September 10, 2015

Of Death and Despair: Mohsin Hamid’s A Beheading distresses

I wish I wasn’t my age. I wish I was as old as my parents. Or as young as my son. I wish it didn’t have to be me telling my wife to stay where she is, saying everything will be fine in a voice she doesn’t believe and I don’t believe either.

Mohsin Hamid’s A Beheading is pretty much the only story I have ever read where the word vivid applies in all its glory. You hear that word quite often, mostly as a throwaway adjective for either an incredibly intense reading experience or as a synonym for ‘must praise the story but can’t find the right word’. Here, though, it fits very well.

A few other adjectives also come to mind once one is done with the 3-page short story in Granta’s 2010 issue:  Disconcerting. Jarring.  Depressing. But that is as it should be, given the subject matter Mohsin Hamid has taken upon himself to write about in this story that begins as quickly and abruptly as it ends, taking us from the explosion of a window in a silent night to the eventual, inevitable conclusion of blood and death.

I don’t want to die but I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be tortured.

The summary

I hear the window shatter.

It is maybe an indication of how the story will progress by the way it abruptly begins, throwing us right in the middle of the scene. Our unnamed protagonist gets up suddenly in the middle of the night, woken up by a smashed window. He knows what’s happening. He knows who is coming. But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the reality of the situation.

I shut the bedroom door and lock it behind me. Shadows are jumping and stretching from multiple torches. I raise both my hands. ‘I’m here,’ I say to them. I want to say it loudly. I sound like a whispering child. ‘Please. Everything is all right.’

It picks up pace, short choppy sentences that carry a remarkable amount of lucidity moving us forward as our hero is beaten up, dragged outside and stuffed unceremoniously in a car’s trunk. He’s distorted, confused, scared, and we are right there with him, living these feelings.

My mouth doesn’t work properly so I have to speak slowly. Even then I sound like I’m drunk. Or like someone has cut off half my tongue.

We feel his fear when he’s left alone in a room with paint peeling, dried urine sticking to his legs. We watch with dread as the men return, tripods and cameras and UPS unit carted along with them. It’s inevitable, the story’s conclusion, but we continue reading anyway. It’s like a train wreck you can’t look away from, except this time you’re inside the train, watching it race towards the cliff off which it is bound to go over, crashing and burning as it goes.

Tears are coming out of my eyes. That’s good. The more pathetic I look, the better. ‘Sirs,’ I say in the most grovelling Urdu I can manage. ‘What have I done? I beg your forgiveness.’

The story is short but very, very effective. Mohsin hamid doesn’t waste words, instead writing with such lucidity that it’s hard to not get sucked in immediately to the desperation of the scene. This owes its greatest credit to the faithful attention paid to the basic concept of ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Each sentence is a feeling expressed, an action our protagonist does. It’s a close-up, first person encounter of the most disturbing kind, and in that lies its very appeal.

The background

 I know this. I don’t want this. I don’t want to be that goat.

Being a journalist in Pakistan is a risky plan. There is always the threat of being murdered, of ending up missing, of dangerous assignments and extortion and getting caught in cross fire or combat situations. It’s a hazardous job, made more so by the various volatile elements in the country willing to endorse target killing, torture and kidnapping as a method of shutting up those who want to report the truth.

Mohsin Hamid puts us in the position of one such journalist who is hours away from paying for writing something he shouldn’t have. And coming from a country where reporting the truth can get you in trouble gives the story an extra edge, a depth that will resonate with anyone who has spoken out against a wrong and lived to regret it. Journalists in Pakistan are under constant threat, whether they be reporting on ethnicity or on religious groups. From cosmopolitan cities like Karachi to war-ravaged areas like Fata, violence on those who are part of the news dissemination process has been a constant problem for days, and Mohsin Hamid seeks to bring it to the front and centre with one of the most effective forms of influence: storytelling.

I’ll never write again if you don’t want me to. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s not important. We’re the same. All of us. I swear it.’

The Questions

‘Look, don’t do this...I’ve always censored myself. I’ve never written about religion. I’ve always tried to be respectful. If I’ve made a mistake just tell me. Tell me what to write. I’ll never write again.'

In an article printed in Express Tribune on 4 June, 2011, Mohsin Hamid writes: “Just before moving back to Pakistan a year and a half ago, I wrote a short story called “A Beheading”. It was about the imaginary kidnapping and beheading of a nameless Pakistani writer, told from that doomed and terrified man’s own point of view.”

This raised my first question: the identity of our unnamed, unknown protagonist. Because until I read this, I hadn’t realized the main character was a writer. In retrospect, certain lines make this fact obvious, but because being a writer has such a fundamental importance in this story, given that Mohsin Hamid is literally basing his kidnapping on his profession, this seems like a pretty important thing to miss. But throughout the story, I didn’t connect the dots between his pleas to let him go and his promises to not write. And this happened because in Pakistan, one can be dragged out of their houses for a beheading for a variety of mind-boggling reasons. And while a profession is a chosen, well-thought out decision, other offences which can lead to such things happen are far beyond the control of the people who are accused of them.

I wish I could remember how to say my prayers. I’d ask them to let me pray. Show them we’re the same. But I can’t risk it. I’ll make a mistake and if they see that, things will be even worse for me.

I, in fact, thought this person was of a religious minority. I thought the protagonist was a Christian or a Hindu, an Ahmedi or a Hazara. In Pakistan, it’s dangerous to be anything other than a heterosexual Sunni Muslim male with a job that isn't threatening to anyone with a gun. And given the constant, widely-encompassing violence against the religious minorities in our country, it’s easy to see why one’s mind would go that way.

Once one digs into the religious layers of this story, it opens itself up to multiple interpretations. I thought the man was a member of a religious minority who might know a few Muslim phrases because he lived in a Muslim country. My best friend thought he was a secular person born in a Muslim family, who would stumble over duas and not be in the habit of praying. It is precisely this that shows how exposing the barest of details means a reader will project their own world view onto a story. Mohsin Hamid might not have meant for these interpretations to exist, or even thought about someone paying attention to these details, but moments like these make the story bigger than just words on paper.

I wonder if my wife is still alive and if she’s going to sleep with another man after I’m gone. How many men is she going to sleep with? I hope she doesn’t. I hope she’s still alive.

My second question was one about stereotypes, and about how one’s gender can define one’s thinking. After reading this story, I texted my best friend: Is a man about to be beheaded capable of thinking of one’s wife’s future sexual exploits?

Maybe it’s a reflection of the ‘men constantly think about sex’ idea, she pointed out. Maybe it’s him trying to distract himself from what is happening around him, I debated. Still, the fact remains. On the very cusp of death, what does one think about? And more importantly, how are these thoughts limited by gender

The point, underneath all this speculation, comes to how much we trust one male writer to act as a representation of all men everywhere. Maybe Mohsin hamid thinks this way. Maybe he thinks most men think this way. Maybe he thinks most men should think this way. It’s a mystery, but maybe it’s not a blanket depiction of everyone with a Y chromosome everywhere.

They tape my mouth shut and pin me flat on my stomach. One of them gets behind me and pulls my head up by the hair. It feels sexual the way he does it.

The recommendation

This entry in Granta is probably the quickest read with the greatest impact. It’s wonderful in its handling, written with equal counts feeling and control, and tackling an important issue. Definitely Recommended.