The year was 2000. 9/11 was still unimaginable. School curricula focused on teaching the classics of English literature. Some of us were lucky enough to read Famous Five and the Radiant Way Reader series before graduating to Shakespeare’s plays and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at school. If you had a reading habit, you were invariably introduced to more English classics by your elders. A small minority had read Bapsi Sidhwa, who was considered the face of Pakistani English fiction in those days. Our exposure to indigenous English writing akin to creative art was mainly through Khalid Hasan and Ardeshir Cowasjee’s newspaper columns.
It was to this arguably fertile-but-little-explored landscape that Mohsin Hamid came, saw, and conquered. His small, innocuous-looking book started doing the rounds, and received several outstanding reviews. Moth Smoke was a breath of fresh air to Pakistani readers, especially students at several English-medium schools, many of whom were reading the Harry Potter series at the time.
Moth Smoke broke away from the dominant discourse of Pakistan’s division into a Ziaul Haq-centric binary. Hamid bravely ventured into depicting the urban middle and upper classes of Pakistan, which had moved on from the Zia hangover. Ironically, our literary and social discourses still insist on bifurcating our history into a visibly liberal pre-Zia Pakistan, and a less-tolerant and more militant post-Zia country.
Despite all the accusations of treating the homeland as exotic, Moth Smoke located Pakistani fiction in the contemporary global literary milieu, building on Kamila Shamsie’s In The City By The Sea (1998). Following on the rich success of Hamid’s debut, Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, and later Nadeem Aslam, broke barriers and began publishing abroad, found new audiences, received awards, and in the process became the face of Pakistan’s internationally recognised literary identity, which in the political token of that day and age, was called our ‘soft image’.
Hamid followed Moth Smoke with the extremely popular and controversial The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), which divided opinions. Many critics detracted from what they perceived to be Hamid’s pandering to the West. Arguably, it was a weak storyline with loopholes in the plot, and hackneyed use of language. He replied with the 2013 release of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia — an evocative narrative of the changing face of consumerism. In his restrained way, Hamid attempted a broad sweep of his brush, much like Aravind Adiga had done with White Tiger. The plot, characterisation, and a natural flow of language mimicking the conversational, were refreshing at a time when Pakistani fiction in English was rightfully being accused of being stagnant and static.
Hamid’s latest novel Exit West is unlike his previous work, and unlike most of the post-9/11 fiction written in Pakistan. Taking into its broad sweep the recent refugee crises in the world, the novel is ostensibly located in Pakistan, but like the ambiguous ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the real ingenuity of Hamid’s narrative is his ability to imply that his protagonists Saeed and Nadia can be refugees from any culture, regardless of religious and geographical affinities.
At its heart, Exit West is a story about the reaffirmation of mature love. The protagonists fall in love, pine (albeit with the classic understatement which is the absolute anti-thesis of the kind of pain reflected in traditional Urdu poetry), and finally move on. This kind of maturity is quite often lacking in fiction because at our hearts we are still a dreaming people. Saeed and Nadia do not consummate their relationship, always waiting for their marriage, which is interrupted first by a violent death, and then by successive displacements. Theirs is a love in transition, an allegory for the interconnected world we inhabit, where every stage is but a transition. However, it is important to note that their interconnectedness is not viewed through some misplaced nostalgia of a pre-technology age.
The central premise of the novel is based on the Magic Realist motif of mysterious black doors that serve as portals into other countries, much like the Floo Network in Harry Potter’s world. Hamid does not trivialise the idea of escape from unbearable circumstances; The militants who have taken over Saeed and Nadia’s hometown are a real menace, after all. The refugee crisis that emanates from civil war in Afghanistan, Syria, or Libya, is a reality that is too proximate for a writer as sensitive as Hamid to mock. The presence of these magical doors is an overt symbolism for the underground network of human traffickers that plays a critical role in the migration of refugees and Hamid’s narrative concedes the structural necessity of such ‘magical’ channels in situations where governments fail to provide refugee assistance. This is doubly apt given the current refugee crisis in the world.
Hence, Exit West is a well-timed novel, like all of Hamid’s previous work, closely following what detractors would dismiss as his response to the demands of a global market. The upside of this argument is that Hamid cannot be denied credit for his realist and socially relevant narrative which underscores the greatest predicament currently faced by humanity: to turn away refugees or to rehabilitate them.
Hamid intersperses his narrative with minor episodes from other parts of the world. These are not proper sub-plots, more akin to digressions that act as tiny fragments. However, this does not create a fragmented narrative. Although not fully developed, this style accentuates the staid irony of a closely knit plot which despite being punctured in places insists on Aristotelian unities.
The question that Exit West asks its reader repeatedly is: in a world separated by geographical boundaries and yet tied together by a single humanitarian urge, why are we still looking for coherence in our stories? If humanitarian supporters of refugees stand guard against soldiers from their own countries to protect the rights of ‘aliens’, then notions of belonging and homeland must also become as fluid as a story without a definite end. Hamid’s story, however, has a definite end note.
The most striking thing about the stylistic evolution of Hamid’s prose is the distinctive experimentation with sentence length that he boldly undertakes in Exit West. Long sentences, combining thoughts in the way a hurried storyteller does, appear to easily flow like liquid under a door. The allegory of refugees slipping through those doors is therefore mirrored in the flow of language. In the context of modern Pakistani English prose, this is an energising development, where the apparent simplicity of language literally leaves the reader breathless.
“The end of the world can be cozy at times,” Hamid reminds us. From what appears to be a dystopian world, the utopia of love (between individuals as well as between segments of humanity) offers redemption.
At a surface level, Exit West is a love story revolving around the international refugee crisis. It gives a message of hope, which due to its understated quality of prose and plot, does not sound clichéd, and hope can be perceived. Hamid reminds his readers that his continuous experiments with narrative, diction, and plot, will ensure that he remains at the centre of any discussion of a Pakistani idiom of English fiction.
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Riverhead Books, New York