Daniyal Mueenuddin: Son of the Soil

By Sonya Rehman

We meet at his nephew’s house on Halley Road (in Lahore). Daniyal Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories, titled ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ has just been published by Random House India with impressive comments from Anita Desai – who regards Daniyal’s debut as “a restrained, economical prose that is not without touches of tenderness and lyricism”, and William Dalrymple – who considers Daniyal to be “a writer who seems to combine the intimate rural rootedness and gentle humour of RK Narayan with the literary sophistication and stylishness of Jhumpa Lahiri.”

Born and brought up in Pakistan to a Pakistani father and an American mother, Daniyal left Pakistan to attend boarding school in Massachusetts at the age of thirteen. From thereon, he progressed onto college where he graduated with a degree in English Literature from Dartmouth. Soon after, Daniyal’s father – whose health had begun to take a turn for the worse – urged his son to come back home to take care of his farm, based in Southern Punjab.

With the demise of his father, Daniyal took over the reigns and managed his father’s lands for seven long years which he describes as an “intensely happy” and “brutally lonely” time.

What followed after those seven years was the author’s transition back to America to study law at Yale, and after three years – whilst working in New York as a lawyer, Daniyal decided to move back home once again.

And that’s when ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ came into existence. They were penned from the author’s experiences as a child through the years spent on his father’s farm, intricately conveying the characteristics and way of life of the villagers that he’d grown so accustomed to.

I’m hoping Daniyal is one of those talkative writers in person. Because that way, it’s easier to sculpt out a story rather than scrape and prod for details with a less chatty one. But Daniyal, I soon discover, is a man of few words. He doesn’t waste any time in pleasantries, and will answer questions directly – without any unnecessary, verbal fluff.

Dressed in pants and a black, half-sleeved shirt, he greets me warmly with a handshake.

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“The short story form is more manageable for someone who’s learning the craft”, Daniyal tells me in answer to my question of why he decided to compile a collection of short stories as opposed to penning a novel. He’s leant back in a soft beige couch as he speaks. “Also, short stories”, he says quickly, “are much more shapely…it’s a much more rigorous discipline. So very early on, I thought it’d be good for me to try something very small, and contained. And in a short story, there can be no extraneous parts. Whereas in a novel, you can have all sorts of digressions.”

Having done some readings at the well-known ‘Jaipur Literary Festival’ in India, Daniyal tells me that he’s also due to embark upon a book tour in America in a few weeks.

Considering how imperative discipline is for a writer to churn out work, did Daniyal follow any particular routine whilst penning his short stories?

“Oh very much”, he says, “My typical day at the farm starts at 6 in the morning when I talk to my managers about farming matters. And then from 8 till 2 in the afternoon, I write. I require myself to write atleast 300 words a day. Which, is not very much – but if I feel I’m not writing very well, I might read, write letters…basically something related to writing.”

“It’s very useful to have a life that’s separate from your writing so that you have something to write about”, Daniyal states as he fiddles with a beige pillow that sits, plumped up to his side. That seemed true, because without some sort of a ‘social life’, a writer may find himself/herself in a stagnant little fix.

And as the trolley of tea and biscuits is rolled in, I ask the author how many of his book’s protagonists are inspired by real life people, if at all?

“None”, he answers pithily before proceeding onto say that his characters take birth from his brief (and at times, not so brief) meetings with different people, and experiences that he’s had along the way. “When you write about your characters, they become independent and start doing things on their own – as if they were real people.”

Regarding his debut ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’, five of Daniyal’s short stories (from the book) were published in magazines – three of which, were printed in ‘The New Yorker’.

And currently, the book is being published in eight countries (mainly; England, America, France, Spain, Holland, Italy and India), in five different languages. For Mueenuddin’s debut book, that seems to be quite a feat.

But Daniyal seems to take all of this within his stride, stating all of this and the overwhelming response to his debut book with just a hint of nonchalance.

During the interview, he never struck me as one of those starry-eyed, freshies riding the high tide of literary fame in pomp and pageantry. He appeared rather casual, and perhaps, quite content with the way things were shaping up at the moment. And I knew right then, that as he spoke, if one were to banish him far from the spotlight of media, Daniyal would go on writing, simply for the love of it. And that’s the way it always should be.

The Friday Times

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