Door that takes you elsewhere

Exit West; Mohsin Hamid, Hamish Hamilton, ₹599.  

There is a photograph put out by AFP that went viral this month. It shows an elderly man in a well-appointed bedroom in an Aleppo apartment striking a gentle pose as he sits holding his pipe and looking at a turn-table. A vinyl record plays, or so it appears, but in any case, even as he gazes at it deeply, we do not know if he’s listening or whether the object is focussing his mind on times gone by. Because these are clearly not the best of times. Around him, around the grand, carved wooden bed, lies debris, the long windows are shattered, the plaster on walls is falling off exposing the bricks, the view from the window shows damaged, unliveable, vacant buildings, the lace curtains hang limp. Does he live here? Was it once his home? Is he looking to occupy it in this shattered city of absences? Or is he, in fact, bidding Aleppo a last goodbye?

Proximity of loss

We don’t know—and even more than these questions, the photograph nudges us, the viewers, to meditate on the proximity of loss. To wonder, what vestiges of life-as-it-once-was may we hold on to when the world around us collapses, possibly without warning or maybe with. If the latter, at what point will determine when if and when it’s time to flee?

I chanced upon the photograph when I was finishing Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s new novel about war and migration. And perhaps it was the photo’s effect that turned me back to an earlier passage in the book when Nadia, one of the novel’s two main characters, makes her first flight as a nod to the occupation of her city by militants. She abandons her fierce resolve to live independently and moves in with her boyfriend Saeed’s family, taking “her record player and records and clothes and food, and her parched but possibly revivable lemon tree, and also some money and gold coins, which she had left hidden in the tree’s clay plot, buried within the soil”.

Nadia and Saeed’s city remains unnamed, with no locational markers, but it appears to be a South Asian one, though it could just as easily be, say, Aleppo. Their romance begins in a city still managing its old transactions of commerce and sociability. The cinema where Saeed’s professorial parents had met decades ago has shut shop, their respective residential neighbourhoods are getting rougher, but Nadia and Saeed have their jobs, at an insurance company and advertising agency. Their companionship has a mindfulness to it, and Hamid touchingly conveys the change the friendship brings to each of them. Against this everywhere urban backdrop, their individual lives, and their interior selves, are vividly drawn. But war will continue to circle in, and they’ll flee one day, together.

In a novel drawn from our contemporary world of war and dislocation, Hamid uses a teleportation device to take refugees elsewhere. So when Nadia and Saeed are thinking of leaving: “Rumours had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumours to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.”

This Narnia series-like teleportation has something fantastic about it, but it also conveys the luck of the draw essential to such escapes. It is, even more, effective in evoking the proximity of the desperate zones and the more secure ones in the world today, suggesting that building walls and immigration regimes of extreme vetting is not just impractical, but downright inhumane. Nadia and Saeed get to a Greek island, and then to London. The doors that let them into their refuge bring others from different parts of the world.

Fresh movements

And a new community is formed in the heart of London: “All over London houses and parks and disused lots were being peopled in this way, some said by a million refugees, some said twice that. It seemed the more empty a space in the city the more it attracted squatters, with unoccupied mansion in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea particularly hard-hit…” Refugees will come under attack from “nativist mobs”, movements will build to “reclaim Britain for Britain”, the city authorities will cut off civic amenities—there will be “dark London” and “light London”. Eventually Nadia and Saeed will move on.

The touch of magic realism makes the structure of Hamid’s new novel vastly different from his earlier work—including his breathtaking debut Moth Smoke, about Lahore, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about personally felt life changes wrought by 9/11 and the Western response. Exit West plays out on a vaster, global scale, reminding the reader that each of us is just a doorstep away from another reality.

Exit West; Mohsin Hamid, Hamish Hamilton, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 2:36:42 AM |

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