Mohsin Hamid. Pic/GETTY IMAGES
Hours before making a call to Lahore, Pakistan, two stories on a leading daily's website catch this writer's attention. In the first, around 250 African migrant men - all between the ages of 16 and 24 - were reportedly feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean, after two partially submerged dinghies were found off Libya. Not very far away, in northern Iraq, terrified families fleeing fierce fighting in the city of Mosul, were drugging their children with sedatives or taping their mouths shut, to prevent their cries from alerting Islamic State militants.
Later, when we connect with author Mohsin Hamid on the phone to talk about his latest release, Exit West (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House India), we can't help but wish that the mysterious doors and windows he imagines in this novel, that allow you to walk effortlessly from one country to another, had existed in the real world. May be then, the 200-odd men wouldn't have died, and hopefully, no parent would ever have to drug their child again.
Hamid's fourth novel takes us through one such 'nameless' country, once beautiful and alive like any other in the world, suddenly ravaged by warring militants. A romance between the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, blossoms at a rather inopportune moment. But, like two defiant lovers, they try to make it work. And this is their story. Hamid's book is also a tale of migrants of war-torn lands, for whom the pursuit of happiness in linked with the search of a home. "We are all migrants," he tells us. But, the characters of this book are different. They remind you of the people, whose deaths though accounted for in record books, have become so commonplace that we begin to overlook it, only because it is convenient. He admits that he used his own home city, Lahore, as the model for his "nameless" city, the circumstances that unravel here bring to mind present-day Aleppo or Mosul. "I wanted to present the agony of what it must be like to live in a place that collapses in that way - to go from a modern, urban environment to a state of disaster," he says. Not naming this city, he said was deliberate "so that people imagined this world for themselves". Setting a love story against this backdrop gives this otherwise, politically relevant narrative, poignancy. "All my novels have been love stories," Hamid admits. "This one is something that many of us have experienced - first love between two young people. And like we all know, first loves are very difficult to sustain, because both individuals are changing very rapidly. It becomes easier to leave each other [in such a relationship]." His protagonists, however, don't; not so easily, at least. They swim through the tide together - walking through imagined doorways, banishing modern means of transport to jump one country to another, before finally winding up in America. These doors are symbolic of our lives today, says Hamid. "The modern technological reality of our times is a reality in which geographical distance is collapsing and disappearing. Right now, we are several hundred miles away, but we are still speaking as if we are next door to each other. And, if we were on Skype, we would be looking at each other through that digital window. The doors and windows in my novel reflect this contemporary reality," he says.
And, yet, we have walls. The walls that the US has recently built against immigrants, and the gates that India recently shut for Pakistan - one that even keeps the Lahore-based author from coming here. For, Lahore-based Hamid who has had a peripatetic life - having lived in Pakistan, America and UK) - migration, he says, is a "fundamental state of being human". "I saw a growing anti-migrant feeling in the US [when I lived there]," he says. "This book is in response to that rising nativist sentiment that has been building up for years now," he adds. And, it's everywhere.
Closer home, India and Pakistan are trying hard to deny each other, he says. Just then, the phone line disconnects and we struggle to make contact again. But, Hamid is insistent we speak about it. "As a person, who has walked across that border several times, I think, the tragedy of our time is the terrible and horrific attempt to keep ourselves separated. Pakistan can learn so much by coming to India - I certainly have - and India can too. Neither country is perfect. The land that we sit on doesn't end at that border. Closing it does a horrible disservice to people of both countries," he says. "We shouldn't limit ourselves to tolerance, we should be hoping for real affection, and anything lesser than that is a failure of imagination," Hamid adds.
Then, there is also Hamid's lyrical prose. Sometimes pages go devoid of punctuations. "It's a novel in which boundaries begin to disappear, and so, in that sense, it is natural that the boundaries didn't exist in paragraphs. Yet, more than that, as I was writing the novel, it began to seem like an incantation, like a prayer. And, so it acquired its own rhythm and that probably is the reason for the long sentences."
With Exit West hitting the shelves, and already earning rave reviews, Hamid feels it's time for a short break. "Usually, when I finish one book, I give myself a year before I start another. After having been monogamous with one story for several years, it would be nice to play the field."
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