I love this story of Nawab, a handyman to a landowner in 1980s rural Pakistan, known for his skill (Mueenuddin calls it “his genius for crude improvisation”) in keeping the seventeen tube wells that irrigate the land running. Having inveigled a motorcycle from his employer, Nawab darts about the countryside, threatening recalcitrant motors with wrenches; making deals on the side; “fixing” watches, none of which ever keep time again; and generally busting his ass to come up with dowries for his twelve daughters. The story begins aimlessly enough, mostly intent on showing Nawab as an appealing mix of clever and clueless. But halfway through, it switches gears, as it were, and narrates a single incident in detail. Riding home one night, Nawab is ambushed by a man with a gun. In the ensuing scuffle, Nawab is shot in the groin; the robber, in turn, is shot by some locals who come running to investigate the noise. Taken to a local pharmacy (the district’s equivalent of a clinic), Nawab is saved because he can afford medical attention. The robber pleads with Nawab that he pay for his care too; Nawab loftily and self-righteously declines.
In teaching the story, I emphasize its use of character. E. M. Forster’s distinction between round and flat characters might be almost 100 years old, but it’s still useful. A round character, he says, has the capacity to surprise. Does Nawab surprise us? He does—and not necessarily for the better. We’re left with a lot of questions. How are we to think of his choice in this moment of life and death? Is he right to reject the pleas of a man who would have, as Nawab says, left his wife and children bereft of their breadwinner? Or has he failed a test of magnanimity? Has what was colourful become checkered? How can we tell what attitude a story takes towards its protagonist?
First published in The New Yorker, August 20 2007. Collected in Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Norton 2009. Read the story here