The Reluctant Feudalist

An essay by Daisy Rockwell.

Har qatl di e jar
zan zamin zar

Three things for which we kill–
Land, women and gold.

Punjabi proverb (quoted at the beginning of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders)

I. Gold

They have not the foggiest idea that they cannot tame him. Such a man belongs to no one and cannot be enlisted for a cause other than that lives up to the expectation of literature, which breathes in an autonomous realm all its own.
Muhammad Umar Memon on Manto, in an email to Lapata

The first time I read anything in Urdu beyond a child’s primer, I read “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hasan Manto. A friend was helping me read Urdu, a very different experience from learning to read Hindi, when I hadn’t known the language at all. This time I knew the language well and had read the story in English. I’d always found it amusing, but my friend was doubled over, despite the fact that he had read it numerous times. He was barely able to help me. As I slowly sounded out each word, tears came to his eyes and he clutched his stomach. He didn’t care that I was making mistakes– he didn’t even seem to notice them.

“Toba Tek Singh” had always been presented to me as ironic, yes, but still an artifact one was meant to read somberly while pondering the tragedy of Partition. It was, in fact, much funnier in Urdu than in English. Translation can make wit ponderous, and though the English translations I had read were good enough, they somehow lost the antic frivolity of the pagalkhana mise-en-scène. In subsequent years after this side-splitting reading, I assigned the story, and a whole collection of Manto stories, to Partition literature classes again and again (an experience I also discuss here and here).

In those contexts, the story again lost its wit. After reading disturbing oral narratives such as those in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, watching Earth and contemplating modern day communalism, the students were over-sensitized and worn out from the narratives of violence and trauma. Each time I told a class that the story was funny, was meant to be funny, that I had seen a grown man (whose own mother had migrated to Pakistan during the Partition) guffaw uncontrollably when it was read aloud to him, the students were disturbed, even offended. In reaction papers, I read that “Toba Tek Singh” was the sad story of the plight of the mentally ill after the Partition of India and Pakistan. And of course it was, in a way.

It is only now, years later, that I am willing to admit that I too was guilty of that misuse of Manto that Memon Sahib alludes to in the quote above. I have seen Manto discussed in the context of the Partition, analyzed for misogyny, and held up as an example of Muslim identity in South Asia. Manto has been mashed up with dollops of theory so heavy that his flavor has been all but obliterated. Most recently, Manto was the subject of this set-to (scroll down to ‘Review Articles’) between two scholars in the Annual of Urdu Studies (is it a coincidence that the puppet-master behind the debate was Memon Sahib himself? I think not.).

It was this last tussle over Manto that made me finally understand why we all keep appropriating him, analyzing him, translating him, using him as a lens, examining him through others’ lenses. Everyone wants to be Manto. He is the gold standard of South Asian fiction. Even those who claim to dislike his work or find him offensive write about him because they want to write like him. Or forget just writing like him: Manto is the kind of author his readers want to dive into, like a swimming pool, or wear every day, like a sweatshirt. Manto is a pair of prescription glasses. No, he’s more than that. He’s a habitus.

This realization has brought about in me recently a benevolent forgiveness for anything that I perceive as a crime against Manto. There was a time when one article about Manto offended me so much that I undertook to deliberately shred it in its entirety and use the paper to mold two papier mâché cats on which I inscribed two of Manto’s shortest short stories from Siyah Hashiye. But my days of Manto critic-clasm and asymmetrical warfare against the Manto-analyzing elite are now over. Now I realize that we are all on the same side, the side that is composed of people who yearn to be Manto, to merge with him, but will never attain that ecstatic union.

Or are we?

II. Land

manan: a Punjabi proverb that reads, “Three things for which we kill — / Land, women and gold.”
that is NOT the fucking proverb
WTFTTFTFTF
6:59 PM jangan diyan tin wajahaian: zan, zar, zameen
there are three reasons for war: woman, gold, land.
–from an IM to the Lapata from Sepoy, after reading the opening quote in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

If anyone writing in English has begun to capture something of Manto in their own writing, it is Daniyal Mueenuddin in his recent collection of short stories. The spare and elegant prose, the gift of understatement and the unflinching gaze at the darker side of human nature in Pakistani society are all reminscent of Manto. Mueenuddin has cited Chekhov as an important influence (“I am constantly reading Chekov. I am never not reading Chekov”). But in a list of five important books on Pakistan (for the website Five Books), the first book Mueenuddin lists is Khalid Hasan’s translation of many of Manto’s Partition-related short stories, Mottled Dawn. In his description of the relevance of the book he observes:

For me, Saadat Hasan Manto is important as a writer because you see with stories like this there is nothing prettied up about his writing. One of the things that I object to about most of the people who write about Pakistan is “the scent of mangoes and jasmine school of writing”. I think that does a disservice to the country and plays into the stereotypes that most Westerners have about Pakistan, and he certainly doesn’t do that. He tells it like it is, with all the violence, madness and political turmoil that involves.

Mueenuddin’s characters are similarly rarely ‘prettied up’ (with some notable exceptions, see below). They use one another, calculate, cheat, manipulate and desert. But where Manto’s stories illustrate the principle that depravity is a natural human state that emerges even more in times of acute crisis, such as the Partition, when men (especially) rejoice and rush out to commit the acts towards which they are innately inclined, Mueenuddin’s humanity trends more to petty manipulation and callousness. In fact, almost none of them are willing to kill, for land, for gold or even for women, as promised so tantalizingly by the quote that opens the book. A bookkeeper systematically cheats his employer for decades, uses his housekeeper for sex, then callously abandons her on his deathbed, refusing to provide for her future; a maid habitually sleeps with the cooks of the houses where she works so she will get special treats from the kitchen and improve her standing among the other servants; an electrician has an ingenious method for cheating the electric company that brings him over time a significant quantity of wealth.

