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 followed, and the first to bring into fiction (in The Moor’s Last Sigh) such shattering events as the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalist mobs, the vengeance taken by Muslim terrorists in Bombay in a series of ferocious bombings, and the hijacking of politics by fundamentalists. Perhaps the distance at which he lived from India and Pakistan gave him a perspective on these events that was not available to people caught in the daily strife on the ground.

Of course one could find a record of it in the newspapers, with journalists of every stripe putting forth their commitments with passion if not with strict accuracy or grammatical precision, but the novelists and dramatists who had proven so eloquent on the subject of the old world—its caste system, its dynasties, family struggles, scandals, and gossip, the cycle ordained by the twin concepts of sharam/izzat—proved slow to catch the tone of contemporary life, its nonidealistic and cynical Weltanschauung. One could not really continue to write, or read about, the slow seasonal changes, the rural backwaters, gossipy courtyards, and traditional families in a world taken over by gun-running, drug-trafficking, large-scale industrialism, commercial entrepreneurship, tourism, new money, nightclubs, boutiques, politicians and civil servants noted for greed and corruption, and the constant threat of an explosion—of population, of crime, of the nuclear bomb, some kind of terrible explosion. Where was the Huxley, the Orwell, the Scott Fitzgerald, or even the Tom Wolfe, Jay McInerney, or Brett Easton Ellis to record this new world?

Mohsin Hamid’s novel Moth Smoke, set in Lahore, is one of the first pictures we have of that world and one of the first from Pakistan. Like anyone charting new ground, he makes some false starts and takes some false steps—using as an analogy, for instance, an episode from history, the breakup of the Mughal Empire after the death of the Emperor Shah Jehan in 1666 and the war of succession between his sons, Aurangzeb the warrior and Darashikoh, “a poet and pantheist, a possible future.” Hamid names his characters after them. Ozi (a diminutive of Aurangzeb) is a young man bound to succeed; Daru (the diminutive of Darashikoh) is doomed to fail; and Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife, is the woman they both love.


The names have resonance for anyone familiar with Mughal history, but they sit oddly upon their namesakes: Ozi does inherit the crown of wealth from his father, and by the end of the book he has Daru thrown into prison, certain to be hanged. But he bears no resemblance to the Emperor Aurangzeb, who was known not only for his ferocity but also for his piety and austerity. Daru has had a college education but he longs, it seems, only for a banker’s job and a car as smart as that of his rival and shows little inclination toward the arts or the Sufi tradition of harmony between religious communities as Dara Shikoh did. Then there is the problem of Mumtaz: historically, she was the mother of the two and beloved of their father, who built the Taj Mahal as her tomb. The analogy proves fragile and, like a glass goblet put to rough use, shatters.

Hamid employs other literary devices, like the digression in what sounds like an authorial voice that Rushdie has often put to use. These speeches are given to the improbable Dr. Julius Superb and the unconvincing Murad Badshah. Superb is a professor of economics said to have had a great influence upon a generation of students ripe for Marxism with disquisitions such as the one he gives on air-conditioning, pointing to it as the great divider between the haves and the have-nots. Badshah is the owner of a fleet of rickshaws who is doing battle with the yellow cabs that are proving superior in the Darwinian struggle for survival, but he is also capable of delivering ponderous speeches on subjects such as fat, e.g., “What is fat? ‘Fat’ is a small word which belies its size in the girth of its connotations” (a style he is said to have picked up by spending long hours reading in the British Council library, which fails, somehow, to convince). He is necessary to the plot in his role as Mephistopheles, created for the purpose of tempting our antihero, Daru, into crime; but as the instrument of evil he needs to be more believable.

There is a liberal sprinkling of allusions, literary and historical: Mumtaz in her clandestine career as an investigative journalist, assumes as her own the pseudonym of Manto, the most famous of modern Urdu writers, and Daru’s servant boy is called Manucci after an Italian traveler/doctor who served briefly in Dara Shikoh’s army before moving on to other, more successful patrons and becoming known, through the English translation of his journals, as “the Pepys of the Mughal Empire.” Too great a weight, surely, with which to load the fictional characters.

