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Moth Smoke ()

As those of us in the West grope towards some understanding of the turbulence in the Islamic world, it is only natural that, along with the histories and the political analyses, we turn to literature.  Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke, set in Lahore, Pakistan in the summer of 1998, as India and Pakistan rattled their nuclear sabers, offers a very readable entree to some of the issues surrounding the awkward process of modernizing one Moslem nation.  In particular, it captures the frustration and anger of the less fortunate in a country whose ruling class is thoroughly corrupt and where the economic divide is so vast that the wealthy can insulate themselves from the rules that bind the rest of society, and can nearly avoid physical contact with the lower classes.  But it also conveys some sense of the visceral pride felt at every level of society when the government demonstrated that--just as the Christians, Jews, Orthodox, Buddhists, and Hindus--Moslems have the bomb too.  This tension, of income inequalities dividing the nation, while ethno-religious pride unites it, is currently a defining characteristic of the region.

Set against this exotic backdrop of nuclear confrontation and a miasma of corruption, cronyism, and kickbacks, Hamid unfolds an oddly familiar tale that's equal parts hard-boiled fiction and yuppie-descent-into-drugs-and-alcohol : the debts to Jay McInerney and James M. Cain are equally heavy.  Darashikoh "Daru" Shezad is a young banker who grew up on the fringes of high society, but whose lack of connections has ultimately brought him up against a glass ceiling.  Of course, his increasing predilection for booze and dope hasn't helped matters any; and when he tells off an important client, the bank fires him.  Meanwhile, his more fortunate, because better connected, childhood friend, Aurangzeb "Ozi" Shah, has just returned to Pakistan from the States, with his lovely wife, Mumtaz, and toddler son, Muazzam.  At first joyfully reunited, the old friends are soon pushed apart again, first by Daru's declining social circumstances, then by a horrific instance of Ozi's immunity from justice, and finally by the attraction that develops between Daru and Mumtaz.

The title of the book refers to what remains when the moth is seduced by the candle flame, but it's also a metaphor for Daru spiraling towards his own destruction, drawn by the allure of sex and drugs and easy money.  What makes the novel particularly appealing is that we feel right at home within this comforting structure of genre, but are simultaneously dazzled by glimpses into an utterly alien culture.  Thus, a story we've heard a hundred times before comes across as somehow fresh and surprising.

First time novelist Mohsin Hamid actually grew up in Lahore, then attended Princeton and Harvard Law, and now works in Manhattan.  His familiarity with the very different cultures of America and Pakistan makes him an excellent guide for Western readers.  It's hard to imagine a more accessible and enjoyable, though fatalistic, novel if you are looking to literature as a way to start exploring the issues confronting the nation states of the Islamic world.


Grade: (A)


Mohsin Hamid Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Mohsin Hamid
    -SHORT STORY: The Face in the Mirror (Mohsin Hamid, 5/09/22, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Cracks in Concrete (Mohsin Hamid, March 19, 2024, GGD Forum)
    - -ESSAY: Race special:When the Pakistan-born novelist Mohsin Hamid applied for British citizenship, he had no inkling of the bizarre - yet strangely rewarding - rituals he would have to undergo for the sake of Queen and country. (Mohsin Hamid, 25 February 2007, Independent)
    -INTERVIEW: as an Imagined Construct: The author discusses “The Face in the Mirror,” his story from the latest issue of the magazine. (Cressida Leyshon, May 9, 2022, The New Yorker)
    -PROFILE: Mohsin Hamid: “After 9/11, I was treated as a potential terrorist”: The Booker-shortlisted author on race, America and his new novel, The Last White Man. (Ellen Peirson-Hagger, 8/23/22, New Statesman)
    - -REVIEW: of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Paula Bock, The Seattle Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY : The Usual Ally (Mohsin Hamid, September 2001, TIME)
    -ESSAY : In Concert, NO! Touching (Mohsin Hamid, Nerve)
    -ESSAY : Changing of the guard (Mohsin Hamid , Dawn)
    -PROFILE : A Novel Idea : Critically Praised First Novel Shaped at Harvard  (Lewis Rice, Harvard Law Bulletin)
    -PROFILE : Novelist by night : Mohsin Hamid could probably give up his day job as a New York consultant, but he thrives on the disjuncture between Manhattan and Pakistan.  (SIMON HOUPT, April 1, 2000 , The Globe and Mail)
    -PROFILE : Valid now, invalid then : An artist's business is to create not explain. And yet Mohsin
Hamid takes the risk of commenting upon his creation 'Moth Smoke' and that too in his native city where the novel is located. (Muhammad Badar Alam, The News on Sunday)
    -PROFILE : Pak writer releases post-nuclear fiction (MINI KAPOOR, India Express)
    -PROFILE : Pakistani-American Artists (Zebunnisa Hamid, , GenerAsian@NYU)
    -ARCHIVES : "mohsin hamid" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "mohsin hamid" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Jhumpa Lahiri, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (Sudip Bose, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (David Valdes Greenwood, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (Landon Thomas Jr., NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (Shahzareah Husain, The News on Sunday)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (P. J. Weise, Ralph Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (John Freeman, City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (Himmat Singh Gill, Tribune of India)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Khushwant Singh, Tribune of India)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (Observer India)
    -REVIEW : of Moth Smoke (Ras H. Siddiqui, HIPakistan)
    -REVIEW :of Moth Smoke (Ahmed Rashid, Far Eastern Economic Review)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Umbereen Beg Mirza, Visage Online)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Ira Pande, India Today)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Nandini Lal, Hindustan Times)
    -REVIEW :  of Moth Smoke (Cameron Stracher, SF Chronicle)

    -The News International
    -Visage : Pakistan's Leading Fashion Magazine