Unlike Manto’s mostly urban settings, however, the stories in In Other Rooms mostly take place in the countryside, on the margins and at the centers of the lands of zamindars, or when they take place in cities, they are mostly clustered about the crumbling city dwellings of the landowners. The depictions of country life at times remind me of translations of Tagore short stories, or of Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s Pather Panchali (and Ray’s version of the latter). I am also reminded of Premchand’s stories in the simplicity of descriptions of the countryside. See, for example, this landscape in the story “Nawabdin Electrician”:

A long straight road ran from the canal headworks near Firoza all the way to the Indus, through the heart of the K.K. Harouni lands. The road ran on the bed of an old highway, built when these lands lay within a princely state. Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order within a few hours, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless.

Mueenuddin consciously sets out to depict a zamindari milieu which is in its twilight. In the stories that portray the lives of lower and lower middle class characters, the homage to Manto, Premchand, Tagore, and even Chekhov is more than just stylistic. These stories lack many of the trappings of contemporary life and the pacing and descriptions could just as easily belong to the 1930’s as to a more recent time. This quality does not produce a sense of timelessness (there are cars and other motorized vehicles, for example) so much as it does an aura of nostalgia. Nostalgia for both the storytelling from the days of Manto, and Premchand and Tagore before him, as well as for the era of the zamindar.

It is particularly noticeable that in the stories associated with the upper middle and the upper upper classes, this nostalgia is more or less absent. The stories continue to touch upon the lives of various branches of the K.K. Harouni clan and their affiliates, but in the lives in the bright young things of the story “Lily,” or those of the characters in “Our Lady of Paris,” one feels a very different sensibility that is contemporary, international and current. It is true that these stories take place primarily in cities amongst the Western-educated set, but there are aspects of the differences between the two kinds of narratives that are troubling.

The stories in the book follow a kind of progression, starting with the lower classes and working their way up to the top, until the last story, in which we meet the most abject character of all (“A Spoiled Man”), who ends up in the employ of possibly the most prosperous family. In this progression we see the motivations and the inner lives of the characters grow more and more complex and subtle. While the motivations of the lower class characters, such as Saleema, or Nawabdin, the electrician, are simple (and timeless?), those of characters such as Lily, the society girl, and Sohail the young man with an American degree and girlfriend, are complex, nuanced and almost opaque. For example, Lily’s decision to get married, her partying proclivities, her life-changing car accident, all put her at war with herself and make her a rich and well-rounded character. On the other hand, Saleema, the maid who sleeps with cooks and later a valet, has simple motives. She wants respect in the household, and she wants goodies from the kitchen.

Saleema’s story takes a particularly surprising twist when she loses her job and then ends up a junky on the streets because there is no one to provide for her. This conclusion to the story is narrated hastily, after the character has been slowly developed in some depth for over thirty pages. While we understand and accept her motivations for the different actions she takes earlier in the story, her sudden turn to drug addiction comes out of nowhere. Her own husband, we have learned early on, is a drug addict whom she despises and avoids. How is that she ended up with his fate as well? Is that what happens to people when they have no hope?

I was reminded of the last episode of The Wire when [SPOILER ALERT] in the final moments, we see the brutal cycle of life on the streets set into motion once again. The child characters we met in Season 4 now step into the spots vacated by the death, incarceration, or rehabilitation of the adults we have followed through all five seasons of the show. The most upsetting of these was a scene in which Dukie, the child of junkies who had shown promise in school but had ended up living under the protection of his friend, a gangster, has been cast out on his own. He finds shelter with an aged junky arabber who lives on the streets. We last see him sitting in the dim yellow light of a fire, shooting up with his new protector. When I first saw this scene, and for a long time after, I was filled with sadness at this tragic surprise. But then I began to wonder. Had we seen any indications that Dukie would become interested in drugs? He had been disgusted by his family, and had lived with a dealer, never showing any inclination toward drug use, yet his conversion to heroin was almost instantaneous when he was left without shelter. I’m not arguing that it was not a possible outcome, or that such things don’t happen, but this turn of events was effected in an unaccustomed (for The Wire) shorthand. Ultimately I have come to think of Dukie’s fate as both a shoehorning of his character into Bubbles’ now vacated drug addict slot and a manipulative attempt at introducing a note of pathos to the conclusion of the series.

Similarly, in “Saleema,” we come to know the title character in depth. Suddenly, the household where she works is broken up by the death of their master and the man whose baby she has borne leaves to join another household in another city. The narrative is abruptly tied up in the following two paragraphs:

Within two years she was finished, began using rocket pills, which she once had so much despised, lost her job, went on to heroin, leaving her husband behind without a word. She knew all about that life from her husband and father.

The man who controlled the lucrative corner where she ended up begging took most of her earnings. This way she escaped prostitution. She cradled the little boy in her arms, holding him up to the windows of cars. Rafik sent money, a substantial amount, so long as she had an address. And then, soon enough, she died, and the boy begged in the streets, one of the sparrows of Lahore. (p. 60)

This brutish, nasty and short ending to the life of Saleema is entirely Mantoesque. Many of Manto’s stories end abruptly and brutally, often with a twist of irony thrown in. But what they don’t do is slowly develop a character over a lengthy span of pages and then snap the book shut on them. The example of Saleema would not have struck me so much if it weren’t for numerous other examples of a very different approach to the description and development of lower class characters. Let us take, for example, descriptions of female beauty. Here is Nawabdin the electrician’s wife:

The wife, despite bearing thirteen children, had a lithe strong body, her vertebrae visible beneath her tight tunic. Her long mannish face still glowed from beneath the skin, giving her a ripe ochre coloring. Even now that her hair had become thin and graying, she wore it in a single long pigtail down to her waist, like a young woman in the village. Although this style didn’t suit her, Nawab saw in her still the girl he married twenty years before.

And here is Zainab, the housemaid and mistress in “Provide, Provide”:

She had a hard pale face, angular, with high cheekbones, almost beautiful, but too forceful, reminding him of a woman who had been caught years ago on the banks of the Indus a cattle thief.

Contrast this with the non-specific and complimentary adjectives for Helen, the American love interest in “Our Lady of Paris”:

She paused at the door, a pretty girl, unmistakably American, her shot hair held back with a tortoiseshell barrete.