When one strips the book of flimsy veils of literary allusion and device and comes down to the core of the story, which is both a traditional love triangle and a startlingly frank, even brutal look at contemporary society, one finds much to admire. Hamid may not yet have confidence in his powers; his readers should have no difficulty in spotting them.

The most impressive of his gifts is the clearsightedness of his look at the power structure of a society that has shifted from the old feudalism, based on birth, to the new Pakistani feudalism based on wealth. It is made explicit in a monologue of Ozi-Aurangzeb’s:

Some say my dad’s corrupt and I’m his money launderer. Well, it’s true enough. People are robbing the country blind, and if the choice is between being held up at gunpoint or holding the gun, only a madman would choose to hand over his wallet rather than fill it with someone else’s cash….

You have to have money these days. The roads are falling apart, so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser. The phone lines are erratic, so you need a mobile. The colleges are overrun with fundos who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad…. The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. It goes on and on. People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left. That’s what I’m doing. And if anyone isn’t doing it, it’s because they’re locked out of the kitchen.

Guilt isn’t a problem, by the way. Once you’ve started, there’s no way to stop, so there’s nothing to be guilty about. Ask yourself this: If you’re me, what do you do now? Turn yourself in to the police, so some sadistic, bare-chested Neanderthal can beat you to a pulp while you await trial? Publish a full-page apology in the newspapers? Take the Karakoram Highway up to Tibet and become a monk, never to be heard from again? Right: you accept that you can’t change the system, shrug, create lots of little shell companies, and open dollar accounts on sunny islands far, far away.

I’m not really that bad. A victim of jealousy from time to time. But definitely no hypocrite.

His foil is the antihero, Darashikoh, Daru to his friends. He is not the son of a rich father; in fact, he is an orphan and has always been a poor relation. His edginess of speech and manner makes him lose his job in a bank. It is to his childhood friend Ozi that he looks for help. The relationship between the two is painted with a few brush strokes but it is clear that the author has studied human behavior as scrupulously as an ethologist might study the gestures and expressions of apes in the jungle:


We crouch, facing each other with our arms spread wide, and pause for a moment, grinning. Then we embrace and he lifts me off my feet.

The relationship is complicated not only by the difference in their backgrounds and bank accounts, but by Ozi’s beautiful wife, Mumtaz, who falls in love with her husband’s friend as he does with her. The stage is set for melodrama, and the denouement is as melodramatic as one might expect. No surprises, then, just a sense of inevitability. There is a twist in the final outcome. Our antihero is denounced not for the crime he committed but for the one he did not. Of course it hardly matters since he is guilty, guilt being a blanket term for its many permutations.

These color the text like layers of gray, finally adding up to black. There is Daru’s act of seduction, his dealing in drugs—Hamid is very good at describing the effects of the addiction—and the holdup and murder he is involved in at the end. But a less dramatic fault line, yet more affecting, is the relation between Daru and his servant boy, Manucci. It is here even more than in the relations among Ozi, Daru, and Mumtaz that Hamid succeeds in conveying the hideousness and obscenity of power—of a husband over a wife, a lover over a lover, a master over a servant, the rich over the poor, and a country with a bomb over a country without one. Daru, so well acquainted with humiliation, has no hesitation in dealing it out. When Manucci asks for his pay,

I raise my hand and he flinches, but I don’t hit him. “Enough. I’ll pay you when I pay you. I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

I feel a little hard-hearted, but I tell myself I did the right thing. Servants have to be kept in line.

He is kept in line by being fed and clothed but not paid, like a slave; if he received his salary, he could leave. Although the master has almost no human contact other than with him, he feels compelled at all times to keep him in this position. “He’s chatting away, which annoys me, because… I’ve fallen so far my servant thinks there’s no longer any need for him to behave formally.”

Manucci goes so far as to warn Daru against dealing drugs. He has been taking them for some time but when he begins selling them, the addiction takes a more frightening turn. Dara-shikoh hits him so hard that “he looks up at me, the fear gone from his expression, leaving only seriousness and a gleam in one watery eye.”

