April Issue 2009
Interview: Daniyal Mueenuddin
“I write best in Pakistan as I am constantly surrounded by stories and introduced to new types of situations” — Daniyal Mueenuddin
Daniyal Mueenuddin straddles many divides. He lives on a farm in southern Punjab, but has also lived in the US. He writes about feudalism but has a law degree from Yale. This farmer-cum-writer has just had his debut collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, published, and he talks to Newslineabout how his rural life has influenced his work.
Q: The cover of your book states that this is a collection of short stories about “feudal Pakistan.” Is this how you want your book to be categorised?
A: It’s a fairly accurate description. Most of the people in my stories are tangentially related to feudalism. The only non-feudal characters are the ones in ‘Our Lady of Paris,’ who are industrialists and those in ‘A Spoiled Man,’ who are again, industrialists. Pakistan is such a feudal country that any story we write, has its connections to feudalism in some way. I have tried to represent both the lower feudal classes and the urban feudal classes. I don’t know much about the world of the urban middle-classes in Pakistan. That’s a lacuna in my writing.
Q: What is your understanding of feudalism?
A: Feudalism is a system in which a small minority own a majority of the agricultural land or large estates and on which the people who work on them are bound to the landowner not just financially, but in all aspects of their lives. It’s a complicated relationship between the landowner and worker. Then, feudalism in Pakistan has some specific qualities — the landowner has the power to shape or determine the voting patterns of people working on his lands and often, there is a very brutal relationship between the landowners and the peasants, case in point being parts of Sindh.
However, this system has its positive sides too. There are times when landowners act in a benign way. They attend the weddings and funerals of the lower classes and loan money when it is needed. This ensures that a relationship is created between all the stakeholders of the farm. Such a relationship also creates obligations and rights. However, due to the disproportionate power of the landowner, these obligations and rights become skewed.
Q: Among social scientists there is a running debate about whether feudalism is still alive in Pakistan. How would you approach this question?
A: I haven’t travelled much in Pakistan and do not have many friends from the feudal classes. It’s a question of how you define feudalism. In Sindh, there are large properties but some have been broken up, either through land reforms or by landlords transferring land in the names of their heirs or dependents. In the NWFP and Balochistan, feudalism is more tribal.
Q: From your profile at the end of the book, you seem to be a representative of the feudal class yourself. How important was your background in writing these stories?
A: I am certainly not a representative of the landowning class. In my upbringing, education, my view of the world, the power that I own and the position I have in society, I am not a representative of this class. I am a businessman who runs a farm (in Khanpur, south Punjab), like a business. I have quite consciously pulled away from the techniques, methods and attitudes of the landowning classes. The regular salaries that I pay on my farm are three times the salary in that area. I do not commit corruption and pay extremely high bonuses to my staff at the farm. Also, I demand that my farm managers maintain careful accounts and run the farm in a professional, efficient and modern way.
My background was very important to the writing of these stories. The first thing a writer must ask himself is: What shall I write? And the answer is: write about what you know. I have spent more time on the farm than anywhere else in the world — firstly, as a child, then in high school and later in college I used to visit regularly in the summers. And from the age of 24 to 31, I have lived uninterruptedly on the farm. Whatever role I am playing on the farm, whether as a business manager or a feudal landlord — and it is my wish to be seen in the former role — I have spent a lot of time there. I have my friends, my employees and business partners over there and I am familiar with them, which is why I can write about them.
Q: What was your basic purpose in writing stories that are set in a feudal structure?
A: I am not a political writer, therefore my purpose is to write the finest stories that I am able to write, given my abilities. I don’t enjoy reading political literature, fiction or poetry. I think political writing is a limiting factor because when you have a political bias, it endears you to those who support you and alienates you from those who don’t. Life is much more nuanced than a cruel landowner beating his manager for sport. I don’t have a political agenda and I am not trying to eliminate or support feudalism. But I believe that one has to enter the sensibility of the character and have empathy with it.