And:

As mother and son went into the kitchen, Helen heard Rafia whisper to Sohail, “but she’s so pretty.”

Or descriptions of Lily such as this one:

She dressed carefully but very plainly, no makeup, jeans, a gypsy top with long sleeves, white—wanting to appear pretty but wholesome, as she felt. Examining herself frankly in the mirror, she acknowledged wanting to meet his image of her, not just to be pretty, but to show him a cleaner better side of herself.

While the motivations of the upper class characters are complex, their looks are simply…pretty. By contrast, the lower class women have simple motivations, but their appearances are decidedly not pretty, and maybe just a bit grotesque. Similarly, while the lower classes, and even more so, the middle classes, are constantly cheating those above them through elaborate means, the same is not evidently the case with the upper class, nor is their status as feudal masters viewed more critically than with indulgent swipes such as this, when Nawabdin the electrician is petitioning K. K. Harouni to buy him a motorcycle:

“And what’s the solution?” asked Harouni, seeing that they had come to the crux. He didn’t particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort—a matter of great interest to him.
“Well sir, if I had a motorcycle, then I could somehow limp along, at least until I train up some younger man.”
The crops that year had been good, Harouni felt expansive in front of the fire, and so, much to the disgust of the farm managers, Nawab received a brand-new motorcycle, a Honda 70. He even managed to extract an allowance for gasoline.

Mueenuddin was asked in one interview if he could describe traits of Pakistanis that are “universal.” He responded with a few remarks about society and language and ended with this observation:

…there is a very slippery sense of morality and integrity. Pakistanis are willing to cut corners in a way my very Lutheran American grandfather wouldn’t understand. Ghulam Rasool, the man who brought me up and was a substitute father to me, was the major-domo of the house. But I know for a fact that he was crooked. He, however, wouldn’t have thought that this compromised him.

This observation is reflected in the behavior of numerous characters in In Other Rooms, but never on the part of the land-owning Harounis themselves. Mueenuddin, who manages his own ancestral estate in Pakistan, “bristles at the word ‘zamindar’. ’A zamindar,’ he says, ‘has negative connotations. You can call me a manager.’”

Well, that’s fine: we can call him a ‘manager,’ but this is not the tack taken in William Dalrymple’s king-making review of In Other Rooms in the Financial Times, in which he declares the collection to be a masterpiece; the Pakistani Midnight’s Children (wait, wasn’t that Shame?). Rather than avoiding the notion of the zamindar, Dalrymple, in his review, seems to embrace it with open arms:

If Other Rooms is unlike anything recently published in India, this is partly because of the very different trajectories the two countries have taken since 1947. Almost immediately after Independence, the Congress party broke the power of the Indian landowners, emasculating them with income tax and land ceiling acts that instantly shredded their estates. This legislation was never passed in Pakistan, which continued to be dominated by its old feudal elite, just as Tsarist Russia once was.

So while most successful Indian writers in English are the product of urban middle-class backgrounds and now tend to live in London or New York, there are no Indian Daniyal Mueenuddins who live like Tolstoy or Turgenev on their estates. Mueenuddin has lived on his own as a farmer for 20 years, hundreds of miles from the nearest urban centre, and can describe with real authenticity the rural world he daily inhabits.

What India lacks is an elite that is genuinely feudal, one that would give her literature that authenticity of the great Russian authors. He hastens to add:

It is true that the quality of a writer’s fiction should never be judged by his home address – Joyce after all wrote the Dublin of Ulysses from Trieste. Yet here the difference is striking. Compared to the thwarted, tragic grandeur of Mueenuddin’s women, Deeti, the opium farmer’s wife who is the heroine of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, seems paper-thin: Bihar as imagined from Brooklyn.

But then he doubles down on his thesis, dismissing not just the English literature of Indians, but that of diasporic Indians as well:

The critic Pankaj Mishra has attacked the “slickly exilic version of India” manufactured by diasporic English-language writers from India, describing them as a “cosmopolitan third world elite”, their fictions “suffused with nostalgia”. No one could make this charge of Mueenuddin. His stories have not just a fluency and perfection of shape; above all they have an authenticity of observation and dialogue rooted from long experience living among the people he is writing about. The result is a unique book, probably the best fiction ever written in English about Pakistan, and one of the best to come out of south Asia in a very long time.

We could write off this review as mere Dalrympian rantings, but the fact is that he is right. In Other Rooms is a collection of stories authentically rooted in the soil of feudalism, and whether or not the author prefers to be called a ‘manager’ over the more pejorative ‘zamindar,’ the stories are full of nostalgia for the old order and sympathy for the owners of ancestral lands.


III. Women

“All is fair in love and war.”
–English proverb

“Anye impietie may lawfully be committed in loue, which is lawlesse.”
–1578 Lyly Euphues I. 236 (origin of the above quote, according to answers.com)

“Can you please explain to me what this saying means? I’ve heard it many times and I just don’t get it! It just doesn’t seem to make sense to me… thanks in advance.”
–user on an english.com forum, in reference to the first quote

A man got to war over his Corner, his Product, but never his Ho.
–adaptation by Sepoy of Punjabi proverb using the lexicon and ethos of The Wire

What better way to kill the joy of a work of art than to critique its treatment of women? Last week I had the unwanted experience of reading not one, but two critiques of the role of women in The Wire (thanks for nothing, Zunguzungu), one on the abuse of prostitutes by policeman, the other on the dearth of women characters in the show. As much as I disliked admitting it, the complaints were relevant. In a show with such nuanced and long-term character development, the women characters tend to follow stereotype, and more importantly, they are few and far between. It’s as though there weren’t that many women living in Baltimore. I’d like to think that the androgynous hitwoman Snoop is a kind of stereotype-busting paradigm, but the truth is that I had no idea she wasn’t male until she was arrested and referred to by a female pronoun. Yes, the streets of Baltimore are a man’s world, but is that really enough of a reason to present the audience with a small and stereotyped set of characters?

