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Moth Smoke: Drugs & Desperation

Bookworm Anam Sufi picks up on a Pakistani author in honour of her homeland this week, but Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke - though an accurate portrayal of the country's socioeconomic difficulties - is just not that convincing.

For the past month, I have been spending my days in my homeland, Pakistan. As such I thought I’d keep things local this week and try my hand at something written by a Pakistani novelist. Cliché as it is, I went for the most popular fiction writer, simply because I was not in the mood to run the risk of being disappointed. Having said that, I am not sure my attempts at dodging that bullet were quite as successful as I had hoped they’d be. 

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke follows the life of Darashikoh Shezad after he loses his job against the crumbling economic conditions unfolding in Pakistan’s summer of 1998. As his electricity cuts off, he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the dichotomous lifestyle of paying bills and attending elitist underground parties (sound familiar, my Egyptian homies?). Within the political context of Pakistan’s attempts to drive home the point of mutually assured destruction with its neighbour and enemy, India, Daru’s life begins to highlight the delta that exists between the government and its forgotten people, namely, the lower classes. When he begins to fall for his best friend’s wife, followed by his bright idea of giving heroin a “try”, his life begins to spiral out of control. Thus, this is a story of his demise. 

The content sounds promising enough, especially since it deals with some pretty heavy subject matters. However, I found that this was a book that I didn’t enjoy reading as much as I did enjoy reflecting on it when it was finished. I wouldn’t say it’s a brow-sweating, page-turner, but it does address some very serious issues of societal divides and the farce behind the dream of economic ascension in the developing world. It is very effective in blue printing the two-tiered society consisting of the rich and corrupted against the poor and desperate. Hamid is quite successful in planting this reality in the minds of his reader, and what’s more, he leaves us questioning the righteousness of morality. Who is better? The man who is rich on dirty money, stolen through cracks in the legal system, or he who goes against that system entirely and robs at gunpoint to get a hold of basic human needs (ie: food, electricity, etc.)?

When I finished reading this short novel, I didn’t feel satisfied insofar as literary genius goes. Some of the metaphors seemed a bit too flagrant, and I felt some of the suspense creating devices were forced at times. Contradictory as it may sound however, Moth Smoke certainly was not something that just fell out of the filter for its flaws.

Although he does not offer as much description, I’d say Hamid captures the reality of Pakistani societal interaction in a very Balzac-esque fashion. It is raw, real, and doesn’t try to hide behind subtleties. Would I recommend it? As food for thought, definitely. As literary entertainment? No.