Writers aren't famous for getting up early, but Daniyal Mueenuddin, author of the debut story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Norton; 247 pages), keeps farmers' hours. Literally. "I crawl out of bed about 6 and have some tea," he says, "and immediately I meet my managers"--that is, the managers of his small farm in rural Pakistan. "Then they go off and do their thing, and I write until 2." The rest of the afternoon he spends either out on the land or going through the finances. "I tend to soft-play the accounts and spend more time walking around. It should be the exact opposite, but it's so much fun walking around."
The son of a Pakistani civil servant and an American writer, Mueenuddin, 45, grew up in Lahore and Wisconsin and graduated from Dartmouth (where, he says, "I more or less passed as an American"). In 1987, at the request of his ailing father, he moved to the family property in southern Punjab to learn the business and try, if he could, to keep the land from slipping out of the family's hands. Seven years later, he returned to the States--this time for law school and a stint at a New York City firm--but after a few years, the farm, and a desire to write its stories, called him back. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)
At ease in both cultures (he speaks fluent Punjabi and Urdu), Mueenuddin writes with an understanding of the hierarchies and traditions of Pakistani life but also with an appreciation for what Western audiences know and, more likely, don't know about life in a country that features far more prominently in newspapers than on the fiction shelf. "I am deep in my heart apolitical in my writing," he says. "There are plenty of soapboxes one can stand upon, but one of them is not a short story." In the world of In Other Rooms, all politics is local: the never-ending battle against corruption, the violence that erupts over a cherished motorcycle, the arguments between newlyweds whose outlooks on life prove crushingly incompatible.
The eight stories, which span the 1970s to the present, are bound by the character of K.K. Harouni, a distinguished landowner who becomes a sort of barometer for the state of the ruling class. In his prime, Harouni is a man of influence, commanding estates and legions of servants. At his death, the household is broken up, the house sold: "Gone, and they the servants would never find another berth like this one, the gravity of the house, the gentleness of the master, the vast damp rooms, the slow lugubrious pace, the order within disorder." That generational shift, the breakdown of the feudal system into something recognizably modern but no less disorderly, gives Mueenuddin his subject.
It's a subject that can lend itself to bleak conclusions, at least to some Western eyes. In the final scene of "A Spoiled Man," the title character, a gardener's assistant much abused by fate, has died and been buried on his master's land, his tiny cabin picked clean of his possessions. But to Mueenuddin, who imbues this character with a strong sense of resignation and acceptance, it's not an unhappy ending. He sees it as somewhat hopeful. "This is a homeless, landless man who's been thrown out by his family and is bitter and hardened," he says of his creation. "And in the end, he got a place to lay his head."