Pakistan is also a man’s world. In Mueenuddin’s stories, the only way for women to move up in the world, or to find shelter, is by sleeping with men who are higher up in the food chain than they. In this way, they gain food and shelter, and maybe some nice stuff. The problem with this method of self-preservation is that often the man dies or moves away, and then the woman is left out in the cold (and might have to start shooting up). This scenario appears in virtually every story. “Nawabdin Electrician” is an exception—in this story the protagonist is attacked on the road and fights for his life, out of a fear that his wife and many daughters will be left without a provider. Another exception is “About a Burning Girl”—in that story a wife is burned alive for fear that she will tell the police about a robbery. A third exception is “A Spoiled Man,” in which the main character, the most wretched of human beings one could imagine, saves up enough money to purchase a young bride who is not quite right in the head. She is then stolen from him and perhaps sold into prostitution. In “Lily,” the man does not abandon her, but he disapproves of her, and she feels trapped in a gilded (zamindar’s) cage.

Ultimately, the exceptions prove the rule, and as one reads through the stories, one begins to wonder what draws the author to these narratives of unequal and paternalistic relationships between women and men. Luckily, the author has explained his intention– verisimilitude:

OA: Well not that many writers actively talk about the subject [sex]. How it affects politics, how affairs allow maidservants to move up. The last person I can think of, who put it so bluntly, would be Manto.
DM: It was very difficult to talk about sex because it often descends into snickering. But a lot of people have objected and said, ‘your women only seem to achieve anything by sleeping with somebody’. I think that is unfortunate but true in Pakistan because women don’t really have a place in the public sphere. Therefore one of the main ways in which they exercise power is through men.
OA: Why do you take such a negative view of Pakistani women in society?
DM: Oh I am so depressing! But yeah, it’s true. You know perhaps it’s just a tick of mine but I do believe that the lot of Pakistani women is a harsh one. When I look around the women who are in power, you know the ones who come from the upper classes; there are all sorts of powers and freedoms. But you know poor women and women from the lower middle class have sort of lost their safety net. They don’t have a lot of options compared to men.

Setting aside the peculiarity of referring to concern over Pakistani women lacking a societal safety net as “just a tick of mine,” let us examine the idea that this tick only pertains to lower middle class women. Indeed, though the more upper class the female characters become in the collection, the more options they do have, they are all still in noticeably asymmetrical relationships with men. The most notable of these is Helen, the American girlfriend of Sohail, a young scion of the Harouni family whose mother is attempting to separate him from his lady friend and lure him back to Pakistan. Throughout the story Helen’s lack of funds relative to Sohail is highlighted, particularly through repeated descriptions of her attire, which has invariably been loaned to her by friends for the trip to France. This financial inequality is illustrated most clearly by this passage involving Helen’s desire to purchase some candy at an open air market in the countryside in France:

Helen stopped at a booth selling candy, sour balls and gummi bears, jelly worms, striped green and yellow, chocolate almonds, peanut brittle, each type in a little glass cookie jar, each to be weighed separately.
“Can we get some?” Helen would sometimes eat a whole bag of candy, then become sad and childish, with a headache.
Sohail pulled at her leather-gloved hand. “Let’s get it at the grocery store, we need water anyway. It costs four times more here.”
“But I want this.”
“Why? It’s the same thing.”
She walked away, angry for a moment, and then her cheeks burned at the thought that she was spending his money. She had hardly any of her own for this trip, no savings; at school she lived on nothing, always had a job, even after she met Sohail.
They passed through a little alley to reach the car, and when they were in the shadows he turned to her and buried his face in her hair. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She comforted him, his face wet.
“I can’t believe I didn’t buy you that fucking candy. I know I’ll remember it, that I didn’t.”

The infantilizing of Helen is explicit here when she is described as becoming “sad and childish” after eating too much candy (with the bonus implication that she, a recent graduate of Yale, is too immature to understand that one should not eat an entire bag of candy). Tell me, how many recent graduates of US institutions of higher learning do you know that would spend their time begging for candy on a trip to France?

Let us turn briefly to Lily, another woman in control of her own destiny. No one appears to be bothering to arrange her marriage and she is living life with an enormous amount of freedom (she even has her own house on her parents’ property). But she chooses suddenly to marry a man who is richer and from a slightly more prestigious family than hers. He is also extremely paternalistic and controlling, but in the modern way, through guilt. Lily’s husband is the new kind of zamindar farm manager, who works hard and doesn’t just live off the fat of the land. In the end she feels trapped by her marriage, but does not imagine any way out for herself that will bring happiness:

Among the possible futures, Lily now recognized the likely one, the one she must avoid. Murad would be rich and powerful, she knew that, having seen him at work here on the farm. He would be shrewd, trusted by men, sometimes warm to her in comradeship, but finally cold, irreproachable. And in the very act of drowning she would be left to bear the blame, to injure him, blindly or by neglect, becoming one of those thin sharp women from the cities who can hold their liquor but are desiccated by it, who are well dressed and without taking pleasure in it, living much in London, bored—and ultimately, she hoped, she would depend on this, becoming old and wise, old and self-forgiving.

In considering this trope of women attempting to advance their standing in society through sleeping with the men who might offer them patronage, let us return to Manto for comparison. It is fitting that Manto is invoked in the interview with Mueenuddin above in which he discusses the ‘harsh lot’ of women in Pakistan. The interviewer observes:

Well not that many writers actively talk about the subject [sex]. How it affects politics, how affairs allow maidservants to move up. The last person I can think of, who put it so bluntly, would be Manto.

As we may recall, Manto has from time to time been accused of everything from not being that great about women to misogyny. Manto’s women are often raped, killed, cut into pieces even, and as if that’s not enough, Manto has many women characters who are if not prostitutes then at least women of loose morals. Compared to Manto, Mueenuddin’s women characters are all Sunday school teachers. So why am I always happy to give Manto a pass on women’s issues, but balking at In Other Rooms?

