Feudal milieu

Published : Mar 13, 2009 00:00 IST

THE late Eqbal Ahmad once wrote that feudalism had become the whipping boy of Pakistans intelligentsia, who neither understand feudalisms origins nor analyse its pernicious hold on the country despite five decades of independence.

Measure that up against the debut collection of short stories released by the Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and it becomes clear that to write about a world that is slowly dying in some aspects and being constantly reinvigorated in others one needs more than just a clever pen. Being an insider, Mueenuddin has the advantage of chronicling first-hand stories of despair from Pakistans feudal world, ensuring that he is not just moralising from a drawing room.

The eight stories that make up this collection are set in the heartland of one of Pakistans most backward and conservative regions, a region of shocking poverty and illiteracy in the heart of Parha Likha Punjab (Well-Educated Punjab, a scheme started by Punjabs former Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi), namely the Seraiki belt, including the city of Multan and the town of Muzzafargarh. Pakistans Prime Minister Yusouf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi are from Seraiki.

This region is also home to a thriving nationalism based on the rich language, Seraiki, which has given birth to some of the most powerful Pakistani resistance poetry in recent times. The book is a pioneering work in that it makes a departure from recent Pakistani writing in English. It takes as its subject the lives, loves and struggles of 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 R.K. Narayan, Quratulain Hyder, Prem Chand, Rasheed Jahan, Ismat Chughtai and Wajida Tabassum in order to find a comparable critique of subcontinental feudalism.

The stories in this collection do not directly criticise the institution of feudalism, but by describing the relationship between its various inhabitants electricians, politicians, maids, mistresses, foreigners, housewives and university professors it brings out the fundamental contradictions of the system, which indicate that it cannot survive much longer.

The books strongest characters are its women ranging from the lowly maidservant Saleema to the two mistresses, rural Zainab and the middle-class and urbane Husna, to the more liberal and sophisticated Mrs. Harouni and the free-spirited Lily who all love, enjoy their sex and alcohol, and want to be protected just like other women.

They partake of every ritual, whether lawful or illegitimate, but sound a cautionary note with regard to their real position within the feudal confines. For it might appear to be a seemingly self-sufficient and adaptive system, but at its heart, and where its real power is derived from, is the utterly subordinate role it ascribes to women.

The women in Mueenuddins stories delight with their relaxed and non-conformist attitudes to love and sex, and are thankfully spared the added insult of the purdah so intrinsic to the upper-class Muslim ashraf families of pre-Partition India but also infuriate by buckling down to the subordinate position accorded to them by the patriarchal order and by their refusal to challenge patriarchy and feudalism from within.

One wishes that Mueenuddin had taken a leaf out of the inspiring story of the courageous Mukhtaran Mai, an illiterate Pakistani woman from Muzzafargarh. She successfully stood up to the feudal overlords who raped her, exposing in the process the shocking role of panchayats, which consolidate oppression, especially of women.

Likewise, the men in these stories are mostly rich, apathetic and absorbed in the depravities of this dying world, whether it is the small-time village electrician Nawabdin or the oligarchs of the Harouni family and their patrons. They use the well-entrenched and well-oiled system of patronage to their 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 fair play. Yet, there are men like Murad Talwan in the short story Lily, who, with their foreign education and liberal, sophisticated views, represent the hope that feudalism can yet be reformed from within and saved from collapse. However, such redemptive qualities are surrendered quickly at the altar of the self and ego by every male character.

The writer cleverly avoids ascribing a time period to his stories. Yet, at various points peppered throughout the stories by his ingenious nods to historical references, one gets a hint that feudalism in Pakistan has survived well into the 1990s and past 9/11, when the feudal oligarchs of old merely transformed themselves into businessmen. This success is owed to their collaboration with the military, bureaucracy and the police, which is blessed by the United States. Thus, feudalism is more than just a mindset, unlike what some Pakistani intellectuals claim.

But as two of the characters in these stories recognise, namely Makhdoom Talwan and Lily, in a contemporary nod to the ambitious Tancredi, desperate to save the declining Sicilian aristocracy from ruin, in Lampedusas celebrated novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), it is an artificial, decaying world and unless the parasitic inhabitants of this world address the central issues of land reform and socio-economic justice, 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, Gillanis and Khars now dominating Pakistans parliament, the better.

One wishes that Mueenuddin had also exposed the role that established religion plays in reinforcing the coercive power of feudalism, apart from the mullahs nominal role in performing legal marriages and overzealously sanctifying illegitimate liaisons.

Whatever ones disagreements about Mueenuddins depiction of Pakistans feudal milieu and its appended leisure class, he deserves congratulations on breaking into hitherto uncharted ground in Pakistani English writing. Chekhov, the writer he idolises the most, would not have been disappointed in annointing him as a possible heir.

Raza Naeem teaches political economy at a private university in Lahore, Pakistan.

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