By sheer chance, or perhaps premeditation, Mohsin Hamid's new novel, Exit West, grapples with two great global catastrophes of our time: the migrant crisis and spread of terror. While both themes have immense dramatic potential, the plot remains disappointingly thin, the central characters just stopping short of coming alive in their full human complexity.
Like Hamid's previous novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Exit West is set in an unnamed city in the subcontinent, under siege from an outfit like the Taliban or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). To curb the people's resistance, the militants indulge in unspeakable atrocities, leaving "bodies hanging from street lamps and billboards like a form of festive seasonal decoration."
Under these inglorious circumstances, Saeed and Nadia meet at an evening school, though they don't fall in love at first sight. Saeed is a sweet-tempered youth, almost docilely good-natured, while Nadia is fiery and rebellious, having left the security of home. Straddling a bike, she drives it across the city wearing a burqa so that men "don't fuck" with her. She smokes pot on her terrace, smuggles Saeed into her flat in a burqa, and has steelier nerves than him in the face of adversity.
But trouble pours into their lives soon. Saeed's mother has her head blown off in a freak gun battle, war breaks out shortly, rations become scarce and the sight of the dead on the streets as common as the living. Desperate for an exit, Saeed and Nadia buy a passage to another country from an agent, though they cannot persuade Saeed's father, broken by grief, to leave with them.
Hamid's writing is spare, unadorned to the point of severity, which may give the impression that one is reading the outline for a novel rather than its fully-fleshed form. He introduces brief digressions perhaps by way of complexity, opening up windows to happenings in other cities of the world — in the US, Japan, Australia or Austria — though these never add up to a sub-plot. Such fragments fit into the overall design of the dystopia he creates, but don't feel strictly germane to the progression of the master narrative.
Hamid's writing is spare, unadorned to the point of severity, which may give the impression that one is reading the outline for a novel rather than its fully-fleshed form.
The veneer of dystopia Hamid creates is understated, like his language, though its real-life correlation is too horrific for it to go unremarked. When Saeed and Nadia flee their country, like millions of refugees, they don't take a perilous journey by boat or other means — rather, they pay the agent to walk through one of the mysterious, but ubiquitous, doors that have popped up in their city. Think of the magical door in Narnia or Alice in Wonderland or even the teleportation scenes in the popular TV series Fringe.
Such doors may be a familiar trope in assembly-line dystopias, but their parallel in the real world — in incidents where millions have perished while fleeing oppressive regimes, lost their families or drowned in the seas — are too wrenching to be turned into as seamless a transition as Hamid describes.
While Saeed and Nadia struggle to build their lives from scratch in places they find themselves in — from the Greek island of Mykonos to the city of London to Marin Country, California — their opponents, "the natives", are mostly portrayed in broad strokes, as a conglomerate of evil and desperation.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid had succeeded in conveying the predicament of an outsider in a foreign land with nuance, showing up the politics of everyday life with an acute sensitivity. While he left behind the warmth of humanity in his first novel Moth Smoke, to my mind his best till date, he created a nexus of ideas in his more cerebral later fiction.
While he left behind the warmth of humanity in his first novel Moth Smoke, to my mind his best till date, he created a nexus of ideas in his more cerebral later fiction.
In spite of opening Exit West with two characters who absorb the reader's attention, Hamid quickly divests them of their humanity. This is not to say Saeed or Nadia becomes cardboard characters — far from it — but the spark they ignited in our minds at the start goes off halfway through the reading.
Perhaps this is Hamid's way of signalling their gradual disintegration as the life they had once hoped for falls apart, a diminishing of their persons as immigrants in hostile societies. But he is also unable to resist the Dickensian urge to give us a glimpse into their lives years along the line — an unfortunate device that only heightens the shallowness of his character-building.
(Exit West is published by Hamish Hamilton, hardback, 232 pages, ₹599.)
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