For all I know, Manto may have been a depraved misogynist. But the brilliance of Manto’s stories lies in what he doesn’t tell us. The fact of the matter is that more often than not, these terrible things we see in his stories are not technically there. It is we who have put them there. Manto’s gift is his ability to hold up a mirror to his readers, and when we recoil at the depravity of human nature we see therein, we must also confront the disturbing contents of our own imagination. The most well known example of this technique is the famous Partition story “Khol Do” (“Open it”—full text in English here; in Urdu here).

An old man and his daughter are fleeing to Pakistan during the Partition migration. On the way, they are separated. The father asks a convoy of men searching for refugees to look for his daughter. They find her and make her feel less frightened when they explain they have spoken with her father. But she does not reappear at the refugee camp. Some days later, the same four men dump the battered body of a young girl at the camp. The father sees them and asks if they have found his daughter, to which they respond that they have not but they will find her. The father follows the young woman they have left at the camp as she is carried on a stretcher into a doctor’s office. There, the following scene takes place:

A light was switched on. It was a young woman with a mole on her left cheek. “Sakina,” Sirajuddin screamed.
The doctor, who had switched on the light, stared at Sirajuddin.
“I am her father,” he stammered. The doctor looked at the prostrate body and felt for the pulse. Gesturing to the window, he said to the old man: “Open it.”
The young woman on the stretcher moved slightly. Her hands groped for the cord which kept her salwar tied around her waist. With painful slowness, she unfastened it, pulled the garment down and opened her thighs.
“She is alive. My daughter is alive,” Sirajuddin shouted with joy.
The doctor broke into a cold sweat.

[I’ve modified the Khalid Hasan translation linked above, because its literalness ruins the point of the story, but it’s still not quite right. Part of the problem with translating this story into English is that the linchpin is the command “khol do,” which means “open.” In Urdu the verb does not require a direct object, but it does in English. “Khol do” is in Urdu interchangeable as a command for someone to open a window or for a woman to open her legs, whereas in English the latter would more likely take the verb “to spread.”]

The character of the doctor, as an observer of the reunion between father and daughter, plays the role of the reader’s proxy. His horror directs our horror, causing us to look back at the whole story and retrace our steps over the path we have traversed to get to this point. The reader brings to the story a knowledge of the pervasive rape during the Partition, but our expectations of rape being committed ‘by the other side’ are turned on their head, as it dawns on us that this woman was raped by refugee aid workers. At the same time, none of these details are stated. It is only our ability to imagine the depths to which humanity can sink that takes us to the conclusion that Sakina has been repeatedly gang-raped by men from her own community. For Manto, this bestiality defines humanity: humans will use the screen of war and chaos to commit the atrocities that come naturally to us.

For both Manto and Mueenuddin, the mistreatment of women is a major preoccupation. But Manto’s preoccupation serves to illustrate the inhumanity of humanity, whereas Mueenuddin’s focuses on the structures of patriarchy and patronage. Some of the stories show unfortunate and even tragic outcomes from this system, but they are still surprisingly forgiving toward the men who abandon the women under their protection. Circumstances intervene, they have existing families to care for, they die. In the interim, they are often kind, even loving, and provide well for their women. This paradigm mirrors the treatment of the benevolent if fallible zamindars in the stories. As metaphors for the feudal order, the sexual relationships serve to underscore Mueenuddin’s claustrophobic taxonomy of human relations.

Also of interest: See these previous review essays by Daisy/Lapata:


  • The Stay At Home Man
    , March 5, 2010.

  • Flyover Country, Feb 26, 2010.
  • Published by

    lapata

    Daisy Rockwell paints under the takhallus, or alias, Lapata (pronounced ‘láh-putt-áh’), which is Urdu for “missing,” or “absconded,” as in “my luggage is missing,” or “the bandits have absconded.”

    32 thoughts on “The Reluctant Feudalist”

    1. Dearest Lapata, I must say that in addition to enjoying the post itself, I also enjoyed the fact that in the non-academic publishing genre, one can sprinkle all of these delicious citations at the head of each section. Brava!

    2. Lapata’s modified translation [“I’ve modified the Khalid Hasan translation …”] of Manto’s “Khol do” reads superbly – even better than Manto’s original text. The (Hindi) text has the doctor ask the old man to : “Khidki khol do”. The author could have (as Lapata does), but did not, exploit the horror-unleashing ambiguity resulting from leaving out “Khidki(window)” from the doctor’s command.

    3. Thanks for this great review, the underlying sympathy for the feudal outlook is present from the first story but grows with the book. It clearly arises from that intimacy that arises from a close relationship with servants over generations. The question of caste is also entirely absent from the book, even though feudal relations in Pakistan are still organised along those lines. In that sense the gender/ class derision that you have noted renders all figures outside of a masculinist high class/ caste status as subject to vulnerability and ultimately death. Given the peasent movements in Okara (not far from the setting of these stories), the nostalgia you point out in the book is quite insidious.

    4. @shama zaidi

      My mistake, you are absolutely right and I don’t know what I was thinking. I just rattled off the first three modern Urdu authors I could think of, and completely forgot that Dalrymple was only talking about Pakistan. Still, despite my embarrassment, I hope the point still stands.

    5. daisy, first greetings, after what seems half a life. thanks for this sensitive post. i read mueenuddin’s book earlier this year, and did feel the zamindari perspective of the author and the objects of his description were too tightly woven together, and that the flow of narrative appeared always to exclude any external possibilities. when women, in particular, step out of line, out of the feudal fold, there is no space for them to arrive into, but to fall out, fall down, become fallen. there are some literary merits to the book, but i kept wondering whether this was an account of pakistan circa 1972, or… was this supposed to be the present? but what kind of present? not the one we read about in the papers, surely, not the present one has tasted fleetingly, any time since the 1990s. can mueenuddin’s gaze capture anything but his feudal domain? i look forward to finding out. best, aditya.

