Mohsin Hamid is depressed. The novelist, twice nominated for the Man Booker prize, has seen the three places he calls home – Pakistan, America and Europe – betray their fundamental ideals and become increasingly unwelcoming.
In Pakistan, where he was born, the elected government caved in to a mob of extremist protesters by sacking a minister they accused, essentially, of being a bad Muslim. In a country created as a homeland for south Asia’s Muslims, the fight over who fits that bill means hardly anyone is safe from unfounded accusations of blasphemy. Students have been lynched arbitrarily and, in 2011, the governor, Salman Taseer, was shot for criticising the blasphemy laws. To Hamid, the stunning capitulation to the mob signals the breakdown of an uneasy coexistence between the government, the military and the courts, allowing “raw power” to rule.
“These are incredibly disheartening times. I feel more depressed than I have in a long time about the political direction of Pakistan,” says Hamid at his home in Lahore, where he now lives with his wife and two children. “Since Pakistan was founded in 1947, there has been a conflict between the notion that citizens are equal, and that certain people can ascribe to themselves the right to decide who is Muslim,” he says. “The question is: who is Muslim enough? And 70 years after creation, the answer is that nobody is Muslim enough.”
But Pakistan is not alone in narrowing definitions of who belongs. Hamid thinks western countries that tout principles of equality fail one group in particular: migrants.
That is the topic of his recent novel Exit West, a story of desperation, love and, ultimately, liberation, which won him a second Man Booker shortlisting this year following that for The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2007.