April 23, 2018

Of Drugs and Death: Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke takes on history

The frustration I felt while reading Moth Smoke is the kind of frustration you feel when you’re watching a horror movie and you’re watching the idiotic side character walk towards a noise in a dark house and you know they’re about to face a gruesome death. So you’re sitting there yelling at the screen ‘don’t go there you stupid!’ but they’re slowly walking there anyway, not calling anyone for help, enabling you to feel both satisfied and slightly disgusted when the blood and gore starts.

That was a very long analogy for the slow, steady destruction of our main character Darashikoh in this story. And if you’re thinking that Darashikoh is a completely ridiculous name for a protagonist, you’re right, it is. The reason Hamid used it is because this book reimagines the story of the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh (our hero, or rather, anti-hero) and his trial at the hands of his brother Aurangzeb (Ozi in this story). Weirdly enough, Ozi’s wife and Daro’s lover Mumtaz gets her name from the Queen Mumtaz Mahal, who was the aforementioned Daro Shikoh and Aurangzeb’s mother in Mughal Times, so unless Mohsin Hamid is implying some weird mother-son sexual relationship in late seventeenth century, I don’t know what happened there.

Be that as it may, the Mughal connection is present but fleeting (or maybe it's very very important and I need a two-hour lit class to recognize it). What dominates the narrative are two juxtaposed storylines, one set in a courtroom, where a judge (ostensibly you) listens to the testimony of the important people in Daro’s life: the best friend Ozi, the wife and lover Mumtaz, the drug supplier Murad Badshah. These people come as witnesses, speaking at the trial of Daro’s crime, the specifics of which are as yet hidden from us. Interspersed between this courtroom drama, told in flashbacks, is the story of Daro’s decline. After losing his job because of his disdain for an obnoxious customer, Daro, an orphan who lives alone, finds that the lifestyle he has grown accustomed to is no longer possible on a life of no salary. Having studied at a prestigious school at the benevolence of his best friend Ozi’s father, Daro can no longer use the connections Ozi can to get a job. This lack in finances is made worse by the reappearance of Ozi from abroad, with a child and wife in tow.

The wife, Mumtaz, also plays a huge part in the narrative as the sexy, disenchanted wife, uncomfortable in her marriage and unable to love her child. Moonlighting as a male reporter exposing details of the Pakistani underbelly, Mumtaz shows up at Daro’s place unannounced, whisking him off to secret adventures and late night dalliances. Her dissatisfaction with life, her inability to accept lack of love for her child, and the facades she wears makes her one of the two in the pair of most interesting characters in this novel. 

“I'm interested in things women do that aren't spoken about.”

Mumtaz’s attraction to Daro plays a huge part in the rise and fall of Daro’s fortunes, exacerbating his drug addiction whenever there is a fluctuation in the relationship. Unable to deal with the reality of his situation, Daro spends more and more on drugs like heroin. His uncomfortable alliance with rickshaw driver and small-time criminal Murad Badshah, the second in the pair of most interesting characters in this story, lead to more and more drug taking, and eventually to an actual employment as a drug dealer. Like most of the characters in Moth Smoke, Murad Badshah is a largely dislikeable character, prone to violence and eager to incite Daro into crimes, but he was my favourite because he felt so real. And say what you may about Mohsin Hamid’s writing, but you can never deny that all his characters feel three dimensional and alive, and never like they are flat cardboard cutouts. While Hamid’s delivery may get a little extravagant, his characters always help keep the narrative grounded. 

And with a last stardrop, a last circle, I arrive. And she's there, chemical wonder in her eyes.

What also works out well is that Hamid is writing what he seems to know. A lot of Pakistani writers, when tackling poverty, seem to inadvertently strike a tone that’s more condescending than not. It’s obvious that these are people who have never even attempted to put themselves into the shoes of people with less privilege. Hamid’s writing, on the other hand, feels as real as if he has seen these circles from the inside. His character Daro, middle class and surrounded by richer friends, comes across as unlikable but also authentic. His contempt for and envy of the rich, between constantly trying and failing to fit into the elite circles that Ozi is so casually a part of, forms the connection between these two characters - not too visible on the page - that has the greatest role in the narrative. 

"People don't believe in consequences anymore."

A large part of the story is about the consequences of action, or in Daro’s case, inaction. A certain lethargy is threaded through Daro’s existence in this novel: his inability to get a job, his eventual acceptance of the stronger drugs, the slow decline into robbing boutiques. This is a counterpoint to the harsher actions of other people, like Ozi, whose powerful Pajero knocks over a young boy on a bike, in a brutal hit-and-run. And while Daro, witness to the accident, is the one who picks the boy up and takes him to the hospital, he is unable to make Ozi feel repentant for this mistakes.

“...bigger cars have the right of way.” 

Actions and their consequences are a theme Hamid did well in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, one of the first books I read by him, and he does it well over here too. Another thing to appreciate about this author is that he is unapologetic in his desi-ness. I have a vivid memory of once reading a Sweet Valley title which made a reference to Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, and I didn’t get that reference. Only when years later I finally read Margaret Mitchell’s classic did I finally understand. But for that Sweet Valley title, having to explain who Scarlett was was unnecessary because that’s the kind of cultural currency it’s easier to carry as an American citizen. Just like a Pakistani knows what kind of a drink Pakola is or what owning a Suzuki says about your economic status, we all indulge in cultural currencies in our literature which roots you in places. And Mohsin Hamid does this with a sort of bold abandon, an I-don’t-care-if-you-didn’t-get-that-reference sort of arrogance that makes me love him more. Other Pakistani authors attempt at times to root their stories in Pakistani soil, but their attempts to then explain the Pakistan-ness makes the whole façade awkward and unwieldy. When you write as an American or Australian writer, you don’t attempt to explain who Scarlett O’Hara is or why pumpkins are relevant to Halloween or what Santa Claus’s relationship to Christmas is. Pakistani authors not only define eid, they also explain the religious background and the festival itself in detail. Hamid’s story, which might not refer to the religious, certainly does not condescend to explain in excruciating detail every little thing to its audience. 

These little details are why I’m excited about the movie adaptation for this novel, starring Indian actor Irrfan Khan and director Asif Kapadia, him of the Oscar-winning documentary Amy (on the life of Amy Winehouse) fame. Apparently an Indian adaptation was in the works before too but couldn’t pull through because of financial constraints. What’s even more surprising is that there was also a Pakistani movie adaptation back in 2002, at a time when Pakistani movies were not the rage they are these days. But if we are going to consider possible candidates for Pakistani books being adapted for the silver screen, books by Hamid would definitely be on top of the list.

Recommendation:

Not the best thing ever, but not bad either. If you’re just starting out with Pakistani fiction, don’t read this. If you’ve already read a few and want to increase your list, then by all means, check this out.