For several decades I’ve been reviewing books, and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading them so that I could share them with the readers of India Currents. But with that joy came neglect; if a book’s publication date was more than a year or two old, I would skip the review, and, thus, often miss out on the reading.
With our magazine having moved away from print to online, I took a short sabbatical from reviewing. This freed me to read books that had been piling up on my bookshelf like precocious children looking to an elder for attention. Initially, I thought I would read the books purely for selfish pleasure: no marginalia to make notes which would later be translated into a review; no need to think of you, gentle reader, as I greedily enjoyed the words on the page without thinking about which words would matter most to you. This is how I read Vivek Shanbhag’s “Ghachar Ghochar,” a masterful chocolatier’s morsel of a book that can be ingested in one gulp. Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, this tightly written novella about insular family dynamics in urban India is a must read for those who wish R. K. Narayan was alive to write about the hopeful tragicomedy that is 21st-century India. After reading ‘Ghachar Ghochar,” I quietly said to myself, “Okay you, time to return to reviewing books that you love; if only one other reader is moved to read this modern classic, you’ve done your bit.” Thus, friends you have this review in your hands.
And the next book I read, Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” had me returning to my old ways, reading with my hands as much as with my eyes. The margins of this brilliantly compact novel are scribbled with all kinds of notes, including this one on page 22: “One of the saddest passages on familial fracture I have ever read: rebellion leading to regret; stubbornness yielding to bafflement; time and the world beyond family resulting in lost opportunity to repair.”
Both novels are about couples, the intimacies and estrangements that result from the houses they live in, and the doors that they step through to get to those houses.
“Exit West” spreads out across the world from an unnamed homeland to Greece to London to California; it begins ostensibly in Pakistan, but really the location could be any place from where traumatized humans seek refuge. There is a potential for violent loss that drives the pace of the story; one feels that suddenly everything that the young lovers – Saeed and Nadia – have scrabbled for could be taken away from them, just as they have lost their families quite early in the novel. And the loss is of the mindless, rabid sort that fuels terror across the world of men behaving like animals, like “packs of dogs in the wild, in which a hierarchy is set by some sensed quality of violent potential.” Though there is much dying in Hamid’s book, he is in the end a hopeful humanist. In the midst of death, he finds love that lasts and evolves.
The love between Nadia and Saeed begins with his standing by her when she had “planned to go the graveyard alone” to mourn her cousin’s death. He had “offered to join her, insisted without insisting, [and]… she felt things change between them, become more solid.” But the outside world intrudes; when the government responds to militants by limiting movement of all, “the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion.” With militant danger encircling them and taking the life of Saeed’s mother, Nadia, a proto-feminist who dons a black robe to mitigate the other danger – ogling men who can’t keep their hands to themselves – moves in with Saeed and his grieving father. She transforms into a new state, neither a sister nor wife to Saeed, neither a daughter nor daughter-in-law to his father.
Eventually the danger is too great. Almost as great as the grief Saeed’s father feels in losing his wife. Saeed’s parents’ romantic love is cut suddenly, and the father “wept openly… for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.” With little to live for except his son’s future, the father sacrifices himself in his insistence that the two youngsters exit the country; reluctantly, they leave him behind as they find their way to the West through mysterious doors that lead to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Mykonos, a room in a British house that is taken over by those who have no legal right over the home, and eventually to sun-kissed California, where Nadia and Saeed’s growth together – and apart – resembles that of redwoods in a forest fire north of Marin.
Saeed and Nadia are migrants, just as much as those with green cards or American citizenship. Their right to life and love is ever-present in Hamid’s quietly political novel. He understands the common humanity we all share when we leave one land for another: “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” And he is woke to the realities of those whose migrations are not voluntary: “To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate.”
Dear reader, you will have to simply read this marvelous novel to discover the fate of Nadia and Saeed. But if you, like some, have never moved and are thus not moved to read Hamid’s important words, kindly consider this small passage in “Exit West” about the universality of migration. “In the town of Palo Alto lived an old woman who had lived in the same house her entire life…. She had never moved, traveled yes, but never moved, and yet it seemed the world had moved, and she barely recognized the town that existed outside her property…. We are all migrants through time.”
For India Currents’ readers, many who have become friends, many more whom I’ve yet to meet.