In the steamy heat of central Pakistan, a novelist is writing. He describes a hidden world of servants and their feudal masters, the powerlessness of poverty and the corruption that glues it all together.
These lives, tucked away in the mango groves, grand estates and mud-walled villages of rural Pakistan, are rarely seen by outsiders. But the writer, Daniyal Mueenuddin, a Pakistani-American who lives here, has brought them into focus in a collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, published this year.
They are intimate portraits that raise some of the biggest questions in Pakistan today. Why does a small elite still control vast swaths of land more than 60 years after Pakistan became a nation? How long will landlords continue to control the law and the lives of the peasants on their land in the same way British rulers did before them?
Mueenuddin, 46, offers a richly observed landscape that is written with the tenderness and familiarity of an old friend. The estate Mueenuddin lives on in southern Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, belonged to his father, a prominent Pakistani civil servant, and he used to come here as a boy.
His parents met in the US in the 1950s. His father was negotiating a treaty, and his mother was a young reporter for the Washington Post. They later moved to Pakistan, but the country proved difficult with its web of expectations and relationships, and she took her sons back to the US when Mueenuddin was 13.
Memories of this land stayed with him, however, and he returned after college in 1987 as an aspiring writer. He found upon arrival a decaying, colonial-era system, whose owners — his own family — had long stopped paying attention. The farm’s profits were declining, and its borders were shrinking: The managers were pilfering land and planting their own crops.
“It was in their mouths when I pulled it out,” Mueenuddin said, speaking on the estate, where he now lives with his Norwegian wife.
Mueenuddin slowly became part of the changing Pakistan he wanted to capture in fiction. The managers were powerful when he arrived, and extracting them from the business of running the farm was a delicate procedure. He was alone, without a phone or Internet. He slept with a gun and worried that his food might be poisoned.
“It occurred to me that they could kill me,” he said.
He began to assemble a team of people he trusted: a driver who, as a child, was his playmate, and the Koran instructor in the mosque, Hafiz Sahib, who had been low in the pecking order of the village but was honest. Slowly, he reclaimed the farm, which now does a brisk business in mangoes, sugar cane and cotton.
In person, Mueenuddin is more American than Pakistani. He speaks Urdu, the national language, but his frenetic energy and fast gait sets him apart in this languid, sweltering land, where men walk with their bellies ahead of their torsos.
Mueenuddin says he is a farm manager who does well because he treats his workers fairly. He pays them US$84 a month, triple the going rate, and instituted an American-style annual bonus system for managers. Last year, the most profitable producer on the farm received the equivalent of more than two years’ salary.
That is unusual for Pakistan, where landlords rarely delve into the business of their farms in detail and workers are paid around US$25 a month.