People & Society

Mohsin Hamid — The reluctant novelist

Updated 28 Mar, 2018 10:52am
Photo by Mohammad Ali, White Star
Photo by Mohammad Ali, White Star

As far as debuts went, there was nothing quite like it. A 250-page novel, with a three-sentence premise: “Darashikoh Shezad is an ex-banker, pot-smoker, and downwardly mobile heroin addict who also happens to have fallen for his best friend’s wife. He is on trial. You are to be his judge.”

In a land of 140 million people, with less than 14 novelists of note between them – both in English and Urdu – Pakistan was unprepared for Moth Smoke in 2000; a decline-and-fall story with everything else in between: heat and hash, nuclear bombs and car chases, kite fights and wars of succession among Mughal princes.

In a way, the 29-year-old Mohsin Hamid could be compared to the 21-year-old Bret Easton Ellis, the boy wonder who blew the lid off the Reagan years with Less Than Zero. Like Hamid’s, Ellis’s maiden novel is a tale of beautiful young drug dealers that ends in tears. Unlike Hamid, Ellis could not write to save his life.

Moth Smoke opens:

It is said that one evening, in the year his stomach was to fail him, the Emperor Shah Jahan asked a Sufi saint what would become of the Mughal Empire.

“Who will sit on the throne after me?” asked Shah Jahan.

“Tell me the names of your sons,” replied the saint.

“Dara is my eldest son.”

“The fate of Dara should be asked from Iskandar.”

(…)The Emperor closed his eyes. “Aurangzeb is my youngest son.”

“Yes,” said the saint. “He will be Aurangzeb.”

The Emperor gazed across the plain at the incomplete splendor of his wife’s mausoleum and commanded his workers to redouble their efforts. It would be finished before the war of succession began.

Lurking in the passage – around the edges at least – are hints of the fiction Hamid would write in the decade and a half to come: the pared-down prose, the Sufi core, the strong sense of displacement.

There is also lots of love: doomed love, transformational love, love described as mumtaz (sublime), love that has the power to raise Taj Mahals … or cheat on complacent husbands.

Photographed for the French publication of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, 2014 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
Photographed for the French publication of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, 2014 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

We know what happens next: war is waged and fratricide follows. Dara is held an apostate and executed. Aurangzeb reigns supreme. But the central tussle in Moth Smoke, set over 300 years later, is a tad more complicated: the conflict is less over crown than class. The severe, sectarian Aurangzeb and moderate, mystic Dara from history are nowhere to be found. Instead, our hero is Darashikoh ‘Daru’ Shezad and he has just been fired from his middling bank job. We find him an angry young man with broken dreams: an aborted PhD, an ex-girlfriend who left him for a textile baron’s son and a social circle of rich brats he despises but cannot distance himself from. Heroin beckons.

Meanwhile, his best friend Aurangzeb lives in a Sunday Times centre spread: a beautiful wife, central air conditioning and farmhouse parties buoyed by corrupt cash. A world both vapid and stupid; the cult of Ozi crushes our hero.

Hitting a Pakistan starved for self-reflection, Moth Smoke became everything to everyone. For the West, it was refreshingly un-exotic — a louche drug trip via Muslim Pakistan. For political junkies, it was a piece of the 1990s, menaced less by non-state actors than nuclear war. For the naukri pesha aspirer, Daru Shezad was the everyman. For Lahore’s feckless elite, it was a mirror to Medusa. And for Pakistani fiction in English, it was a milestone. Daru has joined the Pakistani literary canon in the same way Atticus Finch, Harry Rabbit Angstrom and Willie Stark became one with American literature.

Since that first hit, Hamid has written two more acclaimed novels: The Reluctant Fundamentalist was published in 2007, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia came out in 2013. His work has been translated into 30 languages, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and made into a feature film.

Sitting down with Hamid recently in Lahore, with a lot of ground to cover, it was decided that we must start at the beginning.

The rawest of his novels, Moth Smoke rings truest — a compendium of painful, perfect sentences. It seems easy to imagine as part-memoir (or alternatively, Darashikoh Shezad as a novelised Mohsin Hamid). Why else would the story seem bled from the heart?

