Friday, August 24, 2007

Daniyal Mueenuddin's Nawabdin Electrician

This week’s story, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician”, continues the New Yorker’s global trend. The magazine has featured stories set in Germany, Communist Russia, bloody England, Ireland, and France, and “Nawabdin Electrician” welcomes a new setting: Pakistan. For me, the author’s indigenous knowledge of the culture strongly suggests Pakistan is his place of origin. Consider moments like after Nawabdin has received his motorcycle. The narrator says it “increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs.” This observation reveals the material distinctions of class in Pakistani culture to such a rich extent that the reader feels the authenticity of the narrator. Another incident of impressive cultural revelation is the scene where Nawabdin asks his boss for a motorcycle. Instead of speaking to his desire, he passively aggressively says “I’ve eaten your salt for all my years. But, sir, on the bicycle now, with my old legs, and with the many injuries I’ve received when heavy machinery fell on me –I cannot any longer bicycle about like a bridegroom from farm to farm.”

These cultural insights permeate throughout the story and speak to one of its major themes. Our global world consists of first-world digital modernity and third-world indigence, and Nawabdin exists as a median of these extremes. He works for a landowner who only cares for issues that “touched on his comfort – a matter of great interest to him.” While on the other hand, he knows his fellow country men “from the poor country across the river. Every year, those tribes came to pick the mangoes at Nurpur Harouni and other nearby farms, working for almost nothing.” And within these extremes, Nawabdin “flourished on a signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of its meters.” The diction used here signifies Nawabdin’s metaphorical significance. Words like ‘flourished’, ‘slowing’, ‘revolutions’ tell the reader Nawabdin’s “local genius for crude improvisation,” represents a segment of Pakistani society that seeks to clog the wheels of progress, of modernity. A business man like Nawabdin is able to thrive in Pakistan, using a medicine-man like knowledge of mechanics, and live a workday that “viewed from the air, would have appeared as aimless as that of a butterfly.” What happens to an individual like Nawabdin in the post-industrial, digitalized world? His stature would slip away like his motorcycle almost does.

That we learn all this literal and metaphorical information about Nawabdin through back-story is the story’s most glaring flaw. It takes the narrative six New Yorker long paragraphs to come to its actual start. As far as plot, the most relevant information provided in the back-story is how Nawabdin convinces his boss to buy the motorcycle, and this could’ve been described in two sentences, instead of a drawn out scene. Little of the other information informs the plot, especially the long domestic scene with Nawabdin and his daughters. One could argue the later scene of Nawabdin telling his robber, “my wife and children would have wept all their lives,” is given more weight by the earlier domestic scene, but I think not. The reader doesn’t need to be convinced Nawabdin loves his wife and daughters, and seeing him give them sugar doesn’t achieve this anyway. I say this, because the story doesn’t have a clear thread of connection between the story’s first and second half. Suddenly, a new paragraph starts, and the reader is told, “One evening a few weeks after the family’s festival of sugar, Nawab was sitting with the watchman who kept guard over the grain stores at Nurpur Harouni.”

And this evening becomes the conflict of the story. Nawab is driving his motorcycle, and a man waves him off the road. The man wants a ride, and Nawab, skeptical initially, is convinced when the stranger says he is from Kashmor, and Nawab remembers the farmers from this county who after working for little pay, “give a feast, a thin feast, at the end of the season, a hundred or more going shares to buy a buffalo. Nawab had been several times, and was treated as if he were honoring them.” The memory illuminates the issues of class and distinction in Pakistan more than most of the previous back-story. We see Nawab’s divided loyalties. He knows the men from this county are poor, yet he is poor too, and identifies with them, while also being treated like an honored superior by them. This memory doesn’t come without a cost: the stranger rewards Nawab’s kindness by sticking a gun in his back and trying to steal his motorcycle.

Drama ensues. Nawab refuses to lose his bicycle, receives three bullets in the lower part of his body, and moans “O God, O mother, O God”. The robber, lacking Nawab’s mechanical prowess, is unable to kick off the motorcycle, and runs into the reeds, where he is shot and screams “Mother, help me.” (Notice how both men invoke a plea to their mothers under duress.)From here, the story becomes a treatise on forgiveness. The robber and the victim lie next to one another in the hospital, and the robber pleas, “They just said that I’m dying. Forgive me for what I did. I was brought up with kicks and slaps and never enough to eat. I’ve never had anything of my own, no land, no house, no wife, no money, never, nothing. […]My mother’s blessing on you.” The New Yorker reader has followed Nawab the whole story, and never truly felt the transference of identification. I never became Nawab, until this moment. For the first time in many New Yorker stories, I wondered what I would do in this situation. Would I forgive my trespasser? (Ironic of me to invoke a Christian ideal; we are in Pakistan for God’s sake.) Nawab doesn’t. “Never. I won’t forgive you. You had your life, I had mine. At every step of the road I went the right way and you the wrong.”

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