Mohsin Hamid: We Are All Migrants

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Mohsin Hamid writes of war and conflicts as intimate personal experiences in his new novel. The writer in conversation with Nandini Nair

ON SUNDAY NIGHT, March 12th, a blizzard was heading straight for the East Coast of the US. The forecasters predicted 20 inches of snow, which would have made it a historic storm. While air travel was hobbled, Mohsin Hamid was bravely fighting the wind and sleet late at night to make it back to New York City by car. Speaking on the phone (he wasn’t driving), he says, “You can imagine that as a Pakistani man nothing frightens me quite as much as the idea of being cold.” When I call him from Chennai, I am minutes away from the Bay of Bengal, the presence of sun and sand are so fierce that snow and cold seem ideas and imaginings rather than realities. For a moment we both marvel at the difference in our settings, and how the little gadget that we hold to our ear has brought us together.

Hamid, it is safe to say, knows more about movements and relocation than most of us, having spent his life in different cities in different continents. He has lived in Lahore, California, New York and London. Born in Lahore in 1971, he spent part of his childhood in the US. He then got degrees from Princeton University (where he studied under Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates) and Harvard Law School, before joining McKinsey as a consultant. The 45-year-old novelist has lived in Pakistan a little less than half his life. He was in the US for 17 years, and in London for close to a decade. He has now been based in Lahore, along with his wife, two children, parents and many cousins, for seven years. For him, the idea of home isn’t a single location, and is a tricky concept. Home is a collection of people, places and experiences. “I feel partly at home very easily. But fully at home with great difficulty,” he says.

Hamid’s latest novel Exit West (Hamish Hamilton; Rs 599: Pages 229) acknowledges this very reality: we are all travellers, whether we are driving home through a blizzard in the dark or sitting at our desks in sunshine. As he writes in his book, ‘We are all migrants through time.’ He even considered calling his novel, ‘We are all migrants through time’, but his publisher and agent came up with the catchier title ‘Exit West’.

In the sparsest of prose, Exit West , his fourth novel, tells us a story about Nadia and Saeed, two young people trying to survive a conflict that is not of their own making. While dramatic events (like bodies hanging in the air, unbearable odours of corpses or young men playing football with a severed heard of a goat) do occur in the novel, this is a work of ideas rather than occurrences.

It looks at human migrations through the minutiae of lives and not the rhetoric of politics. As Hamid writes, ‘War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.’ We are reminded that it is through everydayness that conflicts and crises are negotiated and not in presidential palaces or Oval offices.

I wanted to avoid focussing on the dramatic part of the journey. I want to focus on the lifetime that leads up to departure and the lifetimes that happens after the departure

The book asks, how do we survive in cities ‘teetering at the edge of the abyss’? Exit West opens with Nadia and Saeed gently falling into the rhythms of a relationship (aided by psychedelic shrooms and spliffs). Their city is not a place of specifics. But the anywhereness of it makes it familiar. To name it would have been to limit it. Hamid says that he does use Lahore as the template of the place, but the circumstances that unfold in the city are not like Lahore. He adds, “I wanted to open up the place that they left. How we think about migrant narratives right now is we think of them as immigrants, the focus is the place they are coming to, the place they are leaving is slightly out of focus.”

As the militants in their city grow in confidence and as curfew stretches longer, Nadia and Saeed grow closer, and start to look for a way out, even if it means leaving their families. Hamid chose consciously not to detail the journey out of the unnamed ‘held city’ and to the Greek island of Mykonos. That ‘journey’ happens by falling through a door (think Narnia and her magical doorway). He explains this choice: “I wanted to avoid focussing on the dramatic part of the journey, which we so often focus on. How they cross the Mediterranean or crawl under the fence, which makes migrants of this type, refugees in particular, feel different from the rest of us. But it is only a tiny moment of their journeys. Of their lives. And I want to focus on the lifetime that leads up to departure and the lifetimes that happens after departure. That for me is the bulk of the story. Doors were the way to do that. But also I felt the doors were appropriate in a world where distances are collapsing.”

