By Amitabh Pal on May 15, 2013
I’ve been waiting to interview writer Mohsin Hamid since 2007. That year, he came out with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which got my attention. Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to do a feature article for The Progressive in order to introduce him to you. In 2008, I tracked down his e-mail address from a Pakistani-American author, and Hamid and I have intermittently been in touch about figuring out the appropriate time to meet.
After all these years, the right moment finally came this March. Hamid was on tour for his new book, and fortuitously made a visit to Milwaukee to promote it. I drove over from Madison, and we met in the lobby of Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel. Hamid answered my questions good-naturedly and gave me all the time I needed, even though he had an event scheduled soon after at the Boswell bookstore. Mohsin Hamid proved to be as impressive in person as he is in his writing.
Hamid has lived a global life. He was born in Pakistan, but spent much of his childhood in California while his dad was earning a Ph.D. at Stanford. He relocated with his family to Pakistan when not quite a teenager and came again to the United States to attend Princeton and then Harvard Law School. He subsequently spent a few years in England (he has dual British and Pakistani citizenship) before deciding in 2009 to shift back to Pakistan.
It is these multiple worlds that have provided Hamid such fertile material.
His debut work, Moth Smoke, got rave reviews when it was published in 2000. The story of the downward spiral of a Pakistani banker, the book was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Fiction and was chosen by The New York Times as a notable book.
But it was his second novel that brought Hamid into the limelight. The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells its tale in the form of a monologue by a Pakistani to an unnamed American at a café in Lahore. The protagonist, Changez, wryly narrates his history and explains why he became disillusioned with the United States post-September 11. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker and was translated into dozens of languages.
Hamid excavated his own past for the book. Changez’s life echoes Hamid’s in that both worked for a while for Corporate America and both left the country after staying here for a few years. Unlike Changez, Hamid was in London, though, when the September 11 attacks happened.
“I was in a gym at that time, and I remember hearing that the planes had hit the towers,” Hamid tells me. “Being a writer, I watched everybody, and I noticed that some people were smiling as they saw the television coverage. I didn’t know if the smile was just emotional overload or if it was a sense of pleasure at America’s discomfort. But that was when I first became aware of the notion of the smile. Later, when I spoke to people, I realized that many had that reaction. That animates the reaction of Changez in the novel.”
Hamid didn’t right away realize the larger repercussions of the event, but soon felt the backlash.
“It went from ‘I could come and go from America as I pleased’ to being sent to a second room and asked questions,” he says. “Four S’s appeared on my boarding pass every time I entered America, and I was searched. I didn’t know what would happen, but as someone who’s thoroughly multicultural, I realized that it was going to be bad for people like me.”
Hamid cautions that even though he conjured Changez, the creation shouldn’t be mistaken for the author.
“Changez is like a close cousin,” Hamid explains. “We have certain things in common, but disagree on important things also. Changez feels the need to be one thing—just Pakistani or just a Muslim. I’m very comfortable as a hybridized mongrel. But that said, some of the anger that Changez feels, some of the resentment, especially with the corporate world, did come from experiences and feelings that I also had.”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist has now been made into a movie directed by Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding) and starring Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, and Liev Schreiber, with British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed as the lead. Set for a spring commercial release in the United States, the movie departs significantly from the narrative style of the book, adding characters and explicitly laying out their life stories.
“The movie is Mira’s vision,” says Hamid, who helped write the screenplay. “She was very clear as to what she was looking for. I supported her because she is a genius as a filmmaker and aesthetically she is very, very gifted. And politically we are kindred spirits. But there are differences between the book and the movie. The novel is fundamentally about ambiguity. It creates a hole in which people insert their feelings of insecurity and dread upon one another. The film is more like a Hollywood thriller.”
But he appreciates the diversity of the movie. “Where else are you going to have an Indian director making a film of a novel by a Pakistani man with a British-Pakistani lead, supported by three big American stars?” Hamid asks. “It represents an antidote to the ‘we must be in our own camps’ mentality.”
And he says it’s “groundbreaking” to have a movie about a Muslim that doesn’t inevitably involve “American agents going into Iran or CIA agents getting bin Laden.”
