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The Rediff Special/ Lindsay Pereira
'Why does Indian journalism constrain itself?'
May 24, 2007
Sole protagonist of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- the follow up to his vibrant, edgy, 2000 debut Moth Smoke -- Changez is not the world's greatest dinner companion. A meal with his creator, on the other hand, would be very nice indeed. To engage Mohsin Hamid in conversation is fabulous, because he comes across as a writer who really cares about his craft, and is more than happy to engage in a discussion about it.
We sit across each other, in the lobby of Mumbai's Taj President, oblivious of a steady stream of guests, porters, bellhops and the usual bunch of people who appear to spend their lives in hotel lobbies, with no apparent purpose before them. This is Hamid's first trip to Mumbai, and it can't have begun in the best circumstances considering he spent a few hours registering himself at a police station -- an unpleasant task made mandatory in a world now full of suspicious neighbours.
If the writer has taken it in stride, his formative years may have something to do with it. Born 36 years ago in Lahore, Pakistan, he went on to study at Princeton University and the Harvard Law School, then worked in New York before moving to London, where he now spends most of his time. It is a kind of rootless existence that compels one to take a lot of things in one's stride.
"I have been subjected to multiple-hour searches and questioning at American airports," Hamid says, smiling grimly. "But, I have also sat next to bearded men who wear money-belts underneath their kurtas on the London tube, and wondered if they were going to blow me up. We are all constantly engaged in racial profiling." The important thing, he points out -- particularly for those of us subjected to racial profiling -- is to recognise our own instinct to do it. "It's just that the power balance sometimes tips and the state backs one type of profiling over another, which is what we object to. Even as we complain about that, we shouldn't ignore our own implicit guilt."
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, now published worldwide in 16 languages, will come as a surprise to readers familiar with Hamid's debut. While Moth Smoke took us straight to the heart of Lahore, switching between its feudal lords and nouveau riche, the new novel is, by the author's own admission, more focused on America. It raises questions of identity, at a time when a great many of the world's people are questioning their own.
While Moth Smoke gave us that intriguing anti-hero Darashikoh 'Daru' Shezad -- who begins an affair with his best friend's wife Mumtaz and watches his life spiral out of control -- the latest novel begins and ends in the first person, with Changez alone doing the talking. Sitting across him is an American denied a voice throughout the novel, apparently to reflect the one-sided nature of the media in the West, consistently denying one half of the world its voice.
"I self-consciously set out to do things differently," says Hamid. "I wanted to avoid certain themes that were very important to my last book." I point out that a first person narrative sometimes risks coming across as stilted. Changez -- despite his Princeton education and familiarity with twentieth-century corporate America -- often sinks into a tone that is almost obsequious, with cadences that belong more to translations of nineteenth century Urdu than the crisp voice of a well-travelled former business executive.
"I didn't really consider the risk," says the writer. "At the end of the day, you have to trust your ear. Then, it's up to the readers, and whether they feel it works."
To be fair, there is a lot of The Reluctant Fundamentalist that does work. For a novella, it manages to place across a table -- with Changez and the unnamed American on either side -- a number of cogent arguments critiquing US foreign policy. It does what Hamid wants it to do -- stay in Pakistan while focusing on America. It also manages, in an engaging manner, to reduce intricate links between America and the Mujahideen, immigrants and the fourteenth century infantry units called Janissaries, to banter over kebabs and warm rotis. In that, Hamid has effectively used the novella to create a novel of ideas.
"The first draft was about a young Pakistani living and working in New York, wondering if he should stay or go back to Pakistan, and his love affair with an American woman," the author says, tracing the evolution of the book from its first draft written in pre-9/11 America. "This is what it is still about, but the way it is told is completely different. The sense of menace didn't really come in until the latest draft."
I ask Hamid what I assume must be a common-enough query thrust at him -- to what extent does he identify with Changez's worldview, if at all? "I choose settings and environments," he replies. "The milieu is one I am intimately familiar with, both in the case of Moth Smoke and this novel. Therefore, the impression of autobiography lingers. There are resonances of me in all my characters, but it is more difficult for a writer than a reader to determine how big the overlap is."
I ask him about his tendency to delve on power structures. If, for instance, Moth Smoke explored the relationship between feudalism and the nouveau riche, The Reluctant Fundamentalist pits the East against the West. "That is probably accurate," he admits, "but I tend to be much more specific. I tend to focus on people who are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. Thanks to television, all of us know what it's like to be a rich millionaire in Beverly Hills. We are like insiders, because we venture into that world all the time. And, obviously, we are not insiders. That dichotomy -- of somebody with a clear view of the inside, who is also a good mimic and can pretend to be inside, but isn't -- is of great interest to me."
