April Issue 2009
Our Feudal Lords
The late Eqbal Ahmad once wrote that feudalism had become the whipping boy of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, who neither really understand its origins nor analyse its pernicious hold in the country, despite six decades of independence. Measure that up against the debut collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders recently released by Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, and it becomes clear that more than just a clever pen is needed to write about a world that is slowly dying in some aspects, while being constantly reinvigorated in others. Being an insider, Mueenuddin has the advantage to chronicle first-hand the stories of despair that mostly emanate from Pakistan’s feudal world, ensuring that he isn’t just moralising from the living room.
The eight stories in this collection are set in the heartland of one of Pakistan’s most backward and conservative regions. A region of shocking poverty and illiteracy in the heart of our own parha likhaPunjab, namely the Seraiki belt — which also includes the major city of Multan and the town of Muzzafargarh — and is the constituency of Pakistan’s current prime minister and foreign minister. Ironically, this area is also home to a thriving nationalism based on a rich language, Seraiki, which has given birth to some of the most powerful Pakistani resistance poetry of recent times. Mueenuddin’s is a pioneering work in that it makes a departure from the recent Pakistani writing in English, taking as its subject the lives, loves and struggles of Pakistan’s feudal overlords and their supplicants rather than the more familiar, albeit safer, themes of the Pakistani diaspora, 9/11, deceased dictators and the war on terror. One would have to go back to the works of to R.K. Narayan, Qurratulain Hyder, Prem Chand, Rasheed Jahan, Ismat Chughtai and Wajida Tabassum, in order to find a comparable critique of feudalism in the subcontinent.
The stories in this collection do not directly criticise the institution of feudalism, but instead by describing to us the relationship between its various inhabitants — electricians, politicians, maids, mistresses, foreigners, housewives and university professors — bring out the fundamental contradictions of the system, which clearly point out that the system as it exists in Pakistan today, cannot survive any longer. The strongest characters in the collection are the women, ranging from the lowly maid Saleema to the two mistresses — rural Zainab and the more middle-class and urbane Husna — to the more liberal and sophisticated Mrs Harouni and the free-spirited Lily. All of them fall in love, enjoy their sex and their alcohol and partake of every ritual whether lawful or illegitimate, while at the same time wanting to be protected just like other women. However, they sound a cautionary note with regard to their real position within the feudal confines.
The women in Mueenuddin’s stories delight with their relaxed and non-conformist attitudes to love and sex, and are thankfully spared the added insult of purdah — so intrinsic to the upper-class Muslim ashraf families of pre-Partition India — but they also infuriate by eventually buckling down happily to the subordinate position accorded them by the patriarchal male order and, by their refusal to challenge patriarchy and feudalism from within the system. One wishes Mueenuddin had taken a leaf out of the inspiring story of one such courageous Pakistani woman, Mukhtaran Mai, an illiterate woman from Muzzafargarh who stood up against the feudal and patriarchal overlords who had raped her, in the process exposing the shocking role of panchayats, which consolidate feudal oppression, especially of women.
Likewise, the men in these stories are mostly rich, apathetic and fully absorbed in the depravities of this dying world, whether it’s the small-time village electrician Nawabdin or the oligarchs of the Harouni family and their patrons, using the well-entrenched and well-oiled system of patronage to their base advantage — winning voters, bedding mistresses or making a quick buck. In this world, the ways and means of making profits are as skewed as the concepts of justice and fairplay. Yet, there are men like Murad Talwan from the short story ‘Lily,’ who represent a hope that with their foreign education and liberal, sophisticated views, feudalism could yet be reformed from within and saved from total collapse. However, such redemptive qualities are surrendered very quickly at the altar of self and ego by each of the male characters in the collection.
The writer cleverly avoids ascribing a time period to his stories, yet at various points the stories are peppered with his ingenious nods to historical references. Consequently, one gets a hint of how feudalism in Pakistan has survived well into the 1990s and post 9/11, when the feudal oligarchs merely transformed themselves into businessmen; this success is undoubtedly owed to their collaboration with the military, the bureaucracy and the police. Feudalism is well and alive in Pakistan, and it is more than just a mindset, unlike what some Pakistani intellectuals claim. But as two of the characters in these stories, Makhdoom Talwan and Lily, in a contemporary nod to the ambitious Tancredi, desperate to save the declining Sicilian aristocracy from ruin in Lampedusa’s celebrated novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), do recognise the fact that it is ultimately an artificial and decaying world. And unless the parasitic inhabitants of this world address the central issues of land reform and socio-economic justice (both for the peasant and the woman), it is bound to collapse. To quote Tancredi, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The sooner this is recognised by the young Bhutto-Zardaris, Legharis, Gill….anis and Khars now dominating Pakistan’s parliament, the better.
One wishes Mueenuddin had also exposed the role established religion plays in reinforcing the coercive power of feudalism, apart from the mullah’s nominal role in performing legal marriages and overzealously sanctifying illegitimate liaisons.
Whatever one’s disagreements with Mueenuddin’s depiction of Pakistan’s feudal milieu and its appended leisure class, he deserves to be commended for breaking into hitherto uncharted terrain in Pakistani English writing.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.