Pakistan has been the subject of unflattering portrayals in recent movies such as Zero Dark Thirty. That doesn’t surprise Hamid.
“The media business is an entertainment business owned by big entertainment conglomerates,” he says. “In that entertainment business, Pakistan has a horror franchise, like Friday the 13th or Halloween. It’s meant to scare you.”
Hamid’s just-released third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is receiving accolades. The New York Times has hailed Hamid in a review as “one of his generation’s most inventive and gifted writers.” A send-up of the self-help genre (one of the chapters is titled “Be Prepared to Use Violence”) told in the second person, the book follows a villager who moves to the city and becomes a tycoon.
“There’s a narrative of the market that’s become very strong especially in Asia and Africa,” Hamid told the Boswell bookstore audience. “There are millions of young people desperately trying to become middle class, and that’s why I chose this style.”
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is structurally informed in its use of the second person by Sufi love poetry, the ghazal genre that is ubiquitous in South Asia.
“It is a form of Islam quite different from its representations in America,” Hamid said at the Boswell bookstore. “Through love, you transcend yourself and become one with the universe. Ghazals are told to ‘you,’ with no names in between.”
Through his body of writing, Hamid is offering a previously missing perspective to people in the United States.
“Hamid provides uncomfortable insights for American readers, unsettling our comfort zones of superiority,” says Charles Larson, professor emeritus at American University who taught Hamid’s novels in his classes. “His healthy corrective is long overdue.”
Hamid has never been hesitant to voice himself politically, and he’s outspoken about the U.S. role in his part of the world.
“America’s involvement in the region has from the beginning been completely counterproductive because the core has been an alliance with the House of Saud, and I can’t think of a more pernicious actor in the region,” Hamid says. “The House of Saud has exported this very pernicious form of militant Islam under U.S. watch. Then the United States comes in repeatedly to attack symptoms of this problem without ever addressing the basic issue: Where does it all come from? Who’s at the heart of this thing? It would be like saying that if you have skin rash because of cancer, the best option is to cut off your skin. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Elsewhere, Hamid has expressed criticism of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “If a war fought by democracies for control of Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people, requires for its successful prosecution the undermining of democracy in Pakistan, a country of 170 million, is that really a price worth paying?” asked Hamid in The Guardian in 2009.
Hamid is ambivalent, though, about the act of American intervention in Pakistan that is best known to the world: the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“What can you say? An act of revenge took place,” Hamid says. “It is an act of revenge with which I would be sympathetic. If somebody had done this to my country, I would want him to be killed, but to the extent this act of revenge has made our world safer or reduced animosity or disarmed dangerous ideologies, I don’t know. And if the result of this is that American intervention in other states is something that becomes more likely to happen, it will be bad because I can’t think of successful American military interventions.”
A major political project of Hamid’s has been to attempt to bring about peace between his native country and its estranged conjoined twin. He had a recent op-ed in The New York Times (titled “To Fight India, We Fought Ourselves”) where he argued that the Pakistani strategy of nurturing militants to take on India has redounded badly on Pakistan. Improved relations with India would do Pakistan a whole lot of good, he wrote, since it would “help starve Pakistani militancy of oxygen.” Hamid is cautiously optimistic in our chat about the prospects for that happening.
“The reason is this: It takes a lot of effort to maintain the animosity,” he explains. And he predicts that the border between the two nations, currently quite impermeable, one day “will open up fast and will not be able to be shut again.”
Hamid is adored in his country. At a recent reading at the Lahore Literary Festival, more than 800 people jammed an auditorium designed for a much smaller crowd.
“I’m part of the conversation,” Hamid says. “Young college students read my books in the thousands, and they relate to them. They’re not upper-class kids, but first-generation English speakers who are encountering themes of sexuality, secularism, feminism, etc., in books that my peers and I are writing. There’s a real sense that what you’re doing matters.”
Hamid may not get 800 individuals to pack a hall in the United States, but many in this country are eager to come out and see him. There were more than fifty people at the book discussion in Milwaukee. One member of the audience declared that it was the best literary event he had ever attended.
At the end, people formed a long line to get their books signed. I shook Hamid’s hand and quickly said goodbye, knowing for sure that we will hear much more about this gifted writer in the years to come.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).