Mohsin Hamid: “I’m an Oyster”

“It’s like I’m an oyster. I’ve had this sharp speck inside me for a long time and, I’ve been trying to make it more comfortable. So slowly, I’ve turned it into a pearl.” These telling lines from ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ somewhat encapsulates his journey as a writer. On his way to complete his third novel, Mohsin Hamid talks to Sayan Bhattacharya about many such specks.


In a post globalised, post 9/11 world what does ‘home’ connote for you. Is it about where you are born, about matching wavelengths or passion?

I don’t know… hmm… to a certain extent I take home with me, so where I am is a little bit home. I guess there are different kinds of homes. I have little rituals to make wherever I am, home. So when I get to a hotel room, I unpack in a certain way, when I come to a city, I call up some friends. In a way what has happened is the idea that there is one home, has been destroyed for me. So there are places that feel more like home and others less like home. So Lahore is very much home. My parents, wife, daughter, sisters, cousins and friends are there. I grew up there. But it doesn’t feel entirely like home. Some of the people I am closest to don’t live there, some of the places I have spent a lot of my life are not in Lahore. So in a way, home stops being a place and it becomes a feeling. So at places where I don’t feel home strongly, I try to meet people, get accustomed to the people. For example, when I go to a new city, I walk around a lot. Walking the streets, I try to commit them to some sort of a mental map. So these are rituals… so the short answer to your question would be for a globalised person, I don’t think there is home, in the sense of geography but home is in an emotional sense.


In both ‘Moth Smoke’ and ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’, you presented topical, serious issues in a playful, unreal framework – whether it was the improbably long monologues in ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ or the court room in ‘Moth Smoke’. Explain this device.

Basically, my novels contain a potentially realist plot inside a decidedly unreal frame. The trial of Dara Sikoh could not happen the way it happened in ‘Moth Smoke’ or these 2 people could not sit down for a conversation. What it allows you is to tell a realist story that the world is like this or could be like this but it also allows you to abandon the pretence that this is the world. It’s a novel that you are reading… words on a page. So let’s make a virtue out of that fact instead of hiding it. In my case, the virtue is let’s force the readers to engage in, to interpret the stories. I could have just told the story of Chengez in a third person narrative. The difference in writing a monologue is of course that the reader has to situate himself relative to Chengez’s story and relative to my position as writer of that story. So the unreal frame makes explicit the dynamics in the author reader relationship, how the book is written and how is it read, it forces the readers to make certain choices… I think the novel involves a greater degree of creative co-creation on the part of the reader than other forms of narrative, a TV show or a film where you see what’s happening… there is a soundtrack. In a novel, what you are looking at and what you are experiencing are vastly different… characters, emotions, feelings but what you are looking at is words and so the novel requires more interpretation on the reader. I think the frame that I use is to maximise that potential because the reader is creating meaning in the novel. When you juxtapose a realist narrative with an unreal frame, the reader has to make sense out of this, it invites the reader to make certain commitments, judgements and the novel begins to reflect back the reader’s reading of the novel. So novel is a somewhat ambiguous thing and the issue you have raised broadens the possibilities of what the reader can do with the book which means the meaning will be different from reader to reader, which it is in case of all books, hopefully more in this case and the reader will, on completing the novel, if they choose to, be left with an awareness on how much of their reading is not determined by the text and therefore their awareness of themselves because they brought that reading to the book. You know both these novels end at a point where the story may not be concluded completely, they end at slightly jarring points…


So that the reader can take it forward from there…



Tell us about your literary influences. 

Everything that I have read and everything that I have seen. I mean, I can recite like European modernists like Nobokov, Camus, American, African American writing with focus on oral cadence like James Baldwin, Toni Morrisson… I mean every book, every comic book, science fiction that I have read, every movie that I have seen… trashy romance film, every Bollywood film, Pakistani Television Drama… everything teaches you how stories can be told. I think there is a lot of conscious and unconscious cinematic storytelling vocabulary and tools, for example Stanley Kubrick may not be my literary influence but his story telling technique is.


What was it like attending the classes of Toni Morrison?

I took classes under Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates and they were fantastic and it was partly what they taught you and partly being in the presence of such writers, as a student, it lets you, it lets me imagine that even I could be one. It takes this romantic quest of being a writer and makes it more concrete and tangible. You could touch a writer as opposed to just reading them. There is a technical training, teaching sense that writers like Toni Morrison give you and partly a sense of making your dream concrete which is equally important.


