Mueenuddin’s linked stories – this has now become a convention in short fiction, but in this one instance the material demands it, for the characters are part of an ancient and elaborate hierarchy – wind their way leisurely through the great
But Mueenuddin’s stories are fascinating not only for what is present in them – the beautifully relaxed, wheeling exposition that recalls the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, the love of the natural world expressed in ripples of memorable language, the dramatisation of the jagged route that human beings take towards understanding themselves and others – but also for what is absent, which is a criticism of the feudal order through which these stories wander. His gaze is curious but uncritical; he sees the world as his characters, who mostly accept the rules of the game, see it; it is as if the world can only be this way. His interest, in fact, is in those individuals who are secretly ambitious in a world where everybody is expected to know their place; his gaze halts upon those who want to rise, and those who can raise.
Yet Dunyapur has been spoiled for him by the presence of Zainab. He minded very much that he had given his sons a stepmother of that class, a servant woman. He minded that he had insulted his first wife in that way, by marrying again, by marrying a servant, and then by keeping the marriage a secret. His senior wife had never reproached him, but after Jaglani told her she quickly became old. She prayed a great deal, spent much of her time in bed, stopped caring for herself. Her body became rounded like a hoop, not fat but fleshed uniformly all over, a body thrown away, throwing itself away, the old woman sitting all day in bed, dreaming, muttering perhaps when left alone. He reproached himself for taking his eldest son’s daughter and giving her to Zainab, transplanting the little girl onto such different stock. Secretly, and most bitterly, he blamed himself for having been so weak as to love a woman who had never loved him. He made an idol of her, lavished himself upon her sexual body, gave himself to a woman who never gave back, except in the most practical terms. She blotted the cleanliness of his life trajectory, which he had always before believed in. She represented the culmination of his ascendance, the reward of his virtue and striving, and showed him how little it had all been, his life and his ambitions. All of it he had thrown away, his manliness and strength, for a pair of legs that grasped his waist and a pair of eyes that pierced him and that yet had at bottom the deadness of foil.