Novelist Mohsin Hamid’s ability to extract human stories out of the geopolitical crises unfolding around us is yet again displayed in his new work of fiction, Exit West, writes Abdullah Khan.
By Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 599
Mohsin Hamid has the literary equivalent of a mythical magic wand which he uses to transform news items and op-eds into exciting pieces of fiction. His Moth Smoke was a commentary on post nuclear Pakistan, a Pakistan where the upper crest of the society chose to make their future financially secure by hook or crook rather than following the moral or ethical codes. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was his take on the post 9/11 America and its aftermaths. In How to Get Filthy Rich in the Rising Asia, he tells us how corruption plays an important role in the socio-economic growth of South Asian countries.
Now, here is his latest offering Exit West which talks about the displacement and migration caused by the war. The book also makes subtle comments about the hazards of mixing of the religious extremism and the politics. Surely, the deadly cocktail of religion and politics can wreck havoc on any society, claiming millions of lives, and rendering millions of people homeless. The setting of the novel hasn’t been explicitly mentioned but on the basis violent circumstances described in the book, one can guess that the author is pointing towards Syria or Iraq.
The story opens when Nadia, a conservatively dressed but a liberal by heart girl, and Saeed, a western suit clad young man with the ethos rooted in his culture, meet in an unnamed country which is about to drawn into a bloody war. Nadia and Saeed instantly and hopelessly fall in love with each other and dream about their future together. And, then the war comes home and they see the devastations and brutalities around them. In the process, they also lose everything. Now, for Saeed and Nadia, the only way to survive is to run away from their war torn country. But the ruling militia will not allow anyone to get out from the country.
But, then they come to know about magical doors similar to the door in the Chronicles of Narnia that can take them to a city of a country in the West. And, finally they manage to find such a door and arrive in a city that is teeming with the refugees from around the world. After that they escape to another country and ends up in the United States. During their stay in those countries they encounter the locals who are friendly and welcoming, the locals who are apathetic towards them and the locals who are violently hostile to their presence. But, they learn to survive in every situation.
A competent stylist of fiction writing, Hamid uses minimal dialogue to convey his message. The use of indirect speech, however, doesn’t impact the pace of the narrative. The author uses multiple points of view in the same chapters but you don’t feel any narrative jerk.
As these young lovers go through the trauma of a displaced life in alien countries their personal equations also get unbalanced as they begin to lose the warmth of glow of their relationship.
Through these simple plotlines, Hamid creates a nuanced narrative about the miseries of human existence in the war torn territories and then as refugees in the faraway lands. The author also offers insightful commentaries on the issues of the modern day displacements and migrations caused by the war and terrorism and its socio-political impacts on the countries which host these displaced people.
The elements of magical realism used in the story give us a surreal flavour and at times you feel that you are reading a fairy tale. The idea of the author, not to name the countries mentioned in the novel gives its readers freedom to fit the story in the countries their choice. The doors are the motifs and symbolise the fantasy of millions of the war weary men and women who always keep looking for such imaginary doors to escape from violence and miseries.
A competent stylist of fiction writing, Hamid uses minimal dialogue to convey his message. The use of indirect speech, however, doesn’t impact the pace of the narrative. The author uses multiple points of view in the same chapters but you don’t feel any narrative jerk. He also doesn’t shy away to use expositions wherever they are required to enhance the narrative. Here is a sample of his prose:
“Initially, Nadia did not follow much of what was being said, just snippets here and there, but over time she understood more and more, and she understood also that the Nigerians were in fact not all Nigerians, some were half Nigerians, or from places that bordered Nigeria, from families that spanned both sides of a border, and further that there was perhaps no such thing as a Nigerian, or certainly no one common thing, for different Nigerians spoke different tongues among themselves, and belonged to different religions. Together in this group, they conversed in a language that was built in large part from English, but not solely from English, and some of them were in any case more familiar with English than were others. Also they spoke different variations of English, different Englishes, and so when…”
Because of Hamid’s poetic prose and his ability to create extraordinary stories out of the real events happening around us, Exit West makes a fascinating read. The novel also raises all the important and relevant questions regarding the problems faced by the people who are forced to migrate from their homelands because of the circumstances beyond their controls and face all sort of adversities as refugees in the countries they have taken shelter in.
The only complaint against the author is that his story ends too early and too abrupt.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai based screenwriter and literary critic. His debut novel Patna Blues will be published by Juggernaut Books later this year