The author of the 2007 Man Booker-nominated The Reluctant Fundamentalist says it is absurd to describe India, Pakistan or Asia as rising
Mohsin Hamid loves to play with narrative voices. From the multiple storytellers in his first novel, Moth Smoke, to the book-long monologue of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the skill has won the novelist acclaim. But finding his own voice was not so easy.
Hamid was just three, and a “fluent Urdu conversationalist,” when his parents moved from Pakistan to California. One day his mother found him on a neighbour’s doorstep weeping and surrounded by other children. They began asking his mother, in the offensive terms of the day, whether he was “retarded” — if that was why he couldn’t speak. For the next month he refused to utter a word — and when he did finally talk, “it was in English, in full sentences.”
Six years later, the experience found its echo when the family returned to Pakistan. Hamid had forgotten Urdu, forcing him “to relearn my first language as my third language.” While he may not remember this period of silence, it shaped his personality. “I feel, in any context, that I need to conduct myself so I am not surrounded by people who ask ‘What’s the matter with him? Is he retarded?’ So, I learnt ... a chameleon-like quality that allows you to fit in.” In the smart London hotel where we meet, Hamid certainly looks at ease. His accent is a fluid mix of British and American pronunciations, with Pakistani inflections, while his clothes are dark, smart and neutral. A former Harvard law student and management consultant in New York, and brand manager in London, his career path looks successful. Yet, during his corporate adventures, he was writing, inspired by his outsider status. “If your sense of self is destabilised,” he explains, “to imagine being another becomes pretty easy.” Moth Smoke garnered impressive reviews and a strong following in Pakistan for its taboo-busting focus on drugs, crime and illicit sex, but it was the Man Booker-nominated The Reluctant Fundamentalist that made his name. In May it will be released as a film directed by Mira Nair. Hamid co-wrote the screenplay, which recounts how Changez, a young Pakistani, finds himself increasingly disillusioned with corporate America after 9/11. Yet while the book’s claustrophobic first-person narration is filled with ambiguities — is Changez an inspiring lecturer or terrorist, is he talking to a CIA agent or a hapless tourist? — the film is more straightforward. Hamid says he is proud of it, not least because its multinational cast and crew (it stars British actor Riz Ahmed and Hollywood actress Kate Hudson) required, “a rejection of a retreat into groups, which the novel suggests is dangerous.”
Today Hamid lives in Lahore with his wife and two children, upstairs from his parents. This month sees the publication of his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Structured like a self-help tome, the novel is written in the second person, cheekily addressing the reader as “you.” As the story’s protagonist, “your” meteoric rise is charted in the novel from rural poverty to urban success. The setting is deliberately obscure, and while the plot probably unfolds in Pakistan, the implication is that the unnamed characters could live in India, or anywhere in Asia. Removing what he calls the “branding” of the country meant he could use Lahore, for instance, “as a template for universality ... Every city struggles with the same things — mass migration from the countryside, how you deal with the transport system, how to deal with the new entrepreneurs required in the global market economy, urban violence, or sewage.”
Importantly, it gave him the freedom to talk about something other than the much-discussed narrative of extremism and political violence in Pakistan. “To describe India, Pakistan or Asia (half the world’s population) as rising is, of course, absurd. On the other hand lots of people are eating more calories, living longer and making more money than five or 10 years ago.” Among these millions, Hamid says, are those, such as his protagonist, leading lives unrecognisable to their parents — despite considerable obstacles. “I met a young person recently who was the first in his family to get a secondary school education. He grew up speaking Punjabi, then went to high school, where he realised the Urdu he had been taught was a hybridised Urdu-Punjabi. Then he went to college where he discovered his English wasn’t English and had to learn that properly. He was interested in French literature and ended up in the Sorbonne doing a PhD. I just thought ‘Wow’.”
His decision to move away from specifics, however, has not been universally applauded. One reviewer blasted the author for equating Pakistan with India, and his “cowardly dereliction” in not making religion, explicitly Islam, more central. Hamid is unapologetic. “Pakistan and India are incredibly similar. If you have no clean water and live in a slum in Lahore, or you live in a slum in Delhi ... life as lived is the same. You can say India is a secular democracy but it is meaningless.” But he is obviously stung by the suggestion that this obfuscation was the result of fear, pointing out: “I live in Pakistan, speak in colleges and write my books. I am a completely secular person ... and I don’t feel I pull my punches. My desire is to persuade, more than to offend. I am not interested in making some symbolic gesture and fleeing to live abroad, or in provoking a response that allows me to say, ‘Oh look, these people are barbarians’.” And having already dealt with religion as a form of identity politics in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he says, he is more interested in the spiritual goal of religion. In fact, he says, while How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, may sound mammon-obsessed, it is actually a “secular Sufi love poem.” “Love places someone else in the centre of your being and your own self is blurred. That’s at the heart of Sufi philosophy and is close to what I am looking at,” he explains.
This makes his least autobiographical book his most personal. And one which he says he could only have written after becoming a father and moving back to Pakistan to live with his parents. “Seeing the world from the standpoint of a child or an elderly person became something I was inclined towards doing. After that, it wasn’t such a big leap to ... seeing echoes of yourself in everyone.” During his current book tour, Hamid has been criticised for the extremely un-Sufi act of re-tweeting praise for his latest novel. But, he insists, he is careful not to be too swayed by critical opinion. “[U.S. author] Russell Banks said to me you can’t know for 10 years after your book comes out why it’s read.” He admits that some readers of his earliest books might not be as thrilled with his latest. “I was at the Karachi festival a month ago and a young man gave me a letter. It said: ‘There are three of us in a small town and we really love Moth Smoke. So we put our money together to buy one of us a bus ticket to travel 600 miles, and give you this letter.” Hamid laughs: “It said: ‘We particularly loved the drugs and sex scenes.’ I think implicit is the critique that in The Reluctant Fundamentalist I didn’t deliver, but they finished by saying, ‘We hope in the future you can continue to keep your fans happy.’” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013