    6. I haven’t read DM’s work so I can’t comment on it too much; I really dislike WD’s review which I think is just plain wrong on many respects. Of course he is talking solely about writing in English because there is a fair amount of good writing on rural society in Hindi that I am aware of; that isn’t churned out by ‘feudal literary elites’ (this seems to indicate more some sort of nostalgia on Dalrymple’s part than any sensible observation) VB Rawat and Mudra Rakshas just to name two. I think Dalyrmple is unnecessarily sneering about Amitav Ghosh as well; of course Ghosh may not be able recreate the kind of rural society that exists in the way DM can but if you read his works closely, like the ‘Hungry Tide’ he is very conscious of the social divides present and some of the meditations in the gap between city and country and the bhadralok and peasant are quite sophisticated reflections of some of the key divisions in India today.

      Moreover, there is some debate, Dalrymple has an incredibly simplistic view of how easily the Congress managed to kill of the feudal class within India; when if you actually look at the literature and specialists on the subject, much of this class managed to evade a significant part of the reforms for quite a while and it was the declining returns to agriculture, combined with the political rise of the peasantry and OBC class that comprised them as well as , and this is key, the technological and production changes wrought by the Green Revolution that really reduced the standings of this class – many of whom reinvented themselves by moving into politics, the bureacracy and urban professions/industry – ironically this is a process captured very well in much of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’. There was also at least from the late 1960s onwards, real pressure from below, through peasant mobilisation and the Left parties for land reform on behalf of the smaller peasants and landless in a fashion that was absent in Pakistan.

      But this is a very informative and enjoyable article!

    7. Sepoy, I think you’re right when you point to DM’s coarse generalizations in the press, but I’m not sure how broadly we can hold writers and artists accountable for stupid things they say in real life. Of course, we can hold them responsible as people, but I’m not sure how relevant those criticisms are for the representations they produce. For instance, I think The Wire is a pretty sophisticated, subtle, and moving piece of fiction, ethnography, and political analysis, despite many flaws including those mentioned by Lapata. But everything David Simon says in public is juvenile. I think this is a pretty common phenomenon: people who are able to convey complex, contradictory thoughts in their art or writing are unable to express themselves in speech. Maybe they’re just not good at talking, maybe it’s because they’re opining instead of depicting, or maybe they feel like they have license to be blunt and exaggerated because they’re off the field of battle and because they’re (sometimes only slightly) famous.

    8. one of the best posts on chapati mystery. very engaging, as well as well-argued!

    9. Mircea: “that being said, your analysis did make me seriously re-think” – isn’t that really the point of criticism? and hence, a failure for any sustained engagement with DM’s work. You say DM doesn’t claim to be closer to the people, or speak on behalf of “representing” Pakistan but that is exactly what I see in his interviews – blanket statements about “women” in Pakistan, or “violence” or “men and money”. This is a writer, selling his wares, through publications – so this is both calculated and sincere. Notice, for example, the pre-or-post-press for any major Anglo-American fiction writer (notice both the questions and answers here: http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2010/07/qa-with-david-mitchell-literary-platypus.html for example) So, while WD is off-the-hook crazy when it comes to DM, I don’t see DM really pushing back against any of this insane good press. Sure, who would? But then, that is part of the story, innit?

    10. I was, and still am, an unabashed fan of Mueenuddin’s book. I did not read it at first with any conceit that it somehow “represented” Pakistan, or with any regard to current politics. I thought the stories were beautifully written and I responded to them viscerally. I think Dalrymple’s review does great damage to the purpose of Mueenuddin’s prose — has he (DM) ever claimed to be closer to the people because of his landowning status? It doesn’t seem to me like he wishes to engage in these authenticity debates, and even if he does we should ignore his interviews and see what the text actually does (a la Rushdie, though I fear that over the years I’ve given up on him). That being said, your analysis did make me seriously re-think some of the portrayals of the lower classes in his book. I read them largely unproblematically at first, and I still believe he captured as much as he could the complexities of their lives — perhaps less successfully so with the women, but still. It doesn’t seem too fair to compare him to Manto because this takes us into another authenticity debate. Does Manto have the right to give his poor female characters tragic endings because he’s “down and out” himself, while Mueenuddin, being a privileged fatcat zamindar, will be somehow more cruel and exploitative? I don’t know.

      And one more thing about Dalrymple’s review that made me absolutely fuming with anger (frankly, if I ever meet him I’ll say it to his face). How dare he say that “until a few years ago” Pakistani literature in BOTH Urdu and English was a “desert”? There have been hundreds of extraordinary writers in Urdu, from Intizar Husain to Mohammed Salim-ur-Rahman to Syed Muhammad Ashraf to many more, in the last few decades of the 20th century into today. If Dalrymple is trying to promote South Asian literature to the world, insulting with one stroke of a pen an entire literary culture that deserves all the help and support it can get is no way to go about it.

    11. Great article, Lapata. I haven’t read DM but did read Manto (mostly in English but also some stories in Hindi) 20 years ago. You mention important points about how “Khol do” repels us but only after we, the readers, have done considerable imaginary work tracing out the depravity which is mostly only alluded to in the story. Even the start of the story has ominous notes: a special train that takes 8 hours for a very short trip…how can that be?

      For those whose Urdu isn’t up to the task, one can go to this site (http://gadyakosh.org/gk/index.php?title=खोल_दो_/_सआदत_हसन_मंटो) to read the story in Hindi.

    12. I really liked this, and the links to interviews with Daniyal Mueenuddin. I think he’s a wonderful writer, but the article did bring out some hesitations I’ve had, about the almost uniformly sorry fate of the female characters. I read Khol Do quite recently, and was extremely affected by it; to the point that I haven’t been able to return to Manto yet. I appreciated the point made here, that the chilling effect is caused by what the reader brings to the story, not what the writer has said explicitly — it makes me admire Manto all the more. There was much more in the article, which I plan to reread more slowly than I did the first time. Reading this was a little festival of sugar for me.