“It is not autobiographical in the sense that this is not me telling you what happened in my life,” Hamid says. “Did I seduce my best friend’s wife and wind up being framed for murder? Did I seduce my best friend’s wife at all? No. I can put that to rest right now. But, in a weird way, all of those characters came from me — Aurangzeb, too; who of us hasn’t felt like a sell-out, living in Pakistan, at some point in our lives? Yet, a good friend despite being a sell-out?”

Aurangzeb is a rapacious rich kid, the sort Third World countries patent. But Moth Smoke isn’t just about the men. “Who of us hasn’t been Mumtaz, or met some Mumtaz and fallen madly in love with her?” Hamid asks. “Without Mumtaz, there is no Moth Smoke. She is the Shams to [Daru’s] Rumi, to make an interestingly gendered comparison. Regardless, Rumi’s love for the man Shams was quite transcendent.” Moth Smoke, like all of Hamid’s novels, is a love story. “I am not sure what other kind of stories there are,” he casts around. “I mean, I am sure they exist.”

Variously influenced by Rumi, Attar and Ghalib, Hamid riffs on the Sufi theme whenever he writes love into his fiction: “What is this Sufi tradition we talk about? There are a lot of banalities around it, but my take on it, in that first book in particular, was that passion of a particular strength has the power to transform people.”

What is this Sufi tradition we talk about? There are a lot of banalities around it, but my take on it, in that first book in particular, was that passion of a particular strength has the power to transform people.

A passion on display in the book’s seminal paragraphs, from where the title comes: “[The moth] circles lower and lower, spinning around the candle in tighter revolutions, like a soap sud over an open drain. A few times he seems to touch the flame, but dances off unhurt. Then he ignites like a ball of hair, curling into an oily puff of fumes with a hiss. The candle flame flickers and dims for a moment, then burns as bright as before. Moth smoke lingers.” That part, at least, is straight from the source. “Have I experienced love like that? Sure,” Hamid says. “And it fits in with our literature; an all-consuming, passionate love, that is fallen out of fashion in Western fiction.”

Though much else has been shed along the way, the Sufi thread has weaved itself through Moth Smoke to Hamid’s latest novel written 13 years later. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is vastly different from anything he has attempted in the past: a rags-to-riches epic, masquerading as a self-help book (Hamid often catches it in the business sections of bookstores).

And its last sentence, equally informed by a Sufi spin, has spawned a thousand theories: “…for despite all else you have loved, you have loved your father and your mother and your brother and your sister and your son and, yes, your ex-wife, and you have loved the pretty girl, and you have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you, though not in a creepy way, and so may you, may I, may we, so may all of us confront the end.”

Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

Hamid cares about his ending. “A lot of thinking went into that sentence,” he says. “In some ways, I wanted to write the equivalent of a non-religious Sufi text. That was my thinking behind How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. If you were to take a ghazal that says love is one way to think about how we can achieve a certain degree of release in this life – by making us less centred in ourselves, and therefore less terrified by the end of ourselves – how would that take form? For me, that sentence is a sort of secular prayer, and ‘not in a creepy way’ is just tongue-in-cheek.”

Not that it makes the passage any less earnest. “If I were to think of one sentence in all my fiction that I most care about,” Hamid says, “it is that one sentence”. Which brings us to the twist in this Sufi take: all love is doomed, as a review of his work makes clear (for those still unfamiliar with his books, spoilers follow).

Nadira is Love 1: she abandons Daru for men who run around in Pajeros. Mumtaz is Love 2: she leaves Daru a sobbing mess in the rain. Erica, from The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is Love 3: an obvious allusion to the Land of the Free, (Am)erica disappears as fast as she appears. Around the same time, the romance of America turns repulsive for our hero, who finds himself a modern-day janissary enslaved by his corporate masters. “The pretty girl” from Rising Asia is Love 4 and, at long last, a Hamid protagonist gets the girl in the end. Fatherhood has softened the author’s pen, even if two Romeos later.

