In his widely praised novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid deployed an insistent second person voice – a forceful "you" that is him, the reader, the world – to beautiful effect, crafting novels satirical and deeply sincere. Hamid is, to a very self-conscious degree, a "global" writer; his audience, as he sees it, is everywhere.
Hamid was born in Lahore in 1971 and spent his boyhood in California, where his father, a development economist, had gone to study for a PhD. He went back to the city of his birth for his secondary schooling and then returned again to the United States to Princeton, where he studied with Joyce Carol Oates. But fiction would come slowly, as he first pursued law school, then a stint as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. After September 11, Hamid left New York for London, where he would live for several years until he came full circle and settled back in Lahore.
His peregrinations between cities, cultures – he is razor-sharp on the higher corporate silliness and the jargon of the self-help trade – and countries inform his novels, where he explores the disruptions of globalisation with an astringent yet tender voice, one that deflects and refracts gravely serious concerns through irony and a playful scepticism.
Hamid is also a frequent commentator for the press. In Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, Hamid collects more than a decade's worth of opinion pieces, critical reflections and autobiographical titbits that first appeared in, among other publications, The Guardian, The New York Times, Time, The New Yorker, the Pakistani magazine Dawn, the Financial Times and The New York Review of Books.
On these pages, the personal mixes with the political. He writes variously on the death of Osama bin Laden, the origins of his novels, e-books versus print books, becoming a father, writers that influenced him, his time in cities east and west, how Islam is perceived in the West, and the fragile present and uncertain future of Pakistan.
In the introduction to the collection, Hamid outlines a statement of principles. These pieces, he writes, “are the dispatches of a correspondent who cannot help but be foreign, at least in part”. Hamid’s general subject is that abstract term (and favourite of pundits everywhere) “globalisation”, which, he argues “brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism, unchecked financial capitalism, inequality, xenophobia, climate change”. But at the same time, it holds out a vast promise, that “we will be more free to invent ourselves. In this country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.”
This is an undeniably noble sentiment. Hamid is against the crude demarcations of the category – racial, sexual, ethnic, religious, national – and the shackles that civilisations place on their subjects. “To what civilisation does a Syrian atheist belong?” he asks. “A Muslim soldier in the US Army? A Chinese professor in Germany? A lesbian designer in Nigeria?” In the probing title essay of the collection, he provocatively states that “our civilisations do not cause us to clash. No, our clashing allows us to pretend we belong to civilisations.”
He appeals to the better angels of every right-thinking person; he is an earnest spokesman for the values of tolerance, pluralism and the freewheeling play of the imagination.
On these pages, Hamid, unlike in his novels, goes about his business with a straight face. The results are mixed. Some of the pieces here are so ephemeral and of the moment, they perhaps should have been excluded from the book. Elsewhere he can be pat, if not trite. But the core of the collection, pertinent reflections on Pakistan from a traveller between two worlds, are relevant and pressing.
Hamid is justly irritated by how Pakistan is perceived by outsiders. The view from America usually contains some variation on the following words: militants; extremism; unstable; nuclear weapons. In the West, Pakistan, Hamid writes, “plays a recurring role as villain in the horror sub-industry within the news business”.
Such views, of course, are a gross distortion. Still, Hamid reserves the right for himself to criticise his home country, which he does in several essays. He is particularly concerned with the state of Pakistan’s religious minorities – Christians and others – who have suffered in recent years. “A country should be judged by how it treats its minorities. To the extent it protects them, it stands for ennobling values of empathy and compassion, for justice rooted, not in might, but in human equality, and for civilisation instead of savagery.”
Such people have been left out of the country’s grand national narratives. But “minority”, he observes, is the lot of us all: “Each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one. And, as Pakistan becomes a country at war with its minorities, it is becoming a country at war with its individuals, with itself, with you and me, with the human desire to be allowed to believe what we believe.”
Hamid is especially undeceived about Pakistan’s fraught relationship with the United States. For him, it is less an alliance than a deformed geopolitical arrangement that has brought precious little benefit to either country. Of the money flowing from the US, roughly three-quarters of it goes to Pakistan’s armed forces. “The alliance between the US and Pakistan is thus predominantly between the US and the Pakistani military, ” he notes. Yet it is hardly any such thing to anyone else – after all, Hamid points out, “to enter the US as Pakistani civilian ‘ally’ now (a Herculean task, given ever-tighter visa restrictions) is to be subjected to hours of inane secondary screening upon arrival”. (Hamid recounts several instances of such treatment on his travels to and from the US, post-9/11.)
The spillover of the Afghanistan wars embroiled Pakistan in a dangerous game with Pashtun militants within its own borders. This has come at enormous cost to Pakistani citizens in terms of blood spilt and money spent. The issue of ongoing drone warfare also provokes a considered response from Hamid. The policy does not work, he argues, and it is a convenient scapegoat for those looking to focus blame for Pakistan’s ills elsewhere. “Pakistani politicians find it far easier to blame highly unpopular drone strikes for Pakistan’s problems with extremism than to articulate concrete measures against specific extremist groups.” Ceasing drone attacks, Hamid argues, would “end the obfuscating claim that drones are the cause of terrorism in the country”.
Such concerns tend to crowd out Hamid’s lighter musings. But even when writing about such weighty issues, there is a radiant goodwill that shines through on the pages of the collection. He writes touchingly of living with his extended family in Lahore, meeting the woman who became his wife in London, raising his children. After a bomb blast rips through his sister’s office in Lahore, Hamid ponders the meanings of the event, and whether or not he should install blast-resistant film on the window of his child’s room.
“I did not wonder if they were made by factories in the West, by workers who were Muslim, by both, or by neither. No, I wondered instead if such films were truly transparent. For outside my daughter’s window is a yellow-blossoming amaltas tree, beautiful and mighty, and much older than us all. I hoped not to dim my daughter’s view of it.”
Throughout his journeys, both imaginative and real, the clearness of his own vision remains unwavering.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times