Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: Moth Smoke (published in 2000), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a million-copy international bestseller that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, made into a feature film, and named one of the books that defined the decade by the Guardian; and, most recently, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the Paris Review and been translated into over 30 languages.
The recipient of numerous awards, he has been called “one of his generation’s most inventive and gifted writers” by the New York Times, “one of the most talented and formally audacious writers of his generation” by the Daily Telegraph, and “one of the most important writers working today” by the Daily Beast. He also regularly writes essays on themes ranging from literature to politics and is a contributor to publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the New York Review of Books, Dawn, and La Repubblica.
A self-described mongrel, he was born in 1971 in Lahore, Pakistan, and has lived about half his life there. The rest he has spent drifting between places such as London, New York, California, the Philippines, and Italy. “Moth Smoke” Moth Smoke is a steamy (in both senses) and often darkly amusing book about sex, drugs, and class warfare in postcolonial Asia. Hamid struc- tures Moth Smoke somewhat like a murder trial. On the stand is Daru, a cynical, hash-loving 28-year-old bank drone and onetime boxer now accused of running over a child.
Daru relates his decline and fall after being fired from the bank (a moment he compares to a “quick sidestep in un- reality, like meeting your mother when you’re tripping”) in chapters that alternate with self-justifying monologues by the witnesses against him. Moth Smoke foregrounds Daru’s slacker predisposition and resentment toward the aristocrats (with whom he associates but cannot join) against an apocalyptic background of nuclear testing reminiscent ofRobert Aldrich’s 1955 film-version take onMickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly.
An underdog redress occurs when Daru steals his rich best friend Ozi’s wife, Mumtaz, a iscontented young mother who has become a clandestine investigative reporter since moving back to Lahore, Pakistan, from New York. Their romance generates big heat and smoke and Hamid leaves no nook or cranny of the fire metaphor unexplored, reinvigorating its archetypal metaforce with everything from the titular play of moth and flame to the apocalyptic burnout of nuclear war. When Daru and Mumtaz meet for the first time, she leaves a smoldering cigarette butt in an ashtray bed. “I crush mine into it,” relates Daru, “grinding until both stop burning.
Daru’s meager resources wane as the couple’s passion intensifies, and their relationship—not unlike that binding India to Pakistan—threatens to destroy everyone around them. Halfway through the book, to cool things off, Hamid tosses in an only slightly ironic chapter titled “what lovely weather we’re having (or the importance of air-conditioning),” in which Daru’s former economics professor discusses how Pakistan’s elite “have managed to re-create for themselves the living conditions of say, Sweden, without leaving the dusty plains of the subcontinent.
Although the novel is woozy with alcohol, hash, Ecstasy, and heroin, they serve less as pleasure vehicles than as tokens of societal decadence. Daru’s social status plummets even further when he becomes a part-time dealer to the rich kids who overpay for his wares. Maneuvering in the background are the hardcore Islamic “fundos,” whose one-size-fits-all fanaticism, Hamid suggests, possesses seductive qualities no less compelling than Ozi’s self-righteous aria justifying his own corruption (he’s not a bad guy, he argues; he just makes people jealous).
As for Daru, Hamid leaves unclear whether it’s class rancor that drives him over the brink, or the displaced nurture he derives from bad-mother Mumtaz. The Falstaffian figure of Murad Badshah, the rickshaw driver and dealer who enlists Daru in a wack scheme to knock over upscale boutiques, offers comedy relief. “Armed robbery is like public speaking,” says Murad. “Both offer a brief period in the limelight, the risk of public humiliation, the opportunity for crowd control. ” Daru’s moment in the spotlight goes awry during a suspenseful scene whose panicky, botched outcome is pure Tarantino mishegaas.
By novel’s end, the morally and financially impoverished Daru—all thirst, no quenching, and recently introduced to the joys of heroin smoke—amuses himself by playing desultory games of “moth badminton” with the insects that have overtaken his barren home. The atmosphere is vacant and corrupt, the sense of loss reminiscent of the empty, overgrown swimming pools that populate J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, the sort of slipstream masterpiece Hamid obviously admires. But Moth Smoke reads more like a tough and sinewy B movie, the kind whose dark complexities expand the more you ponder it. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”
Some books are acts of courage, maybe because the author tries out an unproven style, addresses an unpopular theme or allows characters to say things that no one wants to hear. Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, does all those things. Told in the form of an extended monologue, the novel reflects on a young Pakistani’s almost five years in America. After excelling at Princeton, Changez had become a highly regarded employee at a prestigious financial firm. He seemed to have achieved the perfect American life. We know from the beginning, however, that it will not last long.
Changez narrates his story from a cafe in Lahore, his birthplace, while speaking to an American man whose role is unclear. Changez tells him, “Yes, I was happy in that moment. I felt bathed in a warm sense of accomplishment. Nothing troubled me; I was a young New Yorker with the city at my feet. ” (Tellingly, while he didn’t see himself as a foreigner during this time, the two colleagues closest to him were also outsiders: one “non-white,” the other a gay man who grew up poor. ) In the aftermath of Sept. 11, as the tone of the country becomes more hostile, Changez’s corporate cloak lifts, and his life in America no longer seems so perfect.
