, sugarcane, wheat, and cotton in the afternoons. I met Mueenuddin at the Pink Pony Café in Manhattan. He was in America for a book tour, having just published In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a collection of interconnected stories about the waning fortunes of the landed gentry in Pakistan and the dreams, fortunes, sex lives, and crimes of their maids, servants, and farmers. Mueenuddin told me that he quite consciously created a kind of Pakistani parallel to Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi landscape. But listening to him talk about the farm and the workers and the soap opera shenanigans that go on, and how they’re connected to the political ruling class, I kept thinking of Levin, the philosopher farmer of Anna Karenina, who was something of a self-portrait of Tolstoy. As it turns out, Mueenuddin has thought even more about Levin. As he told me, “I’m living his life.”

Elizabeth Rubin: So, did you grow up on the farm?

Daniyal Mueenuddin: No, we grew up in Lahore. We used to go there a lot, and it’s a long way from Lahore. That was one of our big things, my brother and I. It was so lovely. We’d get on the train in the night, and in the morning you’re there. And we’d ride and hunt — it’s a rustler’s paradise. And then I went to prep school. [Laughs] My parents split up. I went to the States for school, went to college here, and then I went back to Pakistan. And that was when my dad said, “You remember Mueenabad?” Of course, I remembered! It’s named after his father, who settled it. Basically, the managers had taken over the farm, and my father was very old — he was about thirty years older than my mother — so he couldn’t pay attention to it, anyway. He was old-school, you know, English-trained, and he trusted everybody. He really believed everybody was decent and good.

ER: And they took advantage of him?

DM: Just screwed him from top to bottom. Especially after he went out of government, they were less afraid of him. But in any case, I had to go back there and take these guys on. It was very stressful. To give you an idea how much land they stole, the son of the head manager actually has more land now than I do. My brother once said to him, “Where is this land of yours I hear so much about?” This was after I fired him. And he said, “You know, sahib, think of it this way: wherever you have land, I have land.” So brazen! Well, it took me five years to fire these guys — they were much too powerful to be crossed right away. I had no power at all, I was just an owner… they used to make me dance like a monkey, you know? They thought it was hilarious. “Hey, let’s see if we can make the white boy believe this!” I’m sure they got a lot of amusement out of me. I’d be wearing the little pink hat and — what else do you make the monkey wear? That little drum? I like to think that I got my revenge ultimately, but it took a while.

ER: How’d you get revenge?

DM: By firing them all.

ER: Wait, let’s go back. Your father calls you and says…

DM: Well, I came back from college and my father said, “What are your plans?” and I said, “I want to be a poet.” And he said, “Well, that’s very nice.” But he didn’t think much of that as a career option, and he suggested that if I wanted to have this land, I had to live there and take it over and run it myself. And it was reaching crisis proportions. These guys were basically not sending any money. The sicker he got, the more independent they became. And they were perfectly convinced that my brother and I would never come back — I mean, we were both half-American, living in America, my mother had a farm here in Wisconsin, we were living in New York. “Those guys are never coming back, forget about it.” So they declared independence.

ER: And so you walked in, this half-American, and started firing the locals?

DM: Yeah, but as I say, it took a long time. The head manager had actually become a member of the provincial assembly. This guy was horrible. I couldn’t just walk in and say, “You’re fired, you’re fired.” I didn’t know anything about farming, and this was an ongoing operation, I had to keep it running. So, in the beginning, I just played the silly bugger: “Hi guys! I know how much you love me, yeah, I’m glad to be back too, terrific. Say, how does this thing work?” And they’d say, “Auugh, little boy, don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it, just stay at home and smoke dope and do whatever it is you want to do. Can we offer you some alcohol?”

ER: Did you have a mentor that you could trust?