“The pretty girl was my non-doomed love story,” Hamid agrees. “But here is the thing about love: it is always doomed. The fact that we are all going to die means it is always poignant — if you love somebody enough, be it your parent or your child or your spouse or a lover, they are going to go. Despite how strongly we feel, we do not get to keep the relationship, and that lends a sort of poignancy to the love we have.”

Not that he would have it any other way. “I mean, without love, what’s the point? Why be here?”

Mohsin Hamid as a child, with his father in Lahore, 1974 | Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid as a child, with his father in Lahore, 1974 | Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

Hamid was born in Lahore in 1971, a season before Pakistan’s bloody separation from Bangladesh — not unlike his father, who was born close to another bloody partition in 1947. His parents brought him to California soon after, living in the Stanford townhouse where his father was studying for his PhD.

Following a month of utter silence, the three-year-old Hamid began speaking — in English, in complete sentences. He regained Urdu, the language he lost, when they moved back to Lahore in 1980. “Eventually, I could tell a joke and sing a song in it, flirt and fight, read a story and take an exam,” he wrote of the time in a May 2011 piece for the Guardian, titled Once Upon a Life.“… But my first language would be a second language for me from then on.”

Hamid read anything he could lay his hands on: a reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, during the summer of his freshman year, has stayed with him. “It is a summer in Lahore with nothing to do, with no UPS – it was hot! – the light is coming and going, and you had that book to keep you company,” he says. “It just felt fantastic.”

Hamid’s literary influences were global: he fell in love with Latin America’s Borges, the European modernist tradition of Calvino and Camus, and Americans Baldwin and Hemingway. His distaste for borders may have been something he picked up early, before the added incentive of airport screenings.

The first Mohsin Hamid, the author’s great-grandfather, was pro-Pakistan; a Muslim League campaigner. Around Partition, he was stabbed while strolling down Lahore’s Lawrence Gardens by a Muslim who mistook him for a Hindu. The elder Mohsin survived and the story was passed down to his great-grandson. Whether this – or coming of age in General Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan – informed his politics or not, the younger Mohsin has little truck with today’s nationalism.

“Aggressively thumping one’s sexagenarian chest is a sign not of virility but of wilful self-delusion,” he wrote in a 2012 op-ed. “At sixty-five, we would be better off thinking of retirement … at least of our prickly nationalisms … Asia is big enough to dream of a world where people are judged not by the colour of their passport, but by the content of their character.”

This is a favourite premise in Hamid’s essays, just as migration is a motif in his fiction. “To a certain extent,” he told an Australian interviewer last July, “Shane Warne emerges from a tradition that we saw bowlers like Abdul Qadir engage in the 1980s with”. Would there be an Imran Khan, posed Hamid, without a Dennis Lillee? “I’m very suspicious,” he said, “of terms like ‘the West’ and ‘the East.’”

Hopping continents has chimed well with Hamid’s literary rise, building a brand that blurs borders. A self-proclaimed “transcontinental mongrel”, he has lived in New York and London, before moving back to Lahore in 2013. “I feel an allegiance to this house, this family, this city, this country,” Hamid wrote of home 12 years ago in a piece, The Pathos of Exile, for Time magazine. “It makes my eyes burn. I do not want to leave. But I know I am a wanderer, and I have no more choice but to drift than does a dandelion seed in the wind. It is my nature. It is in my soul, in my eyes.”

To the world at large, Hamid’s literature is distinctive — henna-stained hands do not adorn its covers, nor is the content much about mixed marriages or postcolonial nosebleeds.

In his new non-fiction compilation, Discontent and its Civilizations, Hamid takes this thesis and comes out swinging. “Civilizations are illusory. But they are useful illusions,” he writes. “They allow us to deny our common humanity, to allocate power, resources, and rights in ways repugnantly discriminatory.” Then he throws down the gauntlet, “Our civilizations do not cause us to clash. No, our clashing allows us to pretend we belong to civilizations”.

