Other Worlds, Other Wonders

Mad @ Mgmt addresses the concerns of middle market companies, including banking, family & succession issues, turnarounds & performance improvement and economic life in general. Walter Simson is founder and Principal of Ventor Consulting a firm dedicated to middle market companies.

Daniyal Mueenuddin has a remarkable history and a unique biography. The history includes graduating from Dartmouth, turning around a family firm, then returning to Yale Law School and working at a white shoe Wall Street firm. He then, like many lawyers, turned to writing.

The biography on the back of his published story collection starts this way: “Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin.”

The brevity, if not the geography, is inspired. And I think of that sentence this way: a lot of writers probably come from Lahore. A few may have stopped through Elroy. But none of them, until now, have been part of both worlds.

Mueenuddin’s 2009 collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is terrific. I read it cover to cover over a weekend, then immediately re-read it to savor its pacing, its characters and — even after one reading — its surprises. The book recounts the lives of masters and servants in rural Pakistan. It is a strange land that knows cars and helicopters, but not universal education or the rule of law. The land is dominated by an aristocracy that depends on a traditional servant class for life’s necessities and, as well, occasionally, fellow-feeling. But crossing the lines too obviously or for too long has terrible consequences, usually for the ones providing the companionship.

The characters are all briefly sketched, but we feel we know them: the driver who looks in the rear-view mirror to judge when to ask the patron’s favor; the woman who despises the idea of entering service, only to understand dignity through the lives of the long-time servants who preceded her; the impossibly corrupt judge whose self-loathing does nothing to change his habits. I do not expect to meet these people in real life, but I was happy to gain their acquaintance on the page.

Only on reflection did I understand that a key component of the book is semi-autobiographical, and about a business turnaround. Both Mr. Mueenuddin and his principal character were required by the family to turn around a plantation in the semi-feudal state of Punjab. One gathers that, given the mixture of traditional landholding records in Pakistan, as well as the prevalence of power politics and a bought-and-paid for judiciary, without active management, the family wealth would have been lost.

In interviews, Mr. Mueenuddin indicates that the farm’s turnaround took over seven years, and that the farm itself was located at least a day’s drive from any city. I imagine that a Wisconsin-bred, Ivy-educated landholder would have had the challenge of loneliness, leavened by the tang of personal danger. (The landowning characters in the book carry revolvers.) But the personal challenges would have paled compared to the political ones, which would have required the support of tenants, civil servants, suppliers and customers.

If the willingness of anyone of these groups had flagged, the enterprise would have failed. Given the traditional nature of the area, only creating an emotional connection with these groups would have endured, since apparently contracts do not.

One leaves it to the imagination to determine whether that connection was one of love or fear. One also wonders how the Wisconsin boyhood influenced the man. Was a snowy, corruption-free childhood a forgotten chapter? Or a memory cherished for its distance? Cursed for its irrelevance?

Shortly after I read the book, the area depicted was subjected to a nearly-Biblical flood, which submerged a fifth of Pakistan’s area and affected over 20 million people. The area in Punjab most keenly affected is agricultural, with plantings of cotton, cane and vegetables. These crops, as well as the livestock in the area, have been lost.

The government has done little, even many weeks following the flood. The waters still surround many villages, and water-borne disease is now a major health threat.

I contacted Mr. Mueenuddin via e-mail to see how he is faring. His plantation, to which he returned following his New York stint, is not yet affected by the waters. But it still may be, he reports. He is preparing to set up a foundation to help small farmers re-plant, and will let me know when it is up and running.

For those who love his work, and know and respect his roots, a helping hand is certainly in order. I’ll report when the foundation is set up. Maybe others in this half of his world would also be interested in helping.

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