Ivan Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, which are among my favourite short stories, moved Czar Alexander II so much that he wept after reading them. Russia was going through a liberal phase at that time. Historians say that this book was behind Alexander’s decision to liberate the serfs in 1861. Fiction has a limited ability to bring change. Perhaps, satire has more power because by making fun of something, it reduces its power or sources of power.
Q: Are these stories based on personal experiences or inspired by specific families, for instance, in the case of the Harounis?
A: Yes and no. There is no family like the Harouni family in real life. However, there are two characters which are more closely drawn from life: one is Nawabdin Electrician and the other is Saleema. They are drawn from real characters, whom I knew well and who I then animated and gave a story. One wonderful thing about writing — and this is one of my favourite moments — is when a character comes alive and behaves in unpredictable ways. Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina describes a scene where Voronsky comes home after confronting Anna’s husband and shoots himself. Regarding this scene, Tolstoy wrote that he was horrified [when writing about it] but also recognised that it was the right thing for Voronsky to do.
Q: The picture of feudalism that emerges in your stories, is that of an all-encompassing system which is remarkably self-sufficient and knowledgeable with respect to defending or protecting class interests, especially in reference to women. Is this true or is it as one of the central characters in your book, Lily, says, “It’s a little dying world”?
A: To say that the feudal world is a comprehensive world is correct, according to my impression. One of the characteristics of feudalism is that neither the overlords nor the underclass challenge their place in the system. On my farm, I am amazed at the degree to which the workers are resigned [to their fate] — even if not entirely, because that would suggest dissatisfaction — and embrace their place within it. They don’t question their position, not just because of the little education they have but also because feudalism, by definition, is a system where the inhabitants are conservative in the broader sense of the word. Resistance to innovations is massive and my own experience has shown that workers will sabotage innovation. However, feudal systems are not fundamentally stable. They are vulnerable, especially when the workers get educated and are exposed to the wider world [and discover] that it isn’t inevitable that they always hold the positions they do.
Lily’s phrase that you quote in your question is in relation to Murad’s father, who is hapless and hopeless. He is an inefficient feudal. Pakistan’s feudal system is changing. Old brown sahibs are being subsumed because they do not know how to defend their interests. A new class of overlords is replacing the former overlords, who are politicians; [they are] more local and live near the lands they own. So, what Lily said about the little dying world is true. But just because that class is dying doesn’t mean that feudalism is dying also.
Q: The women in your stories are strong-willed — all want to partake of the attractions of the feudal world, want to be loved, enjoy their alcohol and sex. But at the same time, they all are bound to the worst form of patriarchy and are crushed by the system despite their desire to counter-change it? Are women within this feudal world you recreate that weak?
A: I read statistics somewhere that 50% of Pakistani women are clinically depressed. A woman’s position in Pakistan is not an ideal one and there’s room for improvement. The women in my stories and their trajectories seek to better themselves by impressing [their opinions] upon men. That they fall victim to the feudal system, eventually, is an aspect of the stories that I failed to recognise when I wrote them.
Yes, there is a sameness in these stories and that’s the biggest flaw in my book. We have to realise that the story is incomplete without the ending. The resolution of these characters was the only one I could reach at the time I was writing them. Perhaps, it would have been better not to write at least three of these stories or include some other stories in the collection.
Q: But, at the same time, there are strong women like Mukhtaran Mai, who hails from the same region that is the setting for your stories. She faced the worst form of patriarchy and feudal tyranny but refused to be cowed down by it. Your stories do not seem to have room for such women.
A: There are strong women in my stories. For example, Lily is a strong woman, as is Mrs Harouni in the Paris story, as well as K.K. Harouni’s daughters in ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,’ who are minor characters. Husna, in the same story, is also a strong woman, it’s just that her circumstances are very bad. But these are women who show strength.