DM: No. In the beginning, there was no one. But you start figuring out the personalities. The first significant move I made was when the mawlawi from the village told me I’d better start learning to say my prayers. So he’d come in the morning to teach me, and at some point I realized that this guy — very stupid — had a sort of crude loyalty. So I said to the managers, “Hey, why don’t you take the mawlawi, he doesn’t have enough to do anyway, why don’t you teach him to do the accounts?” And these guys went, “Him? The accounts?” I think they thought he was so stupid, it’d be no problem.

ER: That they could cheat you —

DM: Through him, yeah. There were two other accountants. After about six months, I called the mawlawi and said, “What’s going on, are you learning?” He said, “Those guys won’t even let me pick up a pencil, they won’t let me near the books.” The funny thing is that he’s now running the farm for me. He’s the head manager. He’s really good — as stupid as ever, but completely loyal.

ER: There is a character in your stories, Harouni the landowner, who sort of ties everything together. Does he exist? Is he based on you or your father?

DM: People have said that he’s based on my father, and there’s some truth to that, but I think that my father was quite different. I mean, Harouni is a fairly supine character, whereas my father was quite active. Harouni is hidebound; my father was much quirkier. He was a very liberal-minded person. He had gone to Oxford in 1928, in the old days. So my father was like a friend. I could laugh with him about girlfriends, and every evening we had a drink together. I got to know him very well then.

ER: Where’d you go to boarding school?

DM: Groton. I’m a Grotty. Isn’t that horrible?

ER: Did you like it?

DM: Hated it. I came from Pakistan and didn’t know anything about anything in that world, wore all the wrong clothes. And these guys were from Brookline, Massachusetts, from this feeder school. So they’d all been together and knew each other, knew all the slang, all the music. My Uncle Lionel, who was a darling person, was Chinese — he wasn’t really a relative — and he didn’t have a lot of understanding about what the latest trends in fashion were for thirteen-year-olds. He took my brother and I shopping for our trousseau for boarding school — my brother went to St. Paul’s and I went to Groton. I think this was the summer when they made that Great Gatsby with Robert Redford, and there was this white polyester ice-cream suit with the vest, and I looked at it like, “I really want that.” And Uncle Lionel was like, “Are you sure?” Uncle Lionel thought thirteen-year-olds should have their way. So I got it. It was polyester, white, three-piece, with flairs.

ER: Oh, my God.

DM: Exactly. And the first parents’ weekend, my mother came up, and I put on my three-piece ice-cream suit, and we go to chapel. And I hear [sharp intake of breath] and titter, titter. And we’re about halfway up the aisle, and I realize, “This isn’t good.” So I had a very — it was difficult. I was confused. I didn’t love it, did very badly, didn’t study at all.

ER: But you got into Dartmouth anyway.

DM: I know. When I said I wanted to go to Dartmouth, the counselor said, “I think you should be realistic.” But my mother was very smart, she said, “You want to go to Dartmouth, you’re not going to get in on your grades ’cause you’ve got Cs, so you’re going to have to write one hell of an essay.” So she basically locked me up for all of Christmas vacation, and I literally spent three weeks writing my application essay. And she didn’t help me with it, but she kept saying, “Look, it’s not good enough.” I seriously think she’s the only reason I got into Dartmouth. That and my ethnic thing. That always helps, being from Pakistan. In those days, there were fewer of us. Now they’re beating them off at the doors before they can scramble in through the windows.

ER: In your stories there’s often a dispute between the workers on the farm. Sometimes it’s the heart of the story, sometimes it’s just part of the ambience of daily life. Do your workers try to pull you in to solve their disputes on your farm in Mueenabad?

DM: Yeah, they definitely do. What happens is that forty or fifty guys will troop into my living room and start moaning and groaning and shouting at each other and throwing their shoes, and you’ll tell them to be quiet. The first few times this happened, I sort of had this view of myself as a judge. I sat there, you know, rubbing my chin. At the end of it, I said, “I’ve heard both sides, now I will give you my decision.” And they all looked at me like, “Decision? Who the fuck asked you for a decision?”

ER: Then what were they doing there?

