By Abhishek Jha:
Mohsin Hamid is the multiple-award winning author of three novels and a book of essays. In 2007, his book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His most recent book, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London, is a collection of essays. In this collection, Hamid, who often identifies himself as a perennial outsider, reflects on the dangers of trying to make everyone fit into a civilization. Throughout the book’s three sections (Life, Art, Politics), new questions posed by this century are dealt with, and old ones are renewed by his fresh perspective.
The book reads like a journal that has been deliberately left in the drawer to be discovered, suggestive of a kind of honesty that “a book that is conceived as a whole and executed in a single effort” cannot elicit. It is also honest in the manner that one chooses to be honest when reconciling the discontent within oneself. What draws you into the book is his admission of being imperfect, of having changed. And you are led to conversing with it just like the essayist does with a monk – by a “slender stream in the high mountains.”
The young Hamid was terrified of public speaking. That’s why perhaps he will let his book talk to you, when you sit alone with it at night – a tantalizing proposal for those looking for an interesting affair.
The essays in the section Life are observations, short and with him at the centre. More like sketches. Pieces like ‘Down The Tube’, ‘Avatar in Lahore‘, or ‘The Countdown‘ absorb the fraught nature of lives incessantly riddled with conflict. But also the predicament of the modern man wading through previously uncharted territory of terror attacks and the resulting insecurities. Either when being taken through the building tension in ‘Down The Tube‘ or his love affair with London (or with the veiled woman at the Sufi concert), one arrives at the same conclusion. The conclusion that hurrying to erase differences, trying to consume a plural world with a single perspective, is a mistake. In Life, as in real life, the book does what human beings do. It builds a relationship with the reader. And though the essays are culled from a list of works published at different points in time, one can almost read them as the beginnings of a conversation.
The next section is on Art. The shortest of the three sections of the book, it raises a few important but often repeated concerns of art. We discuss the e-book reading experience and the television’s scope for novelesque narratives every day. The share of this section in the book is small, and these, now-clichéd discussions add nothing new. But what this section lacks in content is made up by a continuation of the conversation that the book had started with the reader in the previous section. Hence, the titillating sensation when one reads this almost self-referential comment: “Perhaps it is because novels are like affairs, and small novels- with fewer pages of plot to them- are affairs with less history, affairs that involved just a few glances across a dinner table or a single ride together, unspeaking, on a train, and therefore affairs still electric with potential, still heart-quickening, even after the passage of all these years.”
By now you know the person across the table, have exchanged glances with them, and are now wondering whether to give your heart to them. Then, you must understand their politics.
In the concluding section of the book, one enjoys those rare things found only in good, beloved books: the unfolding of an argument. Politics dovetails very easily with the previous two sections of the book. Having shown the various shades of humanity, it is then natural that the book (the person) persuades you to accept that plurality. For that is indeed the burden of the book. To not “forget the sources of our discontent, because something more important is at stake: the fate of our civilization”. Because civilizations are “pervasive, dangerous and powerful” illusions, Hamid argues.
And, the virtuosity with which he accomplishes his task must be commended. It is natural for people to yield to tragedy and indulge in taking rhetorical pot-shots. Hamid abstains from that, and it is here that the essays come closest to being the “dispatches” of a journalist. One expects that a tragi-comic line (such as, “If there is any misconception that the drone strikes are primarily counterterrorist in nature, aimed at key leaders of international terror networks, this can be dispersed with.”) will be followed by a Last-Week-Tonight style indulgence. But, Hamid doesn’t use the obvious to make his point. So, he won’t make a drone that’s shooting a wedding video go bang into the kissing couple to make you understand that drones could go wrong at times. Rather, we see his statements argued with facts, figures, and more arguments. In fact, throughout this section, personal anecdotes are used to support his arguments and not to build arguments upon. It is then, after much self-reflection, and calls to action to his fellow Pakistanis, that he asks us to empathise with Pakistan, and to understand why we “Get Pakistan Wrong”. It is then, that one sees the book as successful.
People will contend that the book claims to be but fails at being the dispatches of a journalist, especially in its earlier portions. But, those who have read Mohsin Hamid’s books will understand that he, as a fiction writer, has a predilection for conversation. He explains his love for the second person narratives in one of the essays. It is natural then, for his readers to enjoy essays that are a dialogue with the reader, and for those new to his writing, to enjoy a refreshing work of non-fiction.
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