This is Hamid, the dandelion seed. But like the said seed, critics ask if this may be too flighty a perspective. Reviewing the book in The Public, a New York weekly, Woody Brown tried boxing back. “The truth is that “civilizations” may be illusory in a certain sense, but in our world they are not,” he snapped. “They are real. So is culture, so are communities… That does not mean that racism is correct, but it does mean that in, say, the United States, living as a black person and living as a white person are two very different things.”

Brown found the contrary glib. “This line of thinking considers sectarian conflict absurd and baseless… (but) even though there may be no functional, physical, visible difference between Hutus and Tutsis or between Sunnis and Shias or between Protestants and Catholics, there still is a difference, one that many millions of people take very seriously … one that cannot be dissolved by saying it’s imaginary or fake or silly. The truth of the matter is that a 10-dollar bill is not just a piece of paper. It is 10 dollars.”

Presented with this, Hamid shrugs. “If someone says Zeus is real, and you tell them Zeus is a loser, they are going to think that is not right. I am not arguing illusions do not exist — they do exist and people believe in them. I am arguing that should you scrutinise these questions more closely – what is a Muslim, what is a Hindu, what is a Pakistani – these things start to dissolve before your eyes. The first friend you make from a different place, and the first fight you get into with someone from your own, is enough to convince you of that.”

He draws closer to home. “Pakistan gives you a good chance at living on the frontlines of this debate and see where you get to if you take it all the way. The idea that there is a Hindu civilisation and a Muslim civilisation, to start. But then, what is a Muslim? Are Shias Muslim? Do you pray five times a day? You discover this divisive impulse, the knife that can cut things finer and finer until there is only you standing.”

Does this not gloss over real-life racial prejudice? Hamid finds it fits his point, “There is a kind of racial, civilisational conversation happening in America right now: people that are disproportionately white are terrified of people that are not, whether it is shooting them in the street, or killing them in their churches, or denying the legality of the election of one of them as President. Is there such a thing as being a black American? Yes… if you are a white American. And we have been fed so much of that in this country: are you a Punjabi or a Sindhi, Shia or Sunni, a this or a that.” Hamid sounds tired. “I do not want to have cornflakes with people on the basis of these civilisational theories. If I sit down with some Japanese writer, and he does not speak a word of English, eats a completely different cuisine – though I love sushi – and we discover, through a translator, that we’re on the same page when it comes to what we think fiction is about, that dude is part of my civilisation.”

At the announcement  of the Booker Prize Shortlist in 2007 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
At the announcement of the Booker Prize Shortlist in 2007 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

The story of Pakistani fiction in English is bookended by two of its biggest heroes: both outsiders, both romantics and – at their worst – both card-carrying sociopaths from Lahore. One was Daru Shezad. The other was Faredoon Junglewalla, a Parsee patriarch and gentleman (try though he does, to murder his mother-in-law).

Bapsi Sidhwa, the grand old lady of the Pakistani novel in English, wrote The Crow Eaters in 1978. Set in Lahore around the turn of the century, the novel brought us Junglewalla, a family man for the ages: warm, gentle and inclined towards arson.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz called it a veritable tour de force. But for Sidhwa, no one was prepared to publish it — a string of rejections she “would not wish on anyone.” When she finally self-published, she told Dawn two years ago, The Crow Eaters “got terrible reviews locally. But when it got published in the UK and got the David Higham Award, and all the magazines and newspapers there gave it glowing reviews, then the Pakistani press began to love the book.”

Sidhwa was wry about it. “We look westward for approval.”

It would be hard to understate the trail blazed by Sidhwa. “Bapsi is important to me … it is a funny thing to say now, but thinking to write one day in English, you need to believe something is possible before you can do it. And I saw her write about Lahore,” says Hamid. The Crow Eaters ranks right up there with his six favourite books.

I am arguing that should you scrutinise these questions more closely – what is a Muslim, what is a Hindu, what is a Pakistani – these things start to dissolve before your eyes. The first friend you make from a different place, and the first fight you get into with someone from your own, is enough to convince you of that.

But the novel was a stray success. As Kamila Shamsie wrote, “Until the 1980s, the idea that books in English were written almost entirely by people from England and America had such a strong hold on people’s minds that there was very little consideration even given to the absence of a canon of Pakistani-English writing”.