DM: The point is that it’s a forum, a place where these guys can thrash it out, and then finally in the middle of the pushing and shoving they come to some sort of agreement. Your role is to induce, cajole, threaten, laugh, and so on. But then at the end of it, they’ve reached the agreement under your auspices. So if one or the other side refuses to act according to what’s been agreed, you have to be the one who steps in with the big stick to enforce it. And, of course, I don’t have the big stick. But I have buddies, or people who for one reason or another I’ve spent time with, who do this sort of thing. They are politicians, and they take this very seriously — if the decision was “made” by them, they enforce it. For the politicians, these kinds of things are useful, because by settling cases they increase their power. That’s one of the things you do, you settle a case and people say, “So-and-so is so powerful that he can settle cases. Did you hear, he settled that case, let’s go to him.” And that’s how you get votes. So this is all part of the business of getting votes.

ER: So, are many of your stories drawn from life, as it were? I was reading “About a Burning Girl” and wondered about the inspiration for the story.

DM: My mother’s old cook had a favorite son who worked for a judge. One day the old man came to me and told me that the son had been thrown in jail for murdering his wife, setting her on fire. I asked the two other sons who had been present the night of the murder to come see me and interviewed them about it. Their stories made no sense. I immediately sensed a story lurking there, with its tail coiled around itself.

ER: It’s the only story told in the first person in the book. And you lay bare right at the beginning that the narrator, the judge, is extremely pragmatic — rather than, say, moral or political — in his approach to the law.

DM: In my teens I had met a judge, a distant relation, who came a number of times to see my father for help with a posting or whatever. Thinking over the story of the burnt girl, I thought he would be the perfect character to tell it. And I had been toying with the idea of writing a story in the first person, in order to develop a new set of muscles. I wrote the story in Oslo on a Fulbright, and that fall I was full of manic energy, very isolated — it’s impossible to get to know Norwegians — very focused, feeling that my career as a writer lay in the balance. I’d finished my MFA, I’d spent a year at the farm, writing, and I was feeling that that make-or-break time had come. I think a lot of that urgency comes out in the story, and a sort of amused view of the world that reflected my distance from my surroundings. As for the judge’s attitude to the law — the judge in my story is rather flatteringly portrayed, compared to the ones that haunt Pakistan’s courts. Laying his pragmatism bare at the start got rid of the question, What will this gentleman do? It would be ludicrous to suggest that a judge of the Lahore High Court would feel any twangs of conscience or would refer to any internalized moral code.

ER: Do people around the farm see you as one of them? Or do they view you as an outsider?

DM: Well, I think initially, there was a barrier for me. Now they just think, “He looks a little funny,” but initially it was, “Who is this guy and where does he come from?” I think still they’re quite puzzled by us. My brother lived in Mueenabad for several years with his blond American wife. And he’s much less — I try to be quite conventional, but he’s driving around in an open-top Land Rover with his two Labradors, his blond wife, two blond kids, and a bottle of wine in one hand. Although, my brother is darker-skinned and has sort of smoldering Indian film-star looks, and can pass for Pakistani, whereas I am always the American son. In any case, they’ve seen a lot of us, and they think we’re weird and we don’t behave the way we’re supposed to. And my wife has a habit of hopping on her horse and galloping up and down the countryside…

ER: But no problems?

DM: Not so far. Not that we know of. Maybe they’re just planning it.

ER: Do you feel like you’ve developed any solid friendships there on the farm?

DM: Very much. We’re really tied in closely. A lot of the people that work on the farm, I’ve known since they were kids. And we’ve made a decision that’s partly altruistic and partly good business, which is we pay roughly three times the going wage. And as a result we get much better people. Our farm runs very well, and we give them health care. When people get sick, we pay for them. Depending on where they stand, the worse off they are, the larger the percentage we pay. We give them loans so they don’t have to go to the moneylenders. So they think we’re weird and don’t understand, because most landlords are sucking the blood of the peasants, they really are, and they think we’re soft in the head. But it means there’s a very warm feeling around the farm, which is very nice. And, you know, they take advantage of me. But I’m very strict about the business side of it. If I catch anyone being corrupt, I fire them, no exceptions, no matter who you are.

