Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London
By Mohsin Hamid, Penguin, 240 pages, Rs399
In the summer of 2001 Mohsin Hamid left New York, accepting what he thought would be a temporary transfer to the London office of his employer, the consulting firm McKinsey. So it was from this side of the Atlantic that he watched the events of 9/11, an event that thrust this promising young Pakistani writer into the thick of history.
He had published his first novel, “Moth Smoke”, the previous year and had finished the draft of a second. After the attacks on the city he had learnt to call home he found himself blocked. “For a time my fiction floundered in the face of world events,” he writes, “so I turned to journalism and essays instead.”
For Hamid the personal had become the geopolitical. “Discontent and its Civilizations” is a collection of 36 of those essays, written for American, British, Indian and Pakistani publications, and together they tell the story of how that day changed Hamid’s life, his writing and his sense of identity.
“The 9/11 attacks placed great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American,” he writes. “As a man not known for frequenting mosques, and not possessing an American passport, I should not have felt it. But I did, deeply. It seemed two halves of myself were suddenly at war.”
He found himself sent for secondary inspection at American airports, where he was asked if he had ever received combat training. As America prepared to attack Afghanistan, he wrote a piece for an American newspaper about how scared his family were of the coming war.
“The paper deleted a paragraph on the reasons for the anger felt towards America in many Muslim-majority countries,” he writes. “This was my first experience of what I would come to recognise as growing American self-censorship.” Concerned by what he was hearing from Pakistani friends in New York, Hamid decided to stay in London and returned to the second novel. The first draft told an “utterly minimalist love story of a young Pakistani man in New York who is troubled by the notion that he is a modern-day janissary serving the empire of American corporatism”.
As he revised the novel, Hamid stubbornly tried to keep the action in the year before 9/11. Only once enough time had passed did he feel ready to write about it in his fiction. The result was “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, one of the most important novels of the decade.
As a novelist, Hamid is not in any hurry. He is the kind of writer who takes a long time to write short books. He started “Moth Smoke” in 1993, when he was in Toni Morrison’s undergraduate creative writing class at Princeton and did not publish it until 2000.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” took seven years while his latest, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”, published last year, was whipped out in a swift six. They have all been worth the wait. This does not mark Hamid out as a natural journalist, however. Newspapers are not exactly the ideal medium for writers of lengthy creative gestation and some of the essays in this collection do not feel thoroughly worked through.
While elegantly written, there is nothing particularly challenging or revelatory in the pieces on the Great American Novel, the likeability of fictional characters or the challenge presented to the novel by the rejuvenation of serious television dramas. These essays feel like diversions from the real subject, in which Hamid immerses himself. That subject is Pakistan. Hamid returned to Lahore, the city of his birth, with his wife and daughter in 2009. He found it much changed.
The previously sedate city was subject to the same violent acts of terror convulsing the rest of Pakistan. The window of his house was rattled by a bomb blast and he heard the gunfire when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in March. After converting a balcony into a bedroom for his daughter, Hamid realised it was street-facing and contemplated putting blast-resistant film on the windows.
As he points out, Pakistan has been devastated by terrorism in the past decade. “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 Americans killed on September 11,” he writes. “Some 35,000 Pakistanis, including 3,500 members of the security forces, have died in terror and counterterror violence.” In the cities, death comes by bullet or car bomb; in the borderlands of Waziristan, it is meted out by Reaper and Predator drones.
“Flying robots from an alien power regularly strike down from the skies and kill Pakistani citizens,” Hamid writes. “In America, such a claim would be science fiction or paranoid survivor-cultism of the furthest fringe-dwelling kind. In Pakistan, it is real. And constantly, wrenchingly, in the news.” There are more reasons to be fearful. Kashmir remains a potential trigger for war with India. Minority groups — including Ahmadis, Hindus, Shiites and Christians — are being persecuted, sometimes violently. Pashtun and Baloch nationalism add other divisive dimensions. The economy is struggling.
Hamid, though, is not ready to give up hope. “Pakistan has just seen the first elected civilian government in its history complete a full five-year term,” he wrote last year. “Its raucous press is increasingly assertive, as is its rather idiosyncratic Supreme Court. The army has mostly stood back, choosing not to intervene (yet) as it has so many times in the past. These are all promising developments.”
For all the corrupt politicians and violent militants, Hamid is consoled by the energy and intelligence of the students he meets on the nation’s university campuses, by the vibrant music scene and by the number of enthusiastic young writers and readers he meets. One might add a further consolation to that list: Hamid himself. In contrast with the debased language of extremism, militarism and nationalism, his is a humane and rational voice demanding a better future.
The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015