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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!
Ever wondered how a child reacts to violence? What are the effects of cruelty, brutality on a child’s mind? His/her psyche? How it scars them? What they think of it ? How they interpret it? Ok..now you must be wondering why I am babbling child psychology cum emotional talk in a book review blog. But don’t worry I intend to write a book review only which will partially answer a few of those above seemingly unrelated questions. So what’s the book? Is it a psychology book? Or a EQ book?
Definitely NOT! Its a fictional novel produced by an astonishingly talented writer. The book’s name is ‘Ice-Candy Man‘ or ‘Cracking India’ written by Bapsi Sidhwa.
Partition was a big blot on Indian history. A lot of books were written during that time that were devoted to the sentiments, pain and grief of the common people. While most Partition literature prominently deals with adult perspectives, ‘Ice Candy Man‘ provides a rare child’s perspective of the Partition. Of course, this perspective is more or less colored by Sidhwa’s adult perspectives and ruminations too but nevertheless the book is essentially from a child’s point of view.
In a nutshell, ‘Ice Candy Man‘ is narrated by a Parsi girl, Lenny Sethi, living in Lahore. She has polio and an Ayah-Shanti-looks after her. Shanti is an attractive female constantly surrounded by a medley of male admirers who are mostly employed in Lenny’s house. Lenny learns about the news of the division, the spread of hatred as they unfold through the events she herself witnesses or hears from adults. But mostly Partition is represented or personified with Ayah’s life. How Partition, how one person’s love for her ruins her life to a large extent is a metaphor for how things turned from bad to worse, how religion got entangled with love during the Partition. Sidhwa has cleverly represented Ayah as the complex inter-cultural and inter religious background of Lahore in the pre-Partition days. Lenny’s thoughts not only reflect her childlike, sometimes confused, innocent perceptions but also depict Partition in a different light. Its gruesomeness is heightened when a child describes it. It seems even more mindless, awful and unnecessary.
Sidhwa’s style of writing can be difficult to digest as it seems desultory, jumping from one topic to another, one time frame to another in a flash. It can appear unconnected and difficult to keep track of but perhaps through this style, she is trying to portray a child’s mind and how rapidly it jumps from one interesting aspect to another. The randomness of children and their short attention span is marvelously portrayed in their writing style.
‘Ice Candy Man‘ is worth reading. it may be hard to find as it was first published in 1988. But one can easily get it online and if one searches diligently, one is bound to find one copy in some well managed library.
Pakistan maybe known all over the world only for terrorism and dictatorship (and this is thanks to a very biased media) but as a country it is so much more than that-culturally and socially. Pakistan has a lot of history, tradition and the potential to churn out good writers as well. Mohsin Hamid is one such Pakistani writer. His book, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a gem of a book, a satire yet Hamid gives it a touch of seriousness. It is a well written book that delves into the Pakistani psyche, displays Pakistani perspective, a perspective quite different from the typical American one.
A Pakistani man, Changez, converses with an American stranger in a restaurant/cafe in Lahore and tells him about his life story and how his life changed post 9/11 attacks. He talks of his life in America, being a student in Princeton, falling in love with Erica, having a steady job in New York. He seemed to have the perfect life which was interrupted by a nostalgic need for his home in Lahore. He seemed at ease in America, didn’t suffer from any identity crisis, any cultural conflict whatsoever. But that changed after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Thereafter the paranoia started mounting, discrimination began and when America went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Changez felt like he was betraying his homeland by earning in America. He thus returned to Lahore, got the post of a lecturer where he encouraged students to become activists.
The most unique aspect of ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is the fact that it is a monologue. Changez is the only person who is speaking. There are a few, rare dialogues spoken by Erica but essentially it is Changez’s voice, his narrative. We see everything from his eyes, his perspective.
‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a satire on the mistrust, the disharmony between the east and the west and America’s interference into the affairs of many Islamic nations. Mohsin Hamid subtly berates America for its policies, for being paranoid, for stereotyping all Muslims, all bearded Pakistanis as terrorists and for waging war when victory is impossible.
Its a brilliant read that takes on a very contemporary political issue and manifests the issue from a lesser known voice’s version. The writing style grasps the reader into the story thoroughly. Its a witty book with an intelligent title, a title that suggests that Pakistani people unwillingly become what the Americans call ‘fundamentalists’.