ER: That happens?

DM: Yeah. You know, you’re just going through the books and it’s just obvious that something’s been cooked. You fire them, and they come to you, and you’ve known them a long time, and they bring their wife and the kids and they’re pulling at your feet, and it’s like, “I told you before: you know the rules, no exceptions.” It’s horrible. It’s really grim, but I’m absolutely inflexible on it. I pay very well, you know, I give them what they need. If I let them screw me, what message do I send to the next person?

ER: And what do they think of your writing? Do they know of it?

DM: For them, I think, making doilies and writing are about on the same level. “It’s a harmless little thing he does, probably harmless.” People in the household who see me sitting at my typewriter going, “My God, I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” as they’re walking in to give me tea are probably thinking, “This guy’s really losing it.” They think it’s a hobby gone bad.

ER: Do they know what the stories are about?

DM: Vaguely. If you tell them you’ve written about them, they look at you sort of like, “Oh.”

ER: They don’t feel any shyness, or whatever, that you might be using them as material?

DM: I’ve certainly never got that impression. I think they’d be delighted.

ER: What has the response been in Pakistan?

DM: I have no idea, you know, because the book just came out a couple days before I came here. I gave a bunch of interviews and stuff like that, which I’m now regretting. I don’t move in literary circles. I mean, we live on the farm. When we go to Lahore, we always hang out with the same five people. And quite frankly, I’d rather it not be known. Given the costs of being known in Pakistan, I’d rather avoid it. My ideal would be to not be read there. I’ve decided not to do any more publicity there, no more readings. It’s just not worth it.

ER: Really?

DM: Whenever anyone asks, I say, “To be prominent without being powerful in Pakistan is a very bad position to be in.” And that’s what would happen. A book isn’t going to make you powerful, it’s just going to make you prominent.

ER: But did the book get reviewed in the Pakistani press?

DM: All the newspapers have done something or other. What’s strange is that the reviews in Pakistan are much less positive than they’ve been in the West. There’s a snarkiness to them.

ER: What did they say?

DM: “How can a man who’s never been hungry a day in his life know anything about hunger?” Sort of implying that I was cheating by writing about these characters. I sort of got the feeling these guys think I’m poaching on their territory in some weird way. Which is odd. I think I look more like an outsider, and I look like I’m privileged. American mother, foreign wife. So they turned on me. And I was like, “Fuck you. I don’t need this from you, man, back off. What, am I going to sell four thousand copies of my book in Pakistan? Wow.” So, yeah, intelligent people whose opinion I care about have been very positive. Couple of friends, a couple of editors who’ve written me letters or who I met at parties have taken the time to come over and say, “Hey I really like this,” and talk about it, and that’s very gratifying. Because these guys know the ground, know the terrain, and they say I’ve described it accurately. That’s a validation I care for.

ER: You remind me so much more of Chekhov than of most South Asian writers. And, of course, there is Tolstoy — you must know Levin very well.

DM: Oh, yeah, yeah, I love him. I’m living his life, it’s very conscious. I reread Anna Karenina constantly — I’ve probably read it, like, ten times. And Chekhov is someone I’m reading all the time, as well. The books I read again, and again, are Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Ulysses, and the Chekhov stories. These are always in the rotation.

ER: Anyone else?

DM: Turgenev, I like. But if I had to limit it to just those four, I’d be fine. And I have such a bad memory, I can rediscover these writers every two years.

ER: It makes sense, the Russians and Pakistan. It’s a total feudal society.

DM: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

ER: They’re involved in the wars in the Caucasus.

DM: Also, let’s face it, Chekhov is the greatest of the short story writers, Tolstoy is the greatest of the novelists.