Hamid has as good an ear for dialogue as an eye for gesture. At a family lunch we hear an exchange between Darashikoh and his grandmother:

“Where are you these days?” she asks.

“Where am I these days?”

“Have you found a job?”

At times the heavy Americanization of the vocabulary jars. It is hard to believe that people in Lahore really use US slang such as “Thanks, partner. I owe you, big-time.”

Raider likes that phrase, big-time. He wants to make it, big-time. He owes you, big-time. He’s going to party, big-time…. His jacket hangs in the car, broad shoulders, no vents, very European, copied from GQ by a tailor on Beadon Road.

The Jay McInerney world has become the model everywhere.

Something of the same attitude can be seen in the desire to acquire nuclear power. When India explodes its bomb, Pakistan holds its breath:

“I saw it last night on television. … The rock turned dark red, like the color of blood.”

“How would you know?… You only have a black-and-white television?”

“But it’s a very good one. You can almost see colors.”

When Pakistan makes its nuclear riposte, Darashikoh feels “something straighten my back, a strange excitement, the posture-correcting force of pride,” and people throw parties, “Initiation parties. Welcome to the club, partner.”

The deadliness of this rivalry seeps even into personal lives, the way they are lived. Mohsin Hamid does not flinch from such conclusions. Daru observes his friend Ozi “wearing sunglasses, a bright T-shirt, and knee-length shorts. He looks like an overgrown child. A child who gets everything. Gets away with everything.” A few minutes ago, Ozi, in his red Pajero, has knocked down and killed a boy on a bicycle, then sped away. Now he is “watching a servant wipe the dent in its bumper with a wet cloth.” (This incident is anchored in real life; two wealthy young men, returning from a party in New Delhi in the early hours of a morning, mowed down a queue of people waiting for a bus to take them to work. They drove home to their well-to-do suburb and washed the blood off their car—or, more likely, had the servants wash it off. A passer-by who spotted them gave them away, not the servants.)

Only on a few occasions does Hamid permit himself a lyrical phrase or passage, when evoking a purer world of childhood as in a description he gives of a summer dust storm, the arrival of the monsoon, and the exhil-aration of flying kites. These are often marred by an overreaching metaphor—e.g., “shadows run away from me in long smiles.” His prose is best when he uses verbs, not adjectives; they give it its springy tautness, its sharp sparseness:

The sun sits down. Evening.

His face shines and he wipes it with the tips of four curved fingers held together.

It is a pitiless style suited to both plot and characters. Its pitfall is melodrama, a common one for young novelists; what makes it acceptable is the genuine passion that also goes with first novels. Hamid frequently uses fire as a metaphor—trivial fires like the endless matches struck and cigarettes lighted, and serious ones like the bomb that turns the desert between India and Pakistan incandescent. In a passage that suggests his qualities of mind, he uses the bomb as an occasion for a meditation on the phoenix, ponderous to read but valid in the circumstances:

My father liked to wonder aloud whether the phoenix was re-created by the fire of its funeral pyre or transformed so that what emerged was a soulless shadow of its former being, identical in appearance but without the joy in life its predecessor had had. He wondered alternatively whether the fire might be purificatory, a redemptive, rejuvenating blaze that destroyed the withered shell of the old phoenix and allowed the creature’s essence to emerge stronger than it was before in a young, new body. Or, he would ask, was the fire a manifestation of entropy, slowly sapping the life-energy of the phoenix over the eons, a little death in a life that could know no beginning and no end but which could nonetheless be subject to an ever-decreasing magnitude? He asked me once if I thought the fires in our lives, the traumas, increased our fulfillment by setting up contrasts that illuminated more clearly our everyday joys; or perhaps I viewed them instead as tests that made us stronger by teaching us to endure; or did I believe, rather, that they simply amplified what we already were, in the end making the strong stronger, the weak weaker, and the dangerous deadly?

This Issue

December 21, 2000