My first introduction to Mohsin Hamid was through his book Moth Smoke. It’s a book about a banker in the city of Lahore, who loses his job, falls in love with his friend’s wife and indulges in a life of drugs and crime. I loved reading Moth Smoke as it was a book based in my home town of Lahore. At the time the book came out, I connected very well to my country as a diaspora Pakistani living in the UAE. I was overjoyed that a Pakistani writer has set a story in the city of Lahore.
I fell out of love with Hamid’s work with his subsequent books: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (about a terrorist in the making), How to Get Filthy Rich in Dying Asia (a self-help book that’s not a self-help book) and Discontent and Its Civilizations (a series of essays he penned over his travels). However, when I reluctantly picked up Exit West, I was hoping to get into the groove. That I did thankfully. I thoroughly enjoyed Exit West for it’s a very relevant book for today’s times.
Najma, a dear friend, invited me to an event at Gymkhana club where Mohsin Hamid was to speak about his book. I have met Mohsin Hamid twice earlier, but it was a very quick meet and greet, and in all honesty, I wasn’t very impressed with his demeanour. I expected his literary genius to shine through his personality and all I got a was a rather withdrawn and somewhat introverted personality.
That all changed. Tonight, I was merely in awe of him and his words.
Hamid started off the evening by sharing his life journey (that he tied to his book eventually). He was born in the city of Lahore in 1971 and moved to the US when he was four years old, as his father went to pursue his PhD from Stanford University. At the age of nine, Hamid returned to Lahore where he finished his school. At age eighteen, he moved to the US and eventually went to college at Princeton and Harvard, where he studied International Relations and Law. He eventually moved to London, where he met his wife and married her. He had his first child and then as a family decided to move back to Lahore.
In effect, as he said this evening, we all have a migrant experience in our lives.
He read out excerpts from his book, namely the opening chapter, where he spoke about how he based his two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, in a nameless city who are undergoing the migrant experience. His reason for writing the book was his own experience as well as witnessing the migrant experience that’s happening in Europe. He made it a point to mention how Pakistan has taken in millions of Afghan refugees, something which he is very proud of as a Pakistani.
The second excerpt he read out was the part where Saeed is leaving his parents behind to move to another country. He related this particular experience in the book to many families in Pakistan, whose children often move abroad for universities. It’s a difficult experience to watch your child go abroad, but it’s something many do go through.
The final excerpt he read out was the part where an elderly woman talks about her own experience in California. It was this one line that he read out, one that I had underlined in the book too, that spoke to everyone in the hall: “We are all migrants through time.”
He spoke in details about how his time was like growing up in Lahore in the 70s and 80s, and how Lahore is today in the 2000s. There‘s a world of a difference, and he felt like as if he “migrated from that time era to today’s era.” So even though we may still be in the same city physically, we have migrated through time.
The migrant experience is something all of us go through. I look back at my own life: born in Lahore, moved to Saudi Arabia, came back to Lahore, moved to the US, returned to Dubai, then Saudi Arabia once again, then Dubai and finally back to Lahore.
However, tonight, there were two things he spoke about that spoke to my heart.
A question came from the audience about how Hamid transitioned into his writing career from a career of law and international relations. Hamid replied by saying that writing is his passion, it is something that he loves doing. He wished he had this opportunity while he was in college but at that time he was told that writing is not a viable career option. Today he has that privilege to write novels that are bestsellers around the world, including being nominated for the Man Booker Prize and over 35 translations of his new book.
Secondly, he talked about how writing allows him to travel the world. He is not merely based in one city. His works takes him the world over and he enjoys that. This spoke to me on such a huge level as I seek to have a secondary career path, that will eventually allow me to travel more often to different parts of the world. It was a rather inspiring moment to hear Hamid talk about following your passions and dreams to lead a fulfilling and content life, a life that you would love to live.
It was a rather refreshing evening and it’s amazing how one’s perception of another can change so drastically by spending just 30 minutes listening to them in a more intimate and private setting. I totally understood where he was coming from and can now appreciate his works a lot more.
The icing on the cake for me at the end of the session was when Najma took me up to Hamid and introduced me. Hamid is Najma’s nephew and so it was like meeting a family member.
“Mohsin beta (son), please meet my friend Mansour. I know him very well and I wanted you to meet him.” I was awe struck when my friend said that. Hamid met me very warmly and even signed the book for me. “Do I spell your name with –OOR or OUR?” I told him, “-OUR.”
“Mansour, are you glad you came?” Najma asked me.
“Of course! I loved being here. It was so inspiring to hear him speak about his experience. To top it off, meeting him was a huge pleasure.”
“I am so glad Mansour!” Najma said happily. “Listen, Mansour, why don’t I call Mohsin over to my house for dinner and you can join me for that. Would you like that? You can even take tips from him about the book you are working on. He would love to help you out!”
I looked at her. “I would love that Najma!”
“Then it’s done!”