From the time you wrote Moth Smoke to today, there are quite a few writers in Pakistan, writing in English who are also getting a lot of critical acclaim… How do you view this scene?

I think there is a lot good writing happening out of Pakistan. A number of things happened. One is the economics of the publishing business has changed. It is possible to sit in Pakistan or elsewhere, write about Pakistan and find a global market for your writing. In a way a purely Pakistani English market could not have worked for these many writers. There is an interest in Pakistan. It is important in world news. It’s a society where a lot of interesting things are happening, where the society is making some choices, certain conflicts are playing out. It’s a peculiar combination of a geographical position, multi ethnic society, predominantly Muslim background, democratic institutions, extreme ideologies, massively young population, economic change… it encapsulates many things that we see in the world in the 21st century. So interest in Pakistani fiction has gone up. Also what happens is when people begin to write, to write well and get appreciated, it encourages others to consider writing. When I started out, I couldn’t imagine being a Pakistani successful novelist. What did he look like? But in India, as also in Pakistan, there was always Indian writing in English as also in other languages. But it was in the 80s that a whole generation of Indians felt encouraged to take up writing as a profession, that’s what’s happening in Pakistan now.


However don’t you think that Indian writing in English is somewhat stagnating?

I think it’s dangerous to speak in such broad generalizations. I haven’t read enough…


But in terms of no new writing styles evolving…

I would say let’s see. The history of art, the history of book… history is a long form of endeavour. There has been more successful Indian non fictional writing in the past 10 years but all I can say is I have heard this but I haven’t read enough… For me Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City’ would be the book from India from the past decade that struck me as most innovative among the ones that I have read but there are so many that I haven’t read. If you believe, as someone who follows Indian writing, that there is a sense of stagnation, you better believe that there will be a release and there are a bunch of young writers or writers writing for the first time, will respond to that. I think that’s inevitable.


How do you think is the Kashmir conflict panning out vis-a-vi a year since the stone protestors’ attacks, calls for azadi, a dysfunctional State government and of course IndoPak relations?

There is hardly any conversation, any engagement. There are so many actors engaged in preventing conversation, extremists on both sides, moderates on both sides, parties on all three sides, if there is a Kashmiri side. You know… let’s talk, that’s the basic point and we are not and that is the problem. You know it is inconceivable that a solution cannot be found but how do you find that without conversation? You know conversation itself is a partial solution. It can bring hope, buy time, and tackle extremism if it is honest conversation done in the spirit of seeking solution. What we as South Asians want, a billion and a half people want, a quarter of humanity want is we know the viewpoints but what do you do about them now? We want dialogue, not soliloquies.


If you were to differentiate between India and Pakistan on the basis of the way the mainstream media of the 2 countries function in terms of jingoism or coverage of news, how would you?

I think, at the moment- again I will say that I know much less about the Indian media than Pakistan- both India and Pakistan are not being well served by their media. Fortunately or unfortunately we are not alone on this. Look at America. Something has happened to the model of how media works, in the societal function that we hope the media will play in exposing the truth, giving certain viewpoints is not happening, much as we would like. In India’s case, I get a distinct impression that there is a nationalist, corporatist bias in the media, not all media obviously because it is diverse. In Pakistan, that is not the case. There is a hyper critical and I would say sometimes an irrationalist bent. So things are being torn apart, nothing constructive is being offered. Now obviously these are generalizations. There are good media outlets, individuals in India and Pakistan but in India’s case, for example, after the Mumbai attacks, the response of a large part of the media was jingoistic, like let’s kick some ass! That’s madness! Surely anybody can recognize this. Why would you not avoid a nuclear war with a neighbour? It’s insane. Similarly on the Pakistani side, what you have is extremist actions and then all kinds of convoluted, irrational arguments- to call them arguments is almost too much- that force us to evade any signing responsibility for what has actually happened, what is the meaning…. It refuses to address the internal contradictions that exist in the society and so engages in convoluted explanations of things as a way to avoid the basic propositions like do you believe that Pakistan should be a strong state as opposed to do you support a pan Islamic caliphate. You can’t support both at the same time. You have to pick and confront the internal inconsistencies. In many ways Pakistan and India are very similar in terms of how poorly they are serving large sections of the population and perhaps the biggest difference is not the secularism of India and these sorts of things but in that in Pakistan, people are much more heavily armed. If in rural India, you had hundreds of millions of people with modern weapons, guerilla training from the CIA, ISI, IED training, combat expertise gain in Afghanistan in the last several years, fighting Americans and what not, you better believe that India would be a blood bath by now. The disenfranchised Indians do not have access to kind of training, weaponry as they do in Pakistan. So the fundamental failing is in the 2 countries where some people live very well and most live terribly and we each have our own way to not allow that to be a part of our mainstream discourse- a nationalist one in India’s case and an irrationalist one in Pakistan’s case.