ER: I was so intrigued by your story “Sparrows of Lahore,” which spirals backward, ending on the image of this poor little street urchin who is such a familiar, almost anonymous, image on the streets of Karachi, for example. It’s an amazing story.

DM: The ending is a little — people have said, “You’re stringing us on a little too hard. Back it off a little bit.”

ER: It’s a bit heartwrenching. But I wondered — the boy’s mother, these women, they must be part of the landscape of the farm, right?

DM: That woman, Saleema, is based on a woman who worked at my father’s house who, unlike Saleema, was a sort of roly-poly smiling woman with a lot of the Wife of Bath in her. While screwing everyone in the household. I think she even made a pass at my father. So that character is a little bit drawn from her.

ER: Did you know about the details of her life?

DM: No. I made it up.

ER: How did you know she was screwing everybody?

DM: Are you kidding? In a household like that, you hear everything. Once when I was in my room, I overheard the most hilarious thing. Saleema and the cook were fighting and — this is quite crude, I hope you don’t mind — he said, “Get out of here, you slut, I fucked you every way I could. I didn’t do it in your ears because it wasn’t as fun!”

ER: How old were you?

DM: In my twenties or something. I was there for the summer, probably. It sort of stuck in my mind. And then this big roly-poly Saleema.

ER: So what’s next? Will you work on a novel?

DM: That’s what I’m doing right now. It’s a novel set in Pakistan, obviously. A sort of love triangle, totally unpolitical. A foreign woman, her husband, and her lover, who are both Pakistani. I don’t know where it’s going, but I do know how it ends. Once you know how it ends, you start to close in on it. I sort of have this last scene in my mind, but I’m hiding it from myself because I don’t want to overthink it. I’ve got several long stories that I’ve abandoned at one time or another, and I’d like to fold them all into this novel and have it have all these subplots, but I’ve never written a novel before, so I don’t know how that will work out.

ER: Is there a question you’re pursuing in the novel, or are you just pursuing the characters’ lives?

DM: No questions. I have no agenda at all. I don’t believe in having an agenda in stories.

ER: Do you find any of the politics of Pakistan encroaching on your life on the farm?

DM: So far, I haven’t seen it, but I think when it happens, it will happen suddenly. Where we are, the same old politicians retain control, so they don’t allow much change. On the other hand, I’m told Mueenabad is a main Taliban recruiting ground, and there are a number of Lashkar-e-Taiba in south Punjab — big suppliers of cannon fodder — so those guys presumably are going to come back home at some point. But I haven’t seen much evidence. What I’ve seen is more a breakdown of law and order. Around our farm now, traffic basically stops at night because there’re so many holdups.

ER: Why is that happening?

DM: More desperate people, more corrupt police. Police and criminals are more and more the same. Seventeen-year-olds who don’t have any money can buy a pistol, steal a motorcycle, and sell it for ten-thousand apiece. The roads are empty. And a lot more kidnapping — for money again. We’re near the Indus, so it’s easy for them to kidnap somebody and take them there, that big area alongside it is uncontrolled and completely uncontrollable. So how much has politics intruded? Not that much, but that state of things cannot persist. And I think the Taliban tactics inside Pakistan are going to change.

ER: They’re going to start going after more nontraditional areas.

DM: I think this whole Mumbai style is going to get started. If you want to spread terror, why not spread terror everywhere, it’s so easy to do. Certainly, it’ll start in the cities, so we’ll have plenty of warning.

ER: Do you have a home anywhere else?

DM: In the world? Well, my mother has this farm in Wisconsin, which I run for her, actually. I just rent the land out to Amish people, which is a lot of fun. So that’s a retreat if we need one. But I would teach or something, I suppose. All these other lives I can imagine. I’m starting to think I’d better start imagining hard, since imagination might need to become reality pretty quick. I think, you know, Pakistan is not just on the brink of the precipice, it’s probably fallen off the precipice, and is accelerating on its way down.