I wasn’t expecting to like this book very much for two reasons: firstly I’d read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and since I hadn’t found it particularly moving, I had low expectations; secondly, novels drowning in themes of drug abuse, adultery and corruption aren’t really my cup of tea. After avoiding it for many weeks, I finally took the plunge and found one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a while.
From the back cover:
In Lahore, Daru Shezad is a junior banker with a hashish habit. When his old friend Ozi moves back to Pakistan, Daru wants to be happy for him. Ozi has everything: a beautiful wife and child, an expensive foreign education – and a corrupt father who bankrolls his lavish lifestyle.
As jealousy sets in, Daru’s life slowly unravels. He loses his job. Starts lacing his joints with heroin. Becomes involved with a criminally-minded rickshaw driver. And falls in love with Ozi’s lonely wife.
But how low can Daru sink? Is he guilty of the crime he finds himself on trial for?
As you all probably know by now, I’m pretty impatient when it comes to reading books: I don’t like to read books with too much padding, unnecessary descriptions or lengthy yawn-inducing dialogues. This is all leads to skim-reading which doesn’t make the reading process very satisfying. Moth Smoke is not one of these books. The first few pages are, admittedly, a little difficult to absorb, but from the second chapter I don’t think I skipped a single paragraph. There’s such evocative poetry and wonderful conciseness to Hamid’s writing that it makes you want to savour every word:
I emerge from the mango grove into a field. In the distance unseen trucks pass with a sound like the ocean licking the sand. A tracery of darkness curls into the starry sky, a solitary pipal tree making itself known by an absence of light, like a flame caught in a photographer’s negative, frozen, calling me.
A breeze tastes my sweat and I shiver, shutting my eyes and and raising my arms with it, wanting to fly. I walk in circles, tracing the ripples that would radiate if the stars fell from the sky and through the lake of this lawn, one by one, like a rainstorm moving slowly into the breeze, toward the tree , each splash, each circle, closer.
The title Moth Smoke alludes to the central metaphor of the book: that of the moth’s attraction to the candle – an artificial light source – and spiralling towards it’s own destruction. It not only signifies the self-destructive behaviour of Daru himself, but it also extends to the self-destructive state of Pakistan in the late 90s. The moth-candle metaphor may not be an original one in Urdu literature, but it serves as a fitting image for representing literature from Pakistan, especially considering Pakistani writers are usually overshadowed in the West by writers from neighbouring India.
I wasn’t particularly a fan of the actual story-line, but it was certainly eye-opening to read about Pakistan from a perspective that I’m not familiar with. It reminded me very much of The White Tiger; like Adiga’s novel the story is told from the perspective of an-anti hero who paints picture of a corrupt society divided by wealth, and no matter how low he stoops in his actions, one cannot help but sympathise with him. The same could be said about all of the characters in Moth Smoke – Hamid allows each of the main characters their own voice at some point in the story, and despite disliking pretty much all the characters, Hamid wins our empathy for each of them somewhat as he unveils each person’s desperation for survival no matter which side of the divided society they are on. My favourite character from the book is definitely Murad Badhshah, Daru’s hash supplier. He tells his story in chapter 6 which is easily one of the most hilariously witty pieces of the book.
I wouldn’t go as far as calling it perfect, but it is a clever, witty and beautifully written novel. Although it is set in a certain period of Pakistan’s history, it speaks volumes about the state of Pakistan today, reminding us that, sadly, Pakistan is still caught in that downward spiralling of self-destruction and closer to that flame now more than ever.