What about the ways both the countries deal with its minorities?

If you look at the fear in the Pakistani Christian community, for example, it is obvious that the Pakistani state is not doing enough to protect their case. And similarly, the Indian state with the Muslim minority. And I think part of the reason for the problem is that there are two different readings of what Partition could have been and still could be. One reading is that Partition is like opening up an ocean. Instead of becoming geographically next door- Lahore’s closer to here than Bombay is, I could probably drive to Lahore in an hour if there was a way to drive- we pretend there is a giant ocean, we can’t walk across, we have to fly, it’s impossible to get here. This brutalizes our societies because India has always been permeable from its north and west and Pakistan has always been connected to its east. Why is Lahore the way it is, why is Delhi the way it is, why do we all look the way we do, because there is a historical continuity to this place. Partition could be this ocean that is open, that is what it seems to have become or it could be to establish a constitutional framework that divides up this shared space, fair enough, but we recognize that this shared space is something shared and that’s why we speak the same languages and look like each other. Let us find ways for this space to be shared inspite of the problems of the separate countries and I think, because we don’t do that, our minorities become mysteries. Where did they come from? Who are these non-Muslim people in Pakistan? Who are the non-Hindu people in India? Why are they here? If there are two islands, it’s inexplicable. But the fact is that we are not two islands, we are actually a continuity of a movement and it’s by denying the continuity of movement that we are baffled by minorities. So, this whole issue of partition of Indo-Pak relations feeds into bad minority treatment and addressing this issue with a better, more civil, more permeable relation with India and Pakistan would go a long way..


How is Lahore 2011 especially post Salman Taseer’s assassination?

It is a city of 8 or 9 million people. So, in some senses, it is the same as it was before but in another sense, there is a degree of fear that has come. For me, it has been more fearful and worried after his assassination, for the direction that Pakistan is going in. And significantly, not because I feel the population is going in a certain direction but because I am concerned that the state is not adequately responding to its challenges, and the challenges are expanding in power related to the state and that, I think, is very dangerous because in an election, the party on the extreme religious right will get 10% of the total votes. But that doesn’t matter as power doesn’t just come from the votes, power comes from violence. In a democratic society, the election translates into a control of violence because elections translate into the control of the functions of the state; like the police and the army. However, if the state is unwilling to exercise those functions, then this monopoly of violence starts to go away and with it the power of elections go away because if the electorate doesn’t determine where violence will be applied and how it will be applied but somebody else does, then the system that keeps society ordered is facing a deep challenge. And I think in Pakistan right now, many people across the spectrum are asking the question, regardless of differences, whether they are communist, capitalist, secularist or religious – do we want non-state actors to exercise this much power? And to have a relative ascent in terms of the ratio of violence by the State and non state actors… And I think most people are shocked to see this happening and are worried about it. I see no solution to it but I see that’s the trend.


Both Moth Smoke and Reluctant Fundamentalist had autobiographical elements. Will your third book also have such elements, bearing allusions to real people? How is it shaping up?

