Inconvenient truths from the diary of a ‘half-outsider’

11 September 2001, close to nine in the night — the house is empty, except for a teenager who wants to or, rather, needs to watch a saucy segment from one of the “Hollywood” films aired on Zee MGM before his parents come back. This boy has recently hit puberty. He switches on the TV and, instead of the transient-and-rather-urgent brush with smut, notices something else on the small screen that commands attention: the footage of twin towers succumbing to the ground like two knees collapsing due to a ligament tear. The first thought that hits him is not of disgust or anger, but of awe — one tenuously tethered to some sort of (perverse) admiration for the perpetrators. The first thought: “They managed to bring down the mighty.” The victims’ pathos strikes him after a few seconds: the loss of those who lost their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends; the shameless misappropriation of religion; the swift disintegration of humanity. But, as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t share his immediate reaction to those ghastly attacks; it was a little, shameful secret meant to be forgotten. That boy was me.

Ten years later, while reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I came across a passage where Changez (the book’s protagonist), an investment banker, born in Lahore, bred in New York, recounts his impression of the 9/11 attacks to an American journalist: “I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased. (…) At that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack; no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”

One of the many undeniable joys of reading — either fiction or non-fiction — is that it makes you feel less lonely, less of an outlier. Hamid allowed me to share my shame with Changez. So, not surprisingly, a few months later, I devoured his first book, Moth Smoke; in the meanwhile, I also read his interviews and non-fiction pieces published in various publications across the world. The point was to get into this guy’s head. Because when we say we “like” a writer, we are not merely saying that we like his writing (of course, we do), what we are also saying is that we like how this guy observes, thinks and reacts. Which is why discovering a new writer is not very different from finding a new friend. The reaction in both the cases is somewhere along the lines of “Damn, this guy gets my ‘scene’.”

Mohsin Hamid

And then just like that, as it so happens with friends as well, Hamid fell off my radar. I somehow missed his third book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia, although I did track some of the reviews it got. So when I chanced upon his latest, and first non-fiction, book, Discontent and Its Civilizations, it was like meeting a friend I had not been in touch for long, but had not forgotten. Good to have you back Mr Hamid, I thought. Let’s hang out for a while.
Discontent and its Civilizations is a collection of Hamid’s non-fiction pieces on life, art and politics published in newspapers and magazines around the world, such as Guardian, The New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, among others, over the last 15 years. Hamid’s also been a published writer for 15 years (his Moth Smoke hit the bookshelves in 2000), so Discontent and its Civilizations also becomes a lens that allows you to both see and understand this writer’s journey. Hamid, just like The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s Changezhas spent much of his life in Lahore, New York and London (in that order), so it’s fitting — and important — that the book opens to the writer talking about his early days in Lahore, about Art and Other Pakistans (The Ones that Don’t Make the Headlines), because pluralism — the notion that refutes our slotting into neat, little boxes based on factors such as nationality, ethnicity and faith — lies at the heart of this book; so Lahore’s National College of Arts in the early ’90s, when seen through Hamid’s eyes, becomes a place we can identify with — dotted with students dating and debating, puffing and passing, creating and absorbing. Being a Pakistani Muslim (two words that, in the last two decades or so, have acquired a new meaning in visa offices, news reels and political conversations), Hamid has, by strange convergence of chance and choice, been a New Yorker at the time of 9/11, a Londoner on 7/7, and a Lahori when Ahmadi mosques were targeted in Lahore o`n May 2010. Hamid’s clearly seen the worst of both of the worlds. And that’s informed his non-fiction writing — this strange detachment of a “half-outsider”, as Hamid calls himself, has, at various times, been both liberating and limiting: Two essays in Discontent and its Civilizations exemplify this point well.

In the essay International Relations, published in 2000, for instance, Hamid recounts his visit to the office of New York’s Italian consulate — wearing a “navy suit, pinstriped, three-buttoned”, and a “white shirt, blue tie”, Hamid’s ready for the occasion, perhaps a touch more than ready, hiding his nervousness by insincere, ingratiating smiles, fearing he may not be allowed to travel to Italy to meet his girlfriend; his visa application is eventually approved, but for a small caveat: he’s asked to present a “notarized letter and a copy of her passport”; Hamid’s not quite sure whether he’s heard the officer right, “You need a letter from a woman confirming our relationship?” She blushes, and replies: “I am afraid so.” The half-outsider Hamid knows it too well that he’s been, here, labelled and dismissed for being a Pakistani Muslim.

Now, take his 2006 essay Down the Tube, where Hamid encounters a “fellow sitting in a crowded carriage [in London’s Tube] next to an empty seat” who is wearing “a prayer cap, a loose kurta, and the kind of moustacheless beard that tabloids associate with Muslim fundamentalists”. Hamid, upset by the blatant racial profiling and wanting to prove a point, takes the empty seat next to that gentleman. He, however, soon understands that there’s something wrong with the guy: he appears fidgety, sweaty, and nervous. Hamid, now, can’t help being paranoid himself: “I wondered how he would trigger the explosives? Would he raise his arm, relying on a hidden detonator built into his sleeve? Or would he have to reach under his kurta and press a button on the bomb itself?” But here’s what happened: The train arrived at the last station; that man and Hamid got down; Hamid wanted to report the guy, but didn’t, perhaps both realising his paranoia, and how the guy — who wasn’t malevolent as such, just acting wonky — would have been treated by the already harried authorities. The Hamid travelling in the Tube wasn’t a Pakistani Muslim; he was no different, after a point, from the suspicious bystanders in the crowded carriage, refusing to take that empty seat. Fewer arguments can illume the concept of pluralism better than Hamid’s these two essays, which tell us that a unitary definition of an individual is not only myopic, but also futile.

The subsequent essays in the book, filed under “Life” and “Art”, touch upon his “fatherhood”, “enduring love of the second person”, getting “fit with Haruki Murakami”, among notable others, where Hamid writes about his passion and preoccupation with humour, insight and panache aplenty. But a major chunk of the essays — comprising half the book — in Discontent and Its Civilizations belong to the book’s last section: “Politics”. And it’s here that Hamid’s political and personal entwine, taking us close to Pakistan, a country whose narrative, for long, has been shaped by bull-headed army heads, discrimination of minorities, and a unique relationship with terror, India and the U.S. Instead of victimising his country, and resorting to vapid truism, Hamid takes to number crunching like a dogged statistician — presenting to us the number of people killed in drone attacks, the country’s tax collection amounts, and the real import of the American aid. Hamid’s tone in these pages is cautiously optimistic, placing his country’s triumphs and failures in the context of Asia and the world. But despite Hamid’s perspicacity and ingenuity, Discontent and Its Civilization is undone at times in the book’s later portions by Hamid’s sporadically repetitive ideas (in terms of either identifying problems or positing solutions). But that is not as much a flaw of the content (Hamid’s essays), as it’s of the form (the collection of essays tailored to fit into a book), because these essays, written at various points in recent years, were simply reactions to current political upheavals — motivated by similar factors — that left Pakistan fractured and fragile.

But Discontent and Its Civilizations manages to soar because nearly every essay in the book is not merely a reaction to a particular moment in time, but it’s also a collection of ideas that Hamid holds dear — that are not necessarily beholden to being topical. And that’s the most you can ask of a writer — any writer — that he bares himself on the page.

An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian.

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