If Hamid uses doors as an escape chute, he also deconstructs windows, in a way that makes the war come alive. He uses the quotidian to show how conflict infiltrates routines. A window becomes a liability in a city under siege, as through it death can sneak in and deliver the final blow. The fragility of glass, he says, depends on us treating each other gently. If we do not, glass is an inappropriate and dangerous material. He explains, “Unlike a door, a window is intended mainly as a one-way portal. You can see through it, from the outside in. But when that energy changes and shrapnel begins to fly, when the window starts to admit things into your space it becomes devastating.”

If Hamid forces us to re-evaluate our relationship with doors and windows, he also subverts our understanding of punctuation. This is a book where a sentence could run the length of the page

If Hamid forces us to re-evaluate our relationship with doors and windows, he also subverts our understanding of punctuation. This is a book where a sentence could, for instance, run the length of the page. For Hamid, a full stop is a border, and in novel about borders disappearing, it only made sense to challenge punctuation marks that divide and cause separations. A paragraph without full stops (but with commas) becomes a continent unto itself.

These long sentences also lend a certain incantation-like rhythm to the novel. You read it as you might chant a familiar prayer, with fewer pauses and breaks. It also speeds up the tale and makes it sound as if it is being told by a narrator to a listener, or even an audience. For Hamid, whose books veer on the shorter side (The Reluctant Fundamentalist was only 168 pages), shorter works are reminiscent of the act of storytelling between a narrator and audience. He says, “How do you scale a novel? My attention span and life have become so fragmented. I like the novel’s potential to unify that attention span. And so a novel that can be read in one sitting offers the option of an uninterrupted encounter. In the world right now, there are very few uninterrupted encounters of substantial length. When I encounter a novel that I can finish in one-two sittings, I feel like something has happened. It is a profoundly different way of being.” In his novels it is apparent that Hamid prescribes to a “certain aesthetic of efficiency—take as much time as you need, but no more”.

Hamid’s fascination with love and death come to the fore in Exit West. While ‘love’ or a profound connection sustains the two young people, death always simmers below the surface. For the author, this was important as it is an acknowledgement that none of us survive, we are all temporary. “These hints of temporariness are not hints of a dramatic ending at a particular time in your life, but are sort of guideposts to the basic reality—that all of us die,” he says.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) hoisted Hamid into the literary charts. Narrated over the span over a single evening in the inimitable voice of Changez, a young Ivy-educated Pakistani, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The book delivered a punch to the gut because it told of the months before and after 9/11 from a personal point of view. A decade after reading it, one can still remember the chill it left in its wake. As the Guardian review noted, ‘The novel is his (Changez’s) monologue: a quietly told, cleverly constructed fable of infatuation and disenchantment with America, set on the treacherous faultlines of current east/west relations, and finely tuned to the ironies of mutual— but especially American—prejudice and misrepresentation.’

The fable like quality of Hamid’s work can also be experienced in his third novel a purported ‘self-help guide’ How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) told in the second-person. Like in Exit West, here too, the city is nameless, though, of course,it evokes Asia, both in its desperation and enterprise. In his novels, Hamid deals with issues of our times, whether it is the hollowness of the ‘American dream’, globalisation, the rise of extremism, or the drama of human migrations. But in all his works there is a touch of the unreal. His goal after all isn’t to represent reality as well as possible. He adds, “I don’t entirely believe in reality, because reality doesn’t exist. What we perceive as reality is a construct of a biological machine that is our body.” He asks how we can ever know if my green is the same as your green, even if we both might recognise it as green. Whether you are talking about Sufi thought or Hindu mysticism or contemporary neuroscience, the evidence is quite strong that reality isn’t actually real, he says.

Caught in the throes of the US book tour, one can’t help but ask when India might fall into his schedule. India is a place of close friends and happy memories for him, but right now he veers on the side of caution, adding, “It doesn’t feel like the best time to come to India as a writer of Pakistani origin. I hope the political climate improves, as I would love to come.”