Neither of my novels is actually based on real people. There’s no character in the real world that I can think of but the way I approach reality is to deploy a combination of simulations of reality, scenes like scenes that I have seen, situations that I have experienced, a world that is recognizable to me to the world that I have lived in, along with elements that do not attempt to simulate to reality. Fantastical situations sometimes or a basic premise which is completely unreal, will probably be there. But it may not be the case that my autobiography and the stories of my characters overlap as much as they haven’t till now. They haven’t overlapped that much until now, I believe. I have just lived in similar worlds, seen similar things, but I haven’t killed anybody in a car accident or been involved in a shooting in a boutique and I haven’t been imprisoned or been a heroine addict, I didn’t, at the age of 20 something, quit my job in America and grow a beard and move back to Pakistan. I have grown a beard, faced strife and been to Pakistan but in a very different context. So, they are not my stories and I write non fiction also and often with a very strong authorial eye. I would just see and face these things and that is non fiction, I don’t need my fiction to do that. But I think in my third novel, I am looking for ways to expand the scope to encompass a much broader swathe of society and the world around me. Now, in that sense, it’s likely to not look at it as autobiographical but of course, it would still be because when you write about what it feels like to be hungry, when I write about what it feels like to be hungry I will draw upon things like what it was like to fast when I was a child. You didn’t eat until the evening and then you felt hungry. So writing about a poor man who hasn’t had meal in the day and is hungry is not an un-autobiographical act. I think that the novel is a drop of empathy to imagining what somebody else feels, trying to feel what somebody else feels and your own experience is obviously a part of that process of empathy and it gives you a capacity for empathy. But the flip side of it is imaging as somebody else. Empathy is not projecting what I feel of somebody else but, you know, this person must feel exactly as I do, instead it is more like being an actor, if I were you, how would I feel, if I were a woman and a man said something to me on the street, how would I feel etc etc etc… so, it is oddly enough that there is an aspect of attempting to transcend the self in creating a fictional narrative. So, I think the focus on representing yourself in fiction only captures happening.


So how is it to write in the voice of an extremist?

Do you mean what I think they would be feeling or how would I actually go through the process of doing it?


The process…

Well, you know, for me, it’s a bit like being an actor. I imagine how somebody might speak? What would their voice sound like? What words would they use, How do they say things? And then I try to write in that voice, become that person by speaking like them and then, slowly, around that accumulate other aspects of that human being. You know, your voice and what you say comprises your conscious thoughts. For me, that’s the first point. Once I begin to do that process, then I begin to embody the character, imagine being that character. What clothes would I wear? How would I walk? What will be my relationship to the physical world? When I look at things, what will I see? You and I might be looking at the same face, but in very different ways. A European at this festival might be looking around and saying ‘Wow! Lot of Indian people’, whereas I might be saying, ‘So many European people.’ So, it is imagining being that person in that way; that’s the kind of process that I follow in creating a character. And I think empathy in the real world, as opposed to the writing world… that’s what I mean by empathy with a fictional character.


But isn’t this role of empathy difficult considering your disparate backgrounds?

Let me explain, if I am talking to an extremist, first I have to imagine who an extremist is. I would imagine somebody who is very angry, there is an undercurrent of violence to his anger and that expresses itself in a kind of heightened relationship with the physical world around you, your stress level is higher, there is an edge to your voice, you are both capable of moving into violence mode quickly and you are also more aware of the potential of the violence being done to you. I mean as an animal, you know, you are not a lion cub at home being licked by its mother; you are an animal hunting on this arena when another hunter is out there you don’t get to see, there’s a potential prey ahead and you are hungry. And then you begin to insert into that biological-animal-human construct. What’s the issue that we are talking about- that to me comes almost later. Into that can be inserted that I am a Muslim extremist or a Hindu extremist, Skinhead in Europe or whatever.


So, what is your responsibility as an author in society?

I don’t know what the responsibility of a writer is. I don’t think a writer has a responsibility actually. They have individual responsibilities; I don’t think a writer is a member of a class of people who are collectively subscribed to a code. Writers are individuals. I can talk about my individual responsibilities as a writer and I think these things change. There are different kinds of responsibilities like somebody’s going to spend a few hours reading a book, make the experience worthwhile if you can. Then there is responsibility of making it aesthetically perfect as suited to what it is supposed to do. But of course, there are political responsibilities that you can’t withdraw from. In my case, I suppose, among those political responsibilities is the notion that having this worth exist in the world will add to the weight of things that improve the world as opposed to things that don’t improve the world and how I define ‘improvement’. That matters to me and I personally do look at things like societal injustice, economic inequality, racism etc as things around me that I want to invest in my fiction and make visible. So, I guess that’s a responsibility, but they don’t have to be responsibilities. And I guess above all, for me, it is not simply the responsibility to say what I think but the responsibility to facilitate an interaction with the reader and that interaction is hopefully positive. It’s not that my protagonist is people I would like to be or anybody should want to be, but in the hope that the reader reading these protagonists and having an interaction with the book will emerge from the book a tiny bit different because it will be. Everything changes us, even walking on the streets, a tiny bit of difference. And that difference will be a difference that slight increases our self awareness and a slight increase in empathy for other people and imagining what someone else feels.

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