Paralleling the narrative of Changez’s work life is the tale of his romantic involvement with Erica, an elegant and well-to-do New Yorker who has emotional baggage that eventually leads to a breakdown. The impossible love story softens the book, allowing Changez to tell the same story from a different perspective. Both of his potential conquests (America, Erica) have deep appeal, yet both have been damaged, making it impossible for them to be part of Changez’s life. Hamid’s writing is strongest when Changez is analyzing the finer points of being a foreigner, “well-liked as an exotic acquaintance. When he goes out with Erica, he takes “advantage of the ethnic exception clause that is written into every code of etiquette” and wears a kurta and jeans because his blazer looks shabby. Later, when he is back in Pakistan and his parents ask for details of his American life, he says, “It was odd to speak of that world here, as it would be odd to sing in a mosque; what is natural in one place can seem unnatural in another, and some concepts travel poorly, if at all. ” Perhaps as a result of speaking Urdu and English, Hamid’s style is delightfully distinct.
His clever tale lingers in the mind, partly because of the nature and originality of the troubled love story and partly because of Changez himself, who is not always likable. Or noble. The courage of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in the telling of a story about a Pakistani man who makes it and then throws it away because he doesn’t want it anymore, because he realizes that making it in America is not what he thought it was or what it used to be. The monologue form allows for an intimate conversation, as the reader and the American listener become one.
Are we sitting across from Changez at a table in Lahore, joining him in a sumptuous dinner? Do his comments cause us to bristle, making us more and more uncomfortable? Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel, and for those who want a different voice, a different view of the aftermath of 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well worth reading. “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” The city of “Rising Asia” remains nameless, but through the lens of Hamid’s critical eye, we understand it to be a metropolis closely resembling Lahore, Pakistan.
Drones fly overhead. Corruption, terrorism, and violence are everyday occurrences. Written in a fast-paced, second-person narration a la Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” we track our nameless hero, known simply as “you,” through his journey from poor rural boy to successful tycoon of a bottled-water empire. Similarly, “Filthy Rich’’ ends up being both a personal saga of love and ambition and a pointed satiric commentary on the head-turning changes in parts of the developing world.
We first meet our hero as a child, “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under [his] mother’s cot one cold dewy morning. ” He’s sickly, infected with hepatitis E, living with his family of five in a cramped, one-room shanty. There’s nothing desirable about village life. Sex between his parents is a ritual undertaken entirely clothed and right next to the children pretending to be asleep. But better things lie ahead once the family migrates to the city, a place where “wealthy neighborhoods are often divided by a single boulevard from factories and markets and graveyards . . separated from the homes of the impoverished only by an open sewer, railroad track, or narrow alley. ” It’s the bleak disparity between the rich and the poor that our hero is determined to cross in order to get filthy rich in rising Asia. Lest we forget, we’re still in the land of self-help, and in proper prescriptive fashion, each chapter homes in on a goal to improving one’s station (“Get an Education,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat,” “Dance with Debt”) and each is a glimpse into our protagonist’s career at a different stage of life, from childhood to old age.
He enters the workforce as a teenager, working the night shift as a delivery boy of pirated DVDs. As a result, he meets his soulmate, known only as “the pretty girl. ” She works at a beauty salon but is destined for bigger things. And he’s a poor boy still wet behind the ears searching his “inner salmon” for the proper motivation. Their relationship develops into a mutual crush, and she deflowers him, but this is a love that could never be, and she finds a better mate to run off with, a marketing manager in advertising.
Love, we are told, only “dampens the fire in the steam furnace of ambition, robbing of essential propulsion an already fraught upriver journey to the heart of financial success. ” Hamid’s ear for replicating infomercial mumbo-jumbo is fine-tuned, producing some hilarious moments of dramatic irony. As the novel progresses through our narrator’s life’s work, from street salesman of “non-expired-labeled expired-goods” to his true calling, the bottled-water trade — a business so dirty that he must lie, cheat, cook his books, make bribes, and sometimes murder — it reveals a rather moving portrait of a life lived in regret and denial.
He marries the wrong woman, fails as a father to his only son, and once his bottled-water business becomes an empire, he loses it, and the rise toward staggering wealth becomes a quick plummet to the bottom. There’s an unfortunate side effect to a novel of such admirable ambition. Hamid attempts to find the universal in the non-specific. And it’s an experiment that’s not completely successful. With his intentional generality and the many nameless players— “you,” “your mother,” “your father,” “your wife,” “your brother-in-law” — Hamid has created a set of characters we begin to love but are unable to clearly see.
But it’s the lifelong affair the narrator has with the pretty girl that helps us regain our focus time and again. Their lives parallel over the course of several decades. As he rises in business, his infatuation grows, and he tracks her career as a model on billboards, then as a TV personality on his wife’s favorite cooking show, then as a small-business owner in her own right. When the two come together, Hamid allows these scenes to linger pleasantly on, and in turn, his two characters appear at their most human.
Hamid has admitted that the genesis of “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” springs from the idea that reading novels can at times feel like a form of self-help. We empathize with a novel’s characters, seek their wisdom, experience their faults, find solace in their lives. Hamid’s novel embodies this concept in a tremendously profound and entertaining way, bringing to the page, front and center, why we read fiction at all. And the answer may very well be what his novel proposes: to get someone who isn’t yourself to help you.