    13. Perhaps unobtrusiveness is not something to shoot for. Let the reader put in some effort. ;-)

    14. Thanks for the links, lapata! And for your explication and translation of Manto’s “Khol Do.” Devastating, to put it mildly. And interesting for how clearly it crystallizes that particular kind of loss in translation. (For what it’s worth, it’s a problem I’ve come up against all to often whenever I try to translate Chilean idioms into English. What to do? Keep the expression so the language is accurate but the English sounds stilted and “exotic,” thereby converting an urbane Chilean speaker into an eccentric? Sacrifice the saying but keep the thrust–in effect colonizing a Chilean proverb with an English one? Manhandle the grammar? There are no good solutions; I eventually give up. For what it’s worth, your gloss here does a beautiful job of unobtrusively rendering the sense.)

    15. I agree that the authenticity debate is loathsome. The original essay gave me the impression that Lapata agreed with WD on this count.

      I enjoyed thinking about the translation of “khol do”. Maybe the doctor could point to curtains and say “spread ‘em” but that would not work as a title, as it would be full of connotations. “Khol do” sounds more like a request, as in “go ahead and open”. “Kholo” would be an order, but probably not a very catchy title.

      In “spoiled man” the only thing remaining from Rezak’s life is an expensive gravestone he saved up for. I could have sworn that in my 4th grade Urdu reader there was a famous short story with the same plot line (with an office worker, rather than a farm worker).

      I have not read any less than positive reviews of the book. I did read an essay mocking DM’s actual labor practices on the land. I dont remember where.

      My critique of the upper class stories may be based on my own shallow memory. Why where Lily and Murad attracted to each other as marriage partners? I dont remember. Maybe DM never explained. I dont remember anything about the mom in Europe besides the facts that she was high-end and bossy.

    16. lapata: well, you do have to cultivate a learned audience over many years but yes, let scholarly friends take note.

      To the issue of DM as “authentic” or garnering good press, I think what is notable (as is the case with Mohsin Hamid) that he immediately was anointed to “represent” Pakistan. It is that quality of secondary analysis that bugs me more than anything else. DM may very well have the Great Pakistani-American Zamindari Novel in him or many other Chekovian cum Mantoesque short stories but he should never be given the burden of being the sole (literary) representative. I am sure he doesn’t want the mantel either, though I don’t see him actively pulling a Jonathan Franzen over it (Oprah!). When WD anoints DM, or PEN does, it categorizes his fiction as the only mirror possible to approach a nation which is ridiculously under-served in cultural or literary aspects in Anglo-American press. Maybe there aren’t any more deserving authors but at the very least attuned critics can make this exact point and instead of uncritically fawning over DM, give his work the attention it deserves. I bet he will appreciate it more, even. Hence the awesomeness of your essay.

    17. Amardeep: you are right about the genre of the short story. It is very interesting that Mueenuddin chose to write short stories when the novel is given a much higher value in English, and it is quite surprising that he managed to get so much recognition and praise for a collection of short fiction. One of the obstacles to translating and publishing South Asian literature written in languages other than English is the fact that the short story is the premier genre in the Subcontinent (outside of English). Publishers in the US are leery of short story collections already, and translated collections are even more unlikely to sell (they argue).

      I have to agree with you (and disagree with Jawad) about preferring the stories about the upper class characters. I thought, in particular, that the mother in “Our Lady of Paris” was one of the more keenly drawn in the book. The upper class characters bore the mark of Waugh, with touches of Fitzgerald…I was tempted to go into more detail about those comparisons as well, but the article was already ballooning. I did however, have that same weird feeling about “Lily” that Jawad did– especially after reading interviews with the author, where he describes his lifestyle on the farm, and how he never socializes, gets up and writes every morning, exercises extreme discipline, etc.

      Oh and thank you for the Punjabi muhavras. I think such sayings always have many variants, with the salient detail being Sepoy’s observation that none of them speak of killing.

      Qalandar: As always, many salient observations. I would like to add to your point that no reviewers have brought up the zamindari aspect of DM’s work, and observe that in my searches, I could find no reviews that were negative or even faintly critical of the book. It was this that prompted me to go on at much greater length than I had intended, because it seemed like no conversations had been started about these issues. I am particularly surprised that no one seems to have broached the topic of his depiction of women in print, although perhaps I have missed something.

      One reason why I zeroed in on WD’s review was because I wondered if it was serving as a model for other reviewers. WD has somehow gotten himself into the position of being the guy who gets to say if South Asian writing is authentic or not. This is troublesome partly because the authenticity debate is loathesome, but also because, um, this is a guy who is aggressively laying claim to some kind of authentic Indianness himself. In this vein, check out this article in the Times if you haven’t already, in which WD talks about his zamindari rental. The best part comes at the end, with a helpful primer for setting up house in India. Tips include:

      – To buy property in India, you must have lived in the country for more than 182 days in the previous financial year on a nontourist visa. Don’t despair if you don’t qualify: you can register a company in India and buy the property through that.

      – No such restrictions apply to nonresident Indians (NRIs) or people of Indian origin (PIOs). Some states, including Himachal Pradesh, in northern India, have imposed additional restrictions, although many of these are being eased. One way round all this is to take a lease of between 10 and 20 years.

      Isn’t that how the East India Company did it?

    18. Thanks to all for the comments. This is the mark of the infinite superiority of posting essays to blogs rather than going through the academic journal peer reviewing machine: I finish writing, and editing, post a 6000 word article on a Friday night, and wake up to numerous intelligent comments and reactions. Instead of maybe 12 of my closest friends and enemies reading it in about 2-3 years after the reviewing, editing, publication and limited distribution take place, I get the gift of thousands of engaged and knowledgeable readers from around the world. Take heed, scholarly friends!

