When the world hears about Pakistan, the first thoughts that comes to mind are terrorists, fundamentalists, terrorism etc thanks to the biased media.Nevertheless, a peek into Pakistan’s literary world shows that the country is much more than just that, much more complex with a labyrinth of different people and a varied society. Similarly, a glimpse into Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, ‘Moth Smoke‘ will reveal something beyond that, will narrate a story of an ordinary man whose story could have be set in just about any country of the world. Its an engaging read depicting Pakistan’s society in an unmistakable Gatsby like manner.
The prologue of ‘Moth Smoke‘ indicates that the story is loosely based on Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s sons’ rivalry. But with a twist. And that is that the protagonists are in an era of nuclear testing in the year 1998 in the modern city of Lahore. And the only resemblance they have to Shah Jahan’s sons are their names and rivalry-Aurangzeb and Daru. And in the end, it is Aurangzeb who turns out triumphant as was the case in the Mughal era when Aurangzeb defeated his brother.
Esssentially, the main protagonist is Darashikoh Shezad or Daru who is a banker living in Lahore. He gets fired from his job and from thereon begins his slow, drug filled downfall. He falls for his best friend Aurangzeb’s (Ozi in short) wife Mumtaz which have severe consequences for him. Daru is unable to find a job which results in loss of self respect, loss of electricity, loss of a faithful servant, loss of family, loss of almost everything that was once important to him. He begins to sell drugs to get his income ticking and even partners in a crime. With Ozi and Mumtaz as friends, he is able to get by and even get into classy, super rich parties where Hamid shows the rot that festers not only in Daru but also in Pakistan’s elite. Behind all the alcohol and drugs and sex lies a decline that is hard to miss.
But the story is more about Daru’s decline. ‘Moth Smoke‘ is about love, passion, idealism and jealousy. Hamid takes an old storyline-an unhappy wife, an uncaring husband, a caring friend and an steamy extra marital affair- and sprinkles his own charm over it to weave a novel story about love as an obsession and the lengths people go to achieve it and destroy those who take it away from them.
A prominent motif of the novel are moths who enter Daru’s house constantly after his electricity is cut off. They circle around the candle flames knowing that is is dangerous , that it will singe their wings. Yet they continue to romance with it, enjoying the risk that entails. Similarly, Daru loves Mumtaz knowing very well that she is a flame who can annihilate him because if Ozi came to know about their relationship it would bring on his ire on Daru.
The other themes could be corruption in society, nuclear war, the problem of unemployment among the educated youth, the elite’s superficial appearance and several more. Just like a variety of themes, ‘Moth Smoke‘ also has a number of characters apart from the love triangle like Daru’s servant-Manucci, the rickshaw driver/criminal-Murad Badshah, Daru’s family, Daru’s professor-Julius Superb and several more that add to the eclectic Pakistani contemporary society. We hear their stories through their own voices and also get to know about Daru’s personality a little more from these multiple narrators.
‘Moth Smoke‘ is a commendable novel, written in an unique style, blending in history with the present, presenting the story as a presentation in the court, mingling several voices to tell a single story yet at the same time bringing in tales of a great many myriad people! A promising read that touches upon an old theme in an excitable novel way. Go ahead and grab it!