By Atul K Thakur
Discontent and Its Civilisations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London Author: Mohsin Hamid Publisher: Riverhead Books; Pgs: 240
Mohsin Hamid’s novels have shown his perfect mastery over complex themes like life, art, politics and the war on terror. This naturally makes him one of the most formidable chroniclers of Pakistan where real life situations are not devoid of the softness of art and music and, of course, bitterness from politics and terror. Mohsin is among those new entrants of writers in South Asia whose acclaim reaches far beyond borders and attains the capacity to critique discontent as well as its civilisations.
This book, a collection of his essays and reviews from the past 15 years, primarily establishes how Pakistan “plays a recurring role as villain in the horror sub-industry within the news business”. The idea of the book came into shape in 2010 when he was asked by Granta to contribute to a piece titled ‘How to write about Pakistan’. The inspiration furthered when Mohsin started living in Lahore more like a permanent resident rather than an absentee one.
Mohsin, the author of remarkable novels such as Moth Smoke (2000) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), left Lahore to stay in the western side of the world at the young age of 18. He attended Princeton, not only to become a McKinsey consultant and be known as the affluent bearer of “post-colonialism”, which was a supreme state of being before 9/11 but to later identify himself as a “nomad”, who could effortlessly see and narrate the erosion of civilisational attributes and modern aspirations.
As widely noticed and recognised, his writings are timeless and of-the-moment as well. He chooses to write on seemingly ordinary themes that, in essence, have universal significance. This could be said about intricate issues pertaining to love, language, ambition, power, corruption, religion, family and identity, among others. He makes a distinction in his narratives and that becomes evident reading different essays in this book. This is the hallmark of his writing and helps readers engage with his grasp of revealing the subtlety of “self, others and a common front”.
Thus, even having lived in different settings during his formative years, his sensibility is not limited back home where he has now the nostalgia of simpler days. He did not live those moments but he could feel past times. This is simply not something that is found commonly among the tribes indulging in writing heavier scripts on heavy issues.
Hamid admits his living in Pakistan as “self-exile from the United States”. This comes out while delving in “the great American novels”. He goes further to comment upon the legacies of Pakistan’s colonial past and bearings with the parochialism in its social-cultural existence. On this and dealing with other themes, Discontent and Its Civilisations presents enough ground to be called an engaging read.
So far, Mohsin has been known for his celebrated novels and this book of essays is his maiden attempt outside of long fictional scripts. The book gathers 30 pieces, many of them earlier published in publications like The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Guardian and Granta. A writer of deep perspectives, Mohsin has set a vibrant tone in his essays written at different points of his life through his observations on the post-9/11 years.
Hamid is quite at ease taking on board different topics. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he forwarded the story of a Pakistani expat in the US and how he copes with changed perceptions following the terror attack of 9/11. In parallel, the same character also comes to terms with his values, orientations and other emotions vis-à-vis being a resident of the eastern land, situated far away from the ground of unprecedented actions. But, unlike his novels, his collection of essays is not about only one broad issue. The essays are divided into three categories: life, art and politics. In fact, the brilliantly chosen title of the book is drawn from an essay that advocates “not for the clash but the confluence of cultures”.
The crux that comes out signifies the hope in Mohsin’s homeland that otherwise is badly riddled with troubles in its underbelly and outer fabric. But the hope stays, as discontent too can have its civilisations. The world outside does not know Pakistan through the same angle. Hence, the book has enough vitality to change the course of the debate on Pakistan.
As of now, the narratives on Pakistan are more problem-centric and do not go very far in pushing forward that experimental line to unravel the distinct potential of inquiry on a land that has a living civilisational culture in its fold, besides all celebrated discontents.
In a sort of representative essay called ‘Why they get Pakistan wrong’, the author reminds us of the fact that “the country’s annual death toll from terrorist attacks rose from 164 in 2003 to 3,318 in 2009”, a level exceeding the number of US citizens killed on September 11. In another essay called ‘Why drones don’t help’, he denounces the policies responsible for making the country a playground of terror and the “counter-terror exercise” of the west and local elites serving in the bureaucracy, the armed forces and politics.
As always, Mohsin Hamid is readable without forced effort. Discontent and Its Civilizations is another valuable addition to his body of work.
(The writer is a New Delhi based journalist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Daily Times, May 5, 2015