    19. A superb post, one of the best on this blog in recent times. Since Dalrymple and others (I remember Amit Chaudhuri wrote a lengthy essay in the last year or so that touched upon the difference between Indian and Pakistani writing; more specifically, it was in large part about what he felt was the desiccation of Indian art — classical music was exhibit A — by state patronage; even the Indian novel-in-English was thoroughly implicated in the Indian national project on Chaudhuri’s reading, and thus condemned to a bland liberalism (unlike Dalrymple and Mishra, then, Chaudhuri’s criticism is not based on the writer’s “inauthenticity” as on the fact that his/her artistic vision is, perhaps despite himself/herself, compromised by the Nehruvian project, pursuant to which illiberalism becomes a kind of cardinal sin)) have used Daniyal Mueenuddin as a kind of representative of “Pakistaniness”, it is a troubling omission on Dalrymple’s part that he does not acknowledge or recognize that Mueenuddin’s stories could be said to reflect the almost untouchable privilege of the z– “farm manager.” In fact, lapata’s post is the only thing on him that I have read that seems to raise questions based on Mueenuddin’s position. Not that that position prevents one from creating great art, but lapata hones in on the fact that it is a particular kind of art — no less particular than the sort of art a well-heeled urban person, whether in Pakistan or India (see the novels of Mohsin Hamid; Kamila Shamsie; and Uzma Aslam Khan) might be said to write. One can certainly say that one kind of writing is less bland, less expected, less common to English-language readers — but I must confess I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea that the latter kind of writing incarnates a “truth” about Pakistan whereas those others don’t (about pakistan or india). i.e. Mueenuddin can be considered a very good/great writer without the burden that the “third world” writer always seems to have, namely the obligation to be authentic. [Not exactly sure why, but writing this comment reminded of a funny quote from Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” (Vol. 1), where he says something to the effect that women once upon a time struggled for the right to have an orgasm, and now are condemned to live under the obligation to have one.]

    20. Amardeep: Yes, there are numerous versions – but none have the reading as “for which we Kill” – never heard that. War, strife, conflict. Kill? nope.

    21. In this juxtaposition of Indian writing with Pakistani writing, one wonders to what extent the old old claims that America, with its prosaic populism, could never match the artistic heights of more “old world” europe, are rearing their head again. Given Dalrymple’s great nostalgia for the “Muslim aristocratic” cultural moments (especially in decline; his mode is elegiac) in several of his books, his judgment is not surprising. Although, to spot a pattern is not the same as dismissing it, and I myself can’t help feeling that the great (relative) comfort of the Indian writer-in-English’s path (large book signing amounts, etc.) create a certain receptivity to the (global) audience that isn’t always a good thing. Would be interesting if people were also studying the writers who write in languages other than English…

    22. RE: “What India lacks is an elite that is genuinely feudal, one that would give her literature that authenticity of the great Russian authors.”

      India has “an elite that is genuinely feudal” — what it probably doesn’t have is a feudal elite that is literary. [I’m not sure Pakistan has one either, but assuming for the moment that is so…]

    23. It may be true that all contemporary Indian literature lacks authenticity, but WD seems to be implying that authenticity can only come from feudal relationships.

      Surely DM has written a great book. I was annoyed by repetition of the one theme. Lower class woman sleeps with upper class man, only to be left with nothing in the end. OK, we got it, tell a different story now. I lost track of which lower class woman was paired with which upper class man.

      Unlike Amardeep I did not like the upper class stories as much. The story of Lily gave me the the creepy feeling that it may be autobiographical, and that DM is getting back at his real life cheating ex-wife. Why did she sleep with the party guest? Her motivations remain paper thin. Why did Helen go along with the Bollywood style disapproval of the inlaws? Why didn’t she tell them to f*** off? Once again, I did not see any complex motivations.

    24. A mighty post! Thank you for this.

      I think the comparison between Manto and Mueenuddin is apt, though it must be said that one of the strongest lines of connection between them is the use of the short story form itself. Manto had a special mastery of it, but more people should use it even today.

      Your final observation is telling. Mueenuddin writes about “the structures of patriarchy and patronage” vs. Manto, whose focus is on the “inhumanity of humanity.” Manto lived in unsettled times, and his partition stories in particular depict a people who’ve lost all sense of ground. Even his earlier stories seem curiously ungrounded, by comparison with a contemporary like Premchand, or even his friend and rival Ismat Chughtai. I see Manto as a person who remained somewhat unsettled throughout his adult life — moving from Delhi to Bombay, then, disastrously, to Lahore (disastrous because it led to his rapid decline; as far as I know he never expressed regret).

      I do not think Manto was especially misogynist. I think he was honest in describing his experiences, which, not atypically for his era, involved frequenting prostitutes. (As a side note, I never thought of the ending of “Khol Do” that way — what you say actually makes perfect sense.)

      I think the praise for Mueenuddin in the Dalrymple review you quote is probably a bit excessive, though he’s undoubtedly a very good writer. The stories I liked best were actually the upper/middle class stories. I appreciated the skill of the stories focusing on working-class characters, and I was glad they were there. But as you say, the characterization in those stories is not as rich or compelling. For me the strongest of that group was “Nawabdin Electrician,” which has a kind of kinetic quality to it.

      Finally, again as a side note, there is a popular Bhangra tune that uses a version of that proverb. “Tin cheezha mardia bande — toot, jhoot, te nare.” A little different…
      Is it possible that there are simply multiple variations of this one?

      I was recently reading some of the Punjabi aphorisms Lockwood Kipling had collected in his book about Lahore from the 1870s to my father-in-law, who started his life in a small village in Punjab. In many cases, my father-in-law knew a slightly different of the saying. It’s possible that Lockwood Kipling wrote them down wrong, or the sayings may have shifted over time, or there’s always a bit of variation…?

      In case anyone is interested, here are some of the ones I came across in the Kipling:

      Ek Nahin to Sau Sukh: “One ‘no’ saves a world of trouble.’ [This one checked out & it still in use.]
      Billi sher paraia billi noo kaan aia ‘The cat taught the tiger til he came to eat her.’
      ‘Katya pahar nikalta chua.’ He cut down a mountain and out came a rat. [My father-in-law had it different. Not “katya” or kaaTya at all, he said.]
      ‘Kotha usriya, tirkan visriya’ When the house is built the carpenter is forgotten. [Again, my father-in-law had a slightly different version of this.]

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