Daniyal Mueenuddin and the Drama of Supplication

Nawab the electrician requests his employer, K.K. Harouni, give him a motorcycle. Saleema, a maidservant, looks to Rafik, a valet, for protection from Hassan, a cook. An American university student auditions for the hand of her Pakistani boyfriend before his rich, aristocratic parents. Murad the farmer requests that the party girl Lily set aside her wanton ways and become his faithful wife.

The same dramatic situation can be found somewhere in each of the linked stories in Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Sometimes this dramatic situation is central to the story, sometimes peripheral, but it’s always there, flavoring the collection like a strong spice. Let’s call it the drama of supplication. According to Georges Polti’s odd but interesting theory of the thirty-six dramatic situations, these are the ingredients of the drama of supplication: a persecutor, a victim/suppliant, and an authority to be supplicated, who has the power to deliver the suppliant from their persecutor and whose decision is in doubt.

Because Mueenuddin’s collection paints a portrait of Pakistani society, centering on the retainers and friends of the wealthy Harouni family, he implies that supplication is essential to that society. (A lot of blurbs and reviews speak of “feudalism”—and it’s true that supplication is an especially feudal act.) Supplication is the key, the all-important interaction that determines individual fates. Mueenuddin’s stories suggest that it is a dramatic situation inherent in the social order of the region. I confess I’m more interested in it as a dramatic situation than as a sociological key to Pakistan.

Any given work of literature tends to get me ruminating about one of two things: the limits of language or the existential possibilities of human drama. Before In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, I hadn’t thought very much about supplication.

Some of Mueenuddin’s stories explore how the outcome of supplication can change the power relations of suppliant and authority, reversing the dependency, creating a sense of obligation on the part of the authority.

Mustafa always managed to ask favors in a way that made Jaglani glow, choosing moments when his master felt satisfied, with work or with politics, the moment when the day seemed sweetest.

“That’s fine,” said Jaglani tersely, not wanting to show his pleasure at obliging his driver in this almost personal matter.

Some of the stories explore the instability of the arrangements brought about by supplication, dependent as they are on the whims of authority and its persistence in power.

“Did Uncle say anything about me before… before… [he died]?”

Sarwat broke in. “No,” she replied with finality. “There was and is nothing for you.”

[…]

Now Husna stood. She had reached the bottom, her pride arose, her sense of wanting to be dignified now, to accept the inevitable. For her, dignity and pride and memory would be all and everything from this moment forward.

Virtually all the stories explore the unpredictable outcome of a wish granted. (The fairy tale form in which a wish is granted that leads to the wisher’s downfall probably has its origins in the facts of the drama of supplication, I’ve decided.) Suppose you get what you ask for: it stirs up the envy of your peers, creates new problems all on its own, emboldens you to ask for more and riskier things; above all, it is disappointing. Every supplication feels like an apocalyptic drama that will bring about a final resolution, but there is no resolution, no final supplication:

And what about her epiphany in the hospital room in London, the forgiveness she received, with the snow falling steadily all day? That at least was false, there was no moment of forgiveness, no renewal, just a series of negotiations, none of them final.

This last quotation, with its seeming allusion to James Joyce’s “The Dead” (that much-belabored paramount example of epiphany in the short story), raises the question of how Mueenuddin’s interest in the drama of supplication shapes his stories.

To supplicate is to seek an epiphany, a revelation of where you stand. Most of Mueenuddin’s stories have epiphanic moments, but they also often conclude with Ozymandias-style deflations. If the lightning flash of supplication reveals where you stand, its ultimate instability, the inadequacy of any authority permanently to protect you from loneliness or death, is anti-epiphanic: time washes away any revelation. Most of Mueenuddin’s stories (not all of them) end by showing the erasure of a benefit gained by supplication. What was given is taken away. What was achieved crumbles.

More interesting, to me, is how Mueenuddin begins his stories. Perhaps the most common opening technique for the contemporary short story is the evocative, in media res opening. The minor confusions of the opening action—a succession of vivid images that demand explanation—sustain a reader’s attention far enough into the story that its central problem can take over. By contrast, Mueenuddin’s stories start with what I think of as a swerve. His first lines are usually expository, setting up a character and often narrating their backstory. “Nawabdin, Electrician” sets up Nawabdin’s skill as a tinkerer, shows his supplication of Harouni for a motorcycle and the benefit the motorcycle brings him and his family, and then, bang, the “plot problem” emerges when Nawabdin is held up by a man who wants to steal his motorcycle.

