By Monica Arora
Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: ₹ 599
Mohsin Hamid weaves a compelling saga of love, loss, identity-crises, immigration, personal and worldly conflicts and much more in his latest book Exit West. Set in “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, it could be an allegory of any nation such as Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or another, perched precariously at the brink of civil war yet discovering pockets of peaceful life whilst turmoil lurks nearby. The story revolves around the protagonists Saeed and Nadia, and the reader gets instantly drawn into their world when they meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding” and eventually end up having coffee followed by a Chinese dinner and start the process of getting to discover each other.
Nadia has a devil-may-care attitude carefully hidden under her black robe, which she chooses to wear at all times when outside the house. Besides, she smokes pot, relishes psychedelic mushrooms and lives independently as a single girl working at an insurance company. Saeed is the more conservative one. He has a professor father and a doting mother in a warm household; he prays religiously and routinely with much zest and fervor. He also has no qualms about having sex before marriage, an adorable and quaint character with a fine blend of modernity and traditional values.
When their country is eventually ravaged by wars, Nadia moves into Saeed’s home and rediscovers the pleasures of a family life in a simple yet very loving environment. However, they are eventually forced to migrate to a safer haven through one of the mysterious black doors that seem to be the only solution to a war-ravaged, poverty-stricken, devastated and stricken populace. The book chronicles their travails as they pass from one door through the next that span between Europe and the United States of America.
The sense of alienation, confusion, unfamiliarity, discomfort and even hunger and lack of safety that plays on the minds of immigrants fleeing their hearth and homes for safer pastures has been captured movingly by the author. Interestingly, to lend gravitas to the narrative, he has chosen to seamlessly weave in short anecdotes or episodic stories within the main narrative that defy any semblance of time and geographical location and could be occurring anywhere on the planet, and yet, these little stories add seasoning to the main plot, rendering it more delicious.
Within the macro framework of the kind of disruption and desperation that war brings in its wake, the author has deftly woven the more intimate, personal and micro issues of sexual harassment which Nadia encounters at a bank among a throng of people or the bias against hijab-clad women that is revealed when a man intimidates her with a gun at a food co-operative where she is employed as an immigrant or even reservations about same sex or even regular relationships when both she and Saeed discover love at the refugee camp.
Mohsin Hamid also highlights issues pertaining to attire and beards, particularly in the context of Saeed’s beard and Nadia’s hijab,commonly visible symbols of strife and intelligence such as fighter aircraft and drones, one of which, while keeping a vigil upon the camps, crashes into their hutment, and so on. Also interlaced with the narrative are signs of linguistic and culinary barriers – depicted very ably by the two old men in a balcony in Amsterdam (one of whom has landed through a black door) who cannot communicate with each other; cultural differences and colour prejudices, visible when refugees belonging to African countries descend upon neighbourhoods in western “white” countries through the black doors; by the “fair and tall family” that seeks shelter in the camp where Saeed “volunteers on his day off”.
This tale replete with contemporary issues tends to get self-indulgent when the author ruminates about the state of affairs from the perspective of the protagonists as well as a commentator gazing upon their plight. The reader is left with an immense sense of sadness and melancholy when the lovers are parting and yet there is hope afresh as new bonds are resuscitated.
This is indeed a fine slice of contemporary history that may not be flawless or as tightly-knit perhaps as Mohsin’s earlier works such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist or even How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia or Moth Smoke, but it is nonetheless an important book appearing at a very potent time when the world around us is akin to that which is shown to us through the pages of this novel — and therein lies its beauty. As the author says, “. . . everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”
The reviewer edits two bi-monthly magazines and fiction and coffee-table books for Fingerprint Publishing, Prakash Books, besides editing fiction and non-fiction titles for Purple Folio, a literary agency as well as coffee table books for IIME, Jaipur