That consideration grew with Muneeza Shamsie’s groundbreaking anthology, A Dragonfly in the Sun, published in 1997. Chronicling 50 years of Pakistani writing in English, she says of the experience, “When I compiled A Dragonfly in the Sun, Pakistani English literature was comparatively little-known as a body of work, although it had developed a strong, new, contemporary voice. An increasing number of writers of Pakistani origin had started to win international prizes. The youngest in the collection was the 28-year-old Nadeem Aslam. So the book appeared in that period of transition when a new generation of really talented writers was just beginning to emerge”.

That thinking has thankfully changed in the 18 years since. Asked whether the impression – from around 2009 – that Pakistani authors were throwing up exciting work still applied, John Freeman, who edited the vivid Granta 112 – the Pakistan edition – says: “In America, the literary landscape often has space for just one ... there is just one Bengali (Jhumpa Lahiri), there is just one South African (Nadine Gordimer), I am generalising but you get my drift. But for some reason, it has made space for several Pakistanis at once, and none of them are saddled with that weight of being their country. That’s a powerful statement as to the talent of the writers in Pakistan”.

Having edited Hamid’s work for Granta, Freeman remarks, “I think Mohsin has achieved what the best writers do: he has made his voice feel necessary”. But are his works of literary merit? For Freeman, “A writer only becomes necessary through literary merit: subject matter cannot elevate any work. It is how Mohsin uses storytelling techniques to investigate moral questions that makes him interesting. It is how well he does it which makes him essential”. 

When asked where Hamid fit in the South Asian literary firmament, Freeman replied, “… You feel he is as much in dialogue with Albert Camus and F Scott Fitzgerald and Antonio Tabucchi as he is with, say, Intizar Husain. There’s a cinematic flair to his writing, which does not degrade the power of language.”

At the Lahore Literary Festival in 2014 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
At the Lahore Literary Festival in 2014 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

How much of Hamid’s local popularity stems from his international acclaim – as Sidhwa observed about herself – is a difficult question. But the West has taken to Hamid’s work with unconcealed enthusiasm. From her perch as chief book critic at *The New York Times*, Michiko Kakutani was moved to call Hamid “the most inventive and gifted writer of his generation”. This, from the lady who called a Nick Hornby novel “a maudlin bit of tripe,” and a Jonathan Franzen memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass”. To wow Kakutani is the literary equivalent of slaying the hydra.

This may be because, to the world at large, Hamid’s literature is distinctive — henna-stained hands do not adorn its covers, nor is the content much about mixed marriages or postcolonial nosebleeds. In an interview with Duke University’s Chronicle Online, he said, “I certainly think there is a post-post-colonial generation. I am sure a lot of voices you are seeing coming out now are people who never had a colonial experience. We do not place a burden of guilt on someone who is no longer there.”

Bereft of empire, or for that matter undivided India, Hamid is content with writing for himself. “People are writing about the subcontinent with eyes that are not meant to be seeing, for someone who does not live there, people who are not exoticising where they come from. I try not to mention the minaret, because when I’m in Lahore, I don’t notice it.”

For Hamid, Pakistani writing is “the new fast-bowler” on the block, but it is hard to imagine the literary landscape without his first two novels charging the way. If Sidhwa was Kardar of Pakistani fiction writing, Hamid may have been its Imran Khan. If Sidhwa was the founder, Hamid is the Renaissance man.

Moth Smoke set off a storm that has yet to wind down, 15 years later, Hamid’s own career mirroring the second and, thus far, definitive wave of Pakistani fiction in English.

His voice has since been joined by many more. Today, the range of new authors is thrilling: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s beautiful short stories set in southern Punjab, H M Naqvi’s bold, breakneck 9/11 novel Homeboy, Saba Imtiaz’s hilarious, urban Karachi, You’re Killing Me. “We are not lying in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon our sort of quirky, funny families,” Mueenuddin said in a 2009 interview. “There is an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive.”

