Passion in Lahore

Moth Smoke

by Mohsin Hamid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp., $23.00

There is a wonderfully eloquent word in Urdu for the times, the age: it is zamana. To hear an elder take a puff at his hookah and sigh, “Such is our zamana,” or a youth, while cocking an eyebrow and shrugging his shoulders, trying to explain “our zamana” is to hear a world of comment on our day, our history, the passage of years and of human experience, in a way not quite conveyed by its equivalent in other languages (the German Zeitgeist comes closest in meaning but has not the same intimacy or emotion). Zamana is a word we use a good deal on the Indian subcontinent where time moves slowly and time moves inexorably, inviting reflection rather than reaction. Its concept hovers over a line in Mohsin Hamid’s novel Moth Smoke: “I know that no place has longer afternoons than this place, Lahore.”

There are other equally weighted, equally loaded words in the Urdu language, peculiarly suited to its culture: sharam (shame) is one, izzat (honor) another. They are key words; if one does not know them, one does not know the subcontinent.

Of course the zamana does not stand still; times change, change is inherent in the concept of zamana. If one looks at the writing done in India in the twentieth century to find a mirror of the times, one sees that the first half is dominated by the theme of the freedom movement—as in such modern classics as Raja Rao’s Kanthapura Tales or R.K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma. After Independence, in 1947, the subject was replaced by the Partition; so much did it occupy all Indian writers—and artists—that one could compare its effect to that of the Shoah. It was a trauma that left a scar far deeper and darker and more visible than the borders themselves between the two countries; its shadow stained every page.

Two generations have been born and grown up that did not experience, only heard about, the Partition and its horrors, but they were not untouched by it. Enmity is a stubborn parasite and surfaces in many forms—stones thrown at a cricket match, violence in the valley of Kashmir, the madness of the arms race…

Salman Rushdie wrote what were arguably the definitive novels of the cracking apart of the subcontinent, hammered into a single entity over the course of the centuries, into three nation-states: Midnight’s Children and Shame. Himself one of “midnight’s children,” born in 1947, his novels had such an electrifying effect that, in the 1980s, it gave birth to an entire new generation of writers that felt compelled to write a new cycle of Freedom/Partition novels. But time has not stood still, so much has happened, was happening on the subcontinent. In fact, things hardly ever ceased to happen: life was chaotic, dramatic, and traumatic at every hour, in every city and village and house. Although Rushdie was living in the West, he again proved the most alert to the naya zamana (new times) that…

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