It is an interesting analogy, made more pertinent when Hamid draws parallels to it in his own life. "Because I have drifted so much myself, I am now used to being this person who quickly picks up the social code of wherever he is; who can effectively function on the surface as an insider, but remains perpetually, internally, to a degree removed and on the outside." He tells me that one of the responses to a cosmopolitan existence is to become a chameleon. Even if a chameleon looks like a gecko, it knows it isn't one.
Our talk moves towards immigration, an important part of the novel's sub-text. "I think America has certainly been veering away from its immigrant-friendly past," says Hamid, "but that's not to say it won't go back to it, because it still depends on immigrants."
We discuss his tendency to take years over a novel ("It's not a competitive sport," he laughs); his attitude towards writers who churn out novels every year (His instinct is to say, "You probably didn't spend as much time on this as you could have"); how readers in Pakistan react to his work (He points out that those engaged closely with literature are not the majority, so most people don't have a literary framework into which to place a novel). The latter comment is one most authors of literary fiction tend to make. If people read books, they don't often pick literary fiction.
"The Da Vinci Code possibly sold more than the combined sales of every literary novel published that year," says Hamid. "When we think of what a reader's response is, we have to go back to the starting point -- that the craft is about storytelling. And literary novelists often prove to be poor storytellers."
Another thing that makes Mohsin Hamid such a pleasure to talk to -- his evocative language aside -- is the fact that he brings to us a perspective from the other side. Voices from India's friendly neighbour haven't exactly been pouring in since independence. I tell him how The Los Angeles Times once referred to Pakistan as 'the mysterious country that both created the sophisticated Benazir Bhutto and hanged her father'. He laughs, then tells me he usually shies away from descriptions of his country.
"Part of my job as a novelist is to reintroduce complexity into a world where too many voices are trying to over-simplify," he explains. "A simple description is impossible to give; I try, instead, to give a range of things. So, I'd say the Number One talk show host in Pakistan is a transvestite; there are six music television channels showing Pakistani videos; there are a million heroin addicts; there are also people on the border of Afghanistan engaged in guerrilla warfare; the tribal areas account for 3 million people -- 2 per cent of the population; while Lahore accounts for 8 million. So, calibrate the country accordingly."
Warming to the topic, he reminds me of how difficult it is to generalise. He mentions slogans like 'India Shining.' "They are absurd," he says. "Of course, India is making massive strides forward, but you can't say 'shining' and then add 'but half our children are malnourished.' That is the reality, and it's complicated. Just as India is very diverse, so is Pakistan."
Moving back to the novel, what Changez feels creates much of its dramatic tension. He is sometimes surprised by his own intensity, and his monologue is often an attempt to justify what he perceives to be unnatural feelings -- happiness after 9/11; anger against America after Pakistan and India go nuclear; distrust against former colleagues; apathy towards the one woman he loves, and who is possibly the only one with the power to save him from himself.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist refuses to end on an obvious note. Is Changez a terrorist? Is the American a CIA agent? Does Changez mean to cause him harm? What does fundamentalism mean anyway? Is the American pursuit of mammon a kind of fundamentalism that bends all opposing views to its will? The author wants readers to draw their own conclusion.
As our conversation moves towards a close, I ask him about the function of journalism in Pakistan, and whether, like India, it has no real tradition of critical evaluation, as far as anything written in English is concerned. "Pakistani book reviews are certainly no better informed than Indian ones," he informs me. "But I have been reviewed all over the world, and most reviews are just like ours. Most reviewers have no idea of historical context; they don't deploy particularly sophisticated analysis, and they jump to early conclusions that are absurd. Often, one is a beneficiary of this, because what comes out is a poorly thought-out review that is glowingly positive, and can be put on the back of one's paperback."
He adds that it is a rare review that teaches either the author or reader, giving both some insight into the novel. "Most reviews are a bit like film reviews -- thumbs up or thumbs down," he smiles.
Interestingly, speaking about journalism in general, Hamid believes the press in Pakistan is more critical of the government. Indian journalism, he says, has a soft touch. I point out that this is ironic, considering Pakistan isn't exactly a model democracy. "Exactly," Hamid replied, "and maybe that is why it is like this. It's interesting that given the greater freedom Indian journalism enjoys, it constrains itself. The 'India Shining' thing struck me as having resonances of the American model. When the war first began there, for a long time before Iraq became a quagmire, the US press pretty much said 'Go, America!' and abandoned its critical role."
Like he has done in the past, Mohsin Hamid may take up to seven years to give us his next novel. I, for one, have no problems with that. His fiction has, until now, always been worth the wait.
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