On the film set of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in Delhi, 2011 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid
On the film set of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in Delhi, 2011 |Courtesy Mohsin Hamid

Today, Hamid is working on his fourth novel. He has scaled back his full-time writing a degree, dabbling in consulting, helping with the wonderful Lahore Literary Festival, and sitting on the nominating panel for the Best Foreign Film Oscar’s Pakistani entry.

“Full-time writing,” he says, “meant marrying my mistress”. This may be why it takes him seven years to finish a book on average — his agent calls him the Reluctant Novelist. Drafts of Moth Smoke were thrashed around in his college days, first at Princeton – where he studied under Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison – then at the Harvard Law School. He wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist while working at McKinsey & Company to pay off his law school loans. “I always thought I was going to wind up in Pakistan,” he said recently. “I was afraid that if I kept walking down the path at McKinsey, that I would become a partner and start earning a lot of money and price myself out of my own dream.”

Hamid wrote Moth Smoke between midnight and dawn, and it shows. Now, with his two children making demands on his time, Hamid writes from six to 10 in the morning. “If I get two or three hours of writing, my day is fantastically successful.”

The typical day is a few hundred words and the typical novel is a slim work — that he would rather have people read his work twice than halfway through, is a famous sound bite attributed to the man. “I have said that because I believe in compression and besides, what else can I say?” Hamid laughs. “I write short books and it takes me a long time. I just don’t have a summer to spend in my dacha in rural Russia anymore, while my serfs farm the land and I relax with a 1,500-pager. I might have a box set of Game of Thrones to get through.”

What of the criticism? Hamid learned, studying under Oates, to be unmerciful with his writing. When contacted, Oates was certainly more charitable. “I have read most of [his] work and consider him a brilliant, ambitious writer of bold and provocative fictions.” Not that she was surprised, she said, since he was outstanding at Princeton.

I was afraid that if I kept walking down the path at McKinsey, that I would become a partner and start earning a lot of money and price myself out of my own dream.

Yet, acclaim from abroad has little bearing on the occasional pot shot at home. “People walk right up to me at a dinner or a wedding or a party and say, ‘I hate it. Why did you write that? I cannot stand your stuff.’ And I am thin-skinned; I would love to say I don’t care what people think, but I do,” Hamid says. “People do not realise that you spend six or seven years of your life on your novel; it is like a child — no one would come up to you and say, ‘Your child is ugly.’”

And yet he does not seem to be slowing down. “I want to be loved, but I am still going to do what the hell I want to do. In a way, it is a very base human thing: you put something out there, and declare, ‘Love me! Love me! This is my baby; here I am!’ And people answer, ‘You suck!’ And you say back, ‘Well, that is not nice.’ But that is how the world goes.”

There is one last question — perhaps unfair. We go back to where it all began: Moth Smoke, final chapter. To recap: Daru is on trial for murder. We are to be his judge. Might the writer put himself in the reader’s shoes, 15 years later? Might Mohsin Hamid judge Darashikoh Shezad?

Hamid, who once called the novel a divided man’s conversation with himself, is torn. What follows is a similar conversation between different people: the student who wrote Moth Smoke at night; the lawyer who saw Pakistan dive deep in these long terror wars; and the citizen at the end of his tether.

To start with, Hamid understands Pakistan in 2015 is not the Pakistan of 1998. “The mood in our country right now is very much about vengeance. We want people dead and hanged, and our justice system reflects that: it has reached a kill-and-ask-questions-later moment. We are not going to bother to establish the facts,” Hamid says. “We are going to say: ‘Look. Let’s assume the whole bunch of these guys is bad, and let’s kill all of them.’ Maybe one is reduced to a kind of animalistic impulse, because survival is on the line.”

Yet Hamid has not convinced himself. “Would I as a novelist be comfortable with hanging the protagonist of my first novel? No. Deep down, I love Daru: as a character and a human being, I have enormous empathy and compassion for him.” But other worries weigh heavier. “If I am a judge and Daru appears before me in a parade of killers and terrorists, well…” The author’s face contracts.

“Maybe I am in a hanging kind of mood.”

This was originally published in Herald's September 2015 issue. To read more from Herald in print subscribe.