Why don’t I write about an exceptional woman? I taught for a semester in the US and when students brought me the stories they had written, I used to tell them, “It is not plausible.” Implausibilities occuring in life seldom work in fiction; real life and fiction seldom go together. Mukhtaran Mai would be an exception, not the rule. Hers was an unusual case because it was taken up by the western press. There are many cases of women in my area who are brutalised and raped, who go to the police but end up being raped or beaten up instead.
Q: In your stories, the men, even enlightened ones with foreign degrees, seem least interested in saving the feudal world from total collapse by introducing a semblance of human dignity and justice in it.
A: Sohail Harouni, for example, is a wimp. He is not going to try to do anything [other than] to adhere to the norm. Murad Talwan is more likely to change the system. He is a decent, intelligent and sophisticated person, not a brute. You will recall that at the end of the story, Lily foresees Murad as ending up rich and using his clout and power for desirable ends. Through Sonya, the American wife in ‘A Spoiled Man,’ I have tried to show the ways in which people from the upper class try to help and do good but end up doing harm. In Pakistan, it is very dangerous to be a bleeding-heart liberal. One must work for change but it can be dangerous. I have realised even while working on my own farm, that it’s very important to be a realist. However, you are right in noting that there are a number of apathetic men in these stories.
Q: Will feudalism collapse or will it continue to maintain its vice-like grip on modern-day Pakistan?
A: It is collapsing. Pakistan is about to go through a tremendous upheaval. I am not an expert on the topic but I have talked to experts and read books by experts. Feudalism is not going to survive. In the event of a revolution, the existing system will be submerged by the new power coming in. However, these questions are better addressed to a political scientist.
Q: Can feudalism ever reform itself or is it doomed to extinction, like in developed countries?
A: In the crudest way, feudalism is a way of defining economic inequalities between different classes in society. If there is a redistribution of wealth in Pakistan, either as a consequence of land reform or industrialisation, the feudal system will be weakened.
Q: Who have been your literary inspirations? Any South Asian influences among them?
A: The writers I read again and again are Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce and Tolstoy. There is something about the Russian world which is similar to what I am describing in my stories. Among South Asians, there are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Nadeem Aslam who know this world very well and are writing about the same things I am writing about. For example, Hanif and Nadeem lived in Okara and Gujranwala, respectively, until they were 14 or 15. There is also the young Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi.
However, I don’t have a strong connection to South Asian literature and the only other writer I can cite in this respect is Saadat Hasan Manto, who was a brilliant writer. In fact, I write the same way Manto does and there is a similarity in style and the way we approach our subjects. Despite what the publishers have put on the promotional blurb of my book, R.K. Narayan has never been an inspiration and I wouldn’t have chosen to cite him.
Q: How do you view the recent explosion of Pakistani writing in English?
A: I think it’s fantastic. We are reinforcing and helping each other. There’s no competition among us. If Hanif’s book sells, it is more likely that our books will also sell because in this way interest in Pakistani literature will grow. There is a virtuous circle of selling, publishing and writing which is leading to a renaissance.
Why is this explosion in Pakistani writing taking place? We are all living in very fractured and pressured times. In times of crisis, people tend to look more closely at the world around them. Some of the new Pakistani writers are a bicultural part of the diaspora, and this enables them to look around with a critical eye, creating a nostalgia which gives the impulse to write.
Q: Unlike most Pakistani writers, you prefer to live in Pakistan. Is that a conscious choice and does it give you any advantage/disadvantage over your more “diasporic” peers?
A: I choose to live in Pakistan because I love it; my family and friends live here and I write best in Pakistan. The advantage is that I am constantly surrounded by stories and introduced to new types of situations and, thus, to new stories.
The disadvantage of choosing to live in Pakistan is that I am not living with the English language; I’m not surrounded by people speaking English in general. More specifically, this implies that I am cut off from the vernacular, the ability to communicate in innovative variants of English, for instance the way it is spoken in New York.
Q: Are you working on anything presently?
A: I am currently writing a novel set in Pakistan. The characters are somewhat similar to Lily, but more urban with rural threads. Then there are some stories that I have written which are set abroad, not in Pakistan and I plan to publish them.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.