October issue 2006
Through Foreign Eyes
For Mohsin Hamid, a management consultant-turned-novelist, the average workday has definitely changed pace. These days he sits around, reflects on life and allows the daily scenes of London to seep into his psyche. There, a multitude of ideas float around, cross paths and sometimes link up into linear thoughts. When a narrative is conceived, Hamid decides the story’s form, voice and themes. And, according to Hamid, when his idea takes flesh and he is dying to write it, he’ll pick up a pen.
It can be a long process. While he finished the first draft of his latest novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, over five years ago in pre-9/11 2001, it has just recently been scheduled for release for next spring. The novel is told as a conversation between two Americans, one originally from Pakistan, in a Lahore cafÃ©. The Pakistani-American man shares his story about living in New York and then returning back to his hometown.
Similar to Moth Smoke, Hamid’s latest novel largely reflects Hamid’s observations of the world around him. Moreover, he draws from his own experiences: Hamid, like his character, lived in New York City and, in fact, completed his first draft there.
But given that the story was first completed pre-9/11, it inevitably changed, as did Hamid’s experiences. To quote him: “9/11 is in some senses the pivot around which the novel turns, although the characters have nothing to do with 9/11 itself and are not directly affected by it.”
Instead of being inspired by any single event, Hamid describes his novel as a culmination of thousands of little inspirations that came together to drive the novel. Post 9/11, Hamid had been held in questioning rooms at JFK Airport in New York, and while it was never “nasty,” he explains that it made him feel both foreign and undesirable in the U.S. Now situated in London, he senses less fear against Muslims, and the city makes him feel closer to home.
The idea of home is an interesting one for Hamid, who, in his adult life, has spent more years away from Lahore than he has spent living there. But with a closet full of clothes and shelves of books still in his parents’ home, it seems as if a part of Hamid never left. “I’ve never relinquished Lahore in the way others have. I’ve gone back to Pakistan for a year at times.” And the city continues to be an important theme in his novels. So much so, that after just one novel, Hamid has emerged as an important literary voice of Lahore.
But with an adult life spread over three cities and three continents, his novels reflect, explains Hamid, how he has evolved as a person. After growing up in Lahore, he took off for the U.S. to study. When he returned from college with “American eyes,” he began to see his hometown differently. His awareness of the economic divide helped him understand class struggles, despite his privileged background. He was able to write the character of Daru, a struggling middle-class worker. Hamid convincingly defends Daru’s resentment against his upper-class friend, Ozi, and Ozi’s lifestyle. But then Hamid, with as much conviction, defends Ozi’s lifestyle and choices. He is able to present Lahore’s struggles with complexity, leaving the reader to determine where the fault lies.
“I haven’t seen the lives of young, educated urbanites portrayed in [Pakistani] fiction. I’ve always read writing that has a magical realism. I wanted to give those people a voice,” Hamid explains. “I don’t think I had any special insight; it’s just an individual perspective I gained from going abroad and coming back.”
Moth Smoke was received well by audiences in the U.S. and was reviewed by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Chicago Tribune, and Esquire. The New Yorker praised the novel’s “fast-paced, intelligent narration.” Hamid felt the pressure of his past success while writing his second novel, which he was surprised to find was more difficult to write.
“I’m no longer writing for myself, but for an imagined reader. For The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I’ve read the reviews [on Moth Smoke], seen my book on TV, and I’ve bumped into people who have given me their opinions. But eventually I found something that inspires me as much, if not more. I didn’t think it could happen, but I love the second novel more than the first.”
Like Moth Smoke, we can anticipate The Reluctant Fundamentalist to be a complex web of themes, stories and reflections that represent not only how the world is evolving, but also Hamid’s personal evolution. Among the themes of the novel, he lists love, wounded pride and the experience of being an outsider. He adds, “The story is as American as it is Pakistani.”
And as with Moth Smoke, which was laden with references to nuclear tests and premonitions of a nuclear showdown, we can expect to see hints of Hamid’s political convictions, both in relation to the post 9/11 world, and the politics at home. Having been away from Pakistan has certainly not kept Hamid from being vocal in his opinions and criticisms of current affairs in South Asia. He has been critical of President Pervez Musharraf’s so-called democracy. Despite the economic growth he has been witness to in trips back to Lahore, Hamid feels that the current system is not sustainable and expresses concern over the ethnic tensions in the country.
In relation to India and Pakistan, Hamid recognises how nuclear weapons have changed the dynamics of South Asia. “I’m not pro-nuclear, but I think to an extent Pakistan and India having nuclear weapons has somewhat foreclosed the opportunity for war. If war is not an option, they have to look at other ways to solve this dispute.”
Hamid is optimistic in his role as a writer in fostering understanding between the two nations. He recently co-authored an essay on South Asian art with an Indian writer, and he has received word that Moth Smoke, which did well in India, might be made into an Indian film.
But he was careful to say that he doesn’t feel Pakistan and India have the same culture. In fact, says Hamid, even Pakistani culture isn’t easily definable. “People in Balochistan have a different culture than those in Lahore or Karachi. If you compare Pakistani Punjab with the Indian Punjab, you’ll see similarities. But if you go further out, the cultures are different. I don’t think there is one big South Asian culture. But the more connections we make, the better it is.”
Hamid intends to continue to make those connections and to create discussion through his novels. In fact, he hopes his books get people to think differently about issues, just as he did when he first looked at Lahore with foreign eyes. “I don’t think books change the world, but books are part of a greater culture outside them — they begin conversation.” And, says Hamid, that conversations are easier to begin through novels than movies, where the cost of production is much lower.
“You can write more edgy, interesting, quirky and different types of pieces. I can’t imagine Hollywood paying to make my stories come alive on film, but I can see a publishing house putting down a much smaller amount to let that narrative come into being. So for people on the fringes, the novel is a very important form.”
For Hamid, the successful publication of a second novel indicates that the fringe lifestyle is going strong.