Posted by: Jeanie F | March 13, 2010

“About a Burning Girl” from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenudin

The farther I get into this outstanding collection of stories, the more I appreciate the title of the book. Each story introduces us to another aspect of what is, geographically, a small country. But the author has compartmentalized the strata of lives there – from the rich and powerful to the lowly – in such a way that every new story takes us into a new “room” in the life of Pakistan. And, in each, there is a wonder to behold, as Mueenuddin takes us deep into the country’s customs.

Like “Nawabdin Electrician,” the story “About a Burning Girl” highlights a social culture where it is accepted as a matter of course that manipulation of others and of circumstances is not only a permissable, but a required, practice.  Nawabdin, however, used manipulation to meet his obligations to his family. Ultimately the reader is left with a feeling of affection and understanding about Nawab’s behavior.

“Burning Girl” is an entirely different kind of story and shows us the dexterity of the author in using varying narrative techniques to create an impression. “Burning Girl” is a murder mystery; it is also a biting satire and condemnation of a corrupt judicial system. Our unnamed narrator tells us at the get-go that although he is a judge in the Lahore High Court, he does not believe in justice. A man with few ethics and little ambition, his wife has pushed him ahead and he quite openly admits  that “without her I would still be a lawyer without briefs, roaming the courts looking for clients…”

The case of the burning girl is brought to him by the brother of one of his servants. The brother’s wife is dead, the judge’s servant has been arrested, the brother insists his wife died of suicide, not murder.

How this case is resolved will be left to you to read, but I assure you that you will be simultaneously entertained and appalled by what transpires. Our narrator’s observations of the life around him are sharp and biting:

About his newspaper, The Pakistan Times: “I enjoy this paper because it gives me absolutely no information except that which is sponsored by the government. It never disrupts my day.”

On learning that a servant has stolen three hundred thousand rupees and four sets of gold jewelry from his employer: “My god, I thought. The old man should have been a policeman, not a cook.”

Of his wife, meeting with one of her “projects” (someone from whom she wanted something), he observes, “Imagine my wife as being the poor man’s Lady Macbeth and you will have the entire picture.”

The world as viewed through this magistrate’s jaundiced eye is a slippery, depraved place. However, his cynical narration is so engaging that the reader ultimately – like the narrator himself – completely loses sight of the horror of the crime that was committed.

What do you think?

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