Grab a pen and paper and try the following two-part thought experiment:
i) Write: “Time-traveling back to a snowy day in Denmark of 1812, I met Hans Christian Oersted, who was a close friend of the fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, and who also coined the term Gedankenexperiment, which means ‘thought experiment’ in German.”
ii) Now move the pen to your other hand and write: “It’s more difficult to write this shorter sentence.”
Perhaps the above test of your ambidexterity has disabused you of the notion that writing is easy, so easy that an author of fiction can easily switch over to nonfiction or vice versa. If one first knows a writer as a gifted novelist, the bar is set high for that writer’s nonfiction; hence the challenge that this reviewer faced in reading Mohsin Hamid’s collection of essays in Discontent and Its Civilizations.
With his novels, Hamid has created cohesive and compelling worlds that the reader inhabits: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), andHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). While all three novels possess a narrative inventiveness that pulls in the reader, it is The Reluctant Fundamentalist (TRF) that tensely straddles Lahore and New York, and is thus contrapuntal to the “dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London” sprinkled throughout Discontent and Its Civilizations (DaIC)
TRF opens and closes with the protagonist, Changez, in a monologue with an American: Changez is a Princeton-educated, former investment banker, who has returned from America to his native Pakistan, returned from New York’s clean-shaven and cologned financial seat of power to an uneasy, bearded relationship with the world of the seemingly powerless of Lahore; the American is, perhaps an “undercover assassin” or perhaps just a bulked-up guy listening to the life story of someone who is a “potential terrorist.” And then there’s that dividing beard. This “symbol of [Changez’s shifting] identity” is a conundrum of sorts. In this era when facial hirsutism is the young man’s way of projecting a hip attitude, Changez gently confronts the American on a double-standard: “it is remarkable … the impact a beard worn by a man of my complexion has on your fellow countrymen.”
DaIC was written by Mohsin Hamid, a bearded, Princeton-educated, former management consultant who grew up in Lahore and now shuttles between Pakistan, the United States, and England; and DaIC has been read by critics like myself, “undercover assassins” if you will. More seriously, this serious book has probably been read most by those living in the English-speaking world. This world of Euro-American interests is not infrequently at odds with the rest of the world; and readers from this Western world have been socialized to believe the following definition of terrorism memorably conveyed in TRF: “terrorism … was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniform of soldiers.”
The power of the italicized “not” can be attributed to Changez and/or Hamid. In TRF, the implication of the italicization is tacit and thus a punch in the gut; in DaIC, it is explicitly explored in multiple essays and thus a rebuke of the mind.
The punch is not matched by the rebuke, especially because DaIC is not written as one cohesive essay, the way V. S. Naipaul wrote India: A Wounded Civilization. While both books aim high with heavy words like “discontent,” “wounded,” and “civilization,” (and although both books fall short of their “big idea” ambitions), Naipaul’s Wounded Civilization at least has focus. Hamid’sDiscontent and Its Civilizations is a stitching together of previously published essays into three parts: “Life,” “Art,” and “Politics.” The introduction (“My Foreign Correspondence”) is well integrated, but the rest of the book makes an unreasonable demand that the reader connect the dots.
The first section, “Life,” is highly readable and entertaining. The reader learns that in the process of shuttling back and forth between Pakistan and America, Hamid lost his Urdu and in the bargain gained the mentorship of esteemed writers of the English language. There is also a touching piece about how Lahore’s members of the opposite sex do not touch in public. And there is a powerful piece about the ever-growing gulf between America and Pakistan. Titled “The Countdown,” this essay was published in The New York Timesshortly after the Taliban-inspired tragedy of 9/11. While the violence of that day at New York’s World Trade Center and elsewhere has been seared into the American psyche, what Hamid does through the frightened eyes of his mother in Pakistan, is to re-frame the conversation: “‘I have complete sympathy for the Americans,’ she says. ‘It is terrible what happened. But now they are so angry. They talk about a war on terrorism. But they never seem to think what they do terrifies normal people here.’”
Some 160 pages later, in “Politics,” there is a less personal and more polemic piece titled “Why Drones Don’t Help.” While this second piece does raise “grave doubts about the legality of US drone strikes in Pakistan,” there’s so much in between the two essays that the power of Hamid’s mother’s plaintive words is lost.
“Art,” the middle section of the book, is delightful, but it could have been dropped altogether, except for a powerful reflection on how The Reluctant Fundamentalist evolved from an early pre-9/11 draft to the final version that was published some six years after the World Trade towers fell. Hamid writes of his split American and Pakistani selves in a way that moves anyone who pledges allegiance to more than one land: “People often ask me if I am the book’s protagonist. I wonder why they never ask me if I am his American listener. After all, a novel can often be a divided man’s conversation with himself.”
In some ways, DaIC has a classic five-paragraph framework, but it lacks a conclusive final paragraph. Whether by design or by omission, this enables (or requires) the reader to do his/her own sense-making. Perhaps that is the “co-creation” that is central to Mohsin Hamid’s fiction and politics, that is central to his hope of “people coming together to invent a world that is post-civilization and hence infinitely more civilized.”
For RCO’s southpaw brother, Nirmal, who magically throws with his left hand and writes with his right.