This pattern of openings is characteristic of Mueenuddin’s stories. The events I remember as what a story is “about” only begin to take place about one third of the way into it. That first third (usually, not always) is devoted to the drama of supplication, so that as a reader I found myself naturally identifying a character’s supplication as the story problem, only to have my expectations surprised when the story problem emerged out of the aftermath of the supplication instead.

This in itself suggests to me a comment upon supplication. How often does the suppliant know what they really need, and how often does the epiphany a supplication provides about one’s standing reveal anything truly essential to one’s human situation? Those revelations find us when we are not looking for them. They find us when we are avoiding them.

6 thoughts on “Daniyal Mueenuddin and the Drama of Supplication

    1. Thank you for sharing your post about Mueenuddin. I hadn’t read that, but I’m glad that I have now. You’re more granular than me because you are actually doing close reading! The hard stuff. Not me. Mostly, I just muse on the page in a way vaguely prompted by general things I’ve noticed. What I do is less valuable to the world, I’m sure, much less attentive to the books themselves, and altogether too attentive to my own speculations…

  1. At the risk of being so off-topic as to be silly, what you’re saying about epiphanies and supplication reminded me of Postrel on glamor: “mystery is glamour’s defining perceptual quality.” It seems to me that the effect of glamor is to induce a craving for epiphany, which is always deflating if it actually arrives. (If chic is, as they say, always a little cruel, then I suppose glamor is always a little calculatedly withholding.) I sense a kind of parallelism between the drama of supplication and the drama of bewitchedness, with all its intricate and reversible relations of power.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Cam. I don’t think it was off topic in the least. I can see the parallelism you’re describing. I was wishing, shortly after I published this, that I hadn’t written as if the idea of supplication is all about knowledge and epiphanies, since it is after all—especially in Mueenuddin’s stories about poor people, destitute people, whose very survival often depends upon the condescension of the rich and powerful—also an act of survival and material welfare. Glamor is much more about epiphanies than supplication. So, in fact, you were more on topic than I was!

  2. I really notice your writing; I really attend to it, which, I hope, is less insipid than saying “I love it” or “It pleases me.” I notice and attend to it because it demonstrates how criticism must start as attention – attention to the work, and attention to one’s response to it. (Loved the back-and-forth about whether this method is “interpretation” or not.) I’ve been meaning to read Mueenuddin’s book for a while, and your attention to it has increased my intention, but – and this is embarrassing to relate – when I began to think about supplication and what characters want, I couldn’t help but think of workshop writing, where one is instructed that a character must want something. Now I love the notion that a character might supplicate to get epiphany – but how, as a writer, do you write about what your character wants without supplicating for epiphany yourself? Do you have, in the drawer of your mind, a list of “workshop fiction” cliches, to accompany your marvelous list of book review cliches? (I don’t know that you’ve ever been in a workshop; you seem splendidly solitary.) Shouldn’t writers avoid swimming in prose toward epiphany? Shouldn’t we swim toward a wave that barely breaks?

    1. Hilary, thank you for what is probably the nicest internet comment I have ever received.

      Let me add, before addressing your question, that your lovely last sentence reminded me of this bit of advice from Edith Wharton: “Dialogue in fiction should be reserved for the culminating moments and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving towards the watcher on the shore.”

      Anyway, I’m sure one could make a list of workshop fiction cliches, as you suggest. I don’t think I could though. I don’t have an MFA, though I did attend a six-week workshop for speculative fiction in 2017, called Clarion West. Possibly as a result of the diversity of my teachers there, or the wisdom of my fellow workshoppers, there were very few dogmas promulgated about how stories ought to be. So I personally don’t know what the cliches of workshop fiction would be.

      It seems to me—and I realize this is a very insipid point of view—that there is no one right way to write a story. The conventions of a certain kind of psychological realism are codified to the point of mannerism, it’s true, but I’m not sure aesthetic forms can be exhausted merely by becoming codified. I happen to like hard science fiction and murder mysteries, among other things, both of which rely on very codified forms, yet continue to be developed in surprising and interesting directions within those limitations. The same is true for the sort of story that grows from a writer’s conception of their character’s desire and builds toward an epiphany. Still, like you it seems, I’m excited when I find something more complicated, or merely different, and it would be a shame to always write like everybody else.

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