At the outset of Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant Moth Smoke, a terrible crime has been committed. A child has been killed. A judge, rendered rather unusually in the second person, watches as a diverse cast of characters enters the courtroom: the defendant’s partner in crime, Murad Badshah; the defendant’s childhood best friend, Aurangzeb, known as Ozi, exuding good taste and money; Ozi’s estranged wife, Mumtaz, exuding fury. A crowd of spectators filters in behind them, drawn from every strata of Pakistan’s extremely stratified society. And then the defendant, Darashikoh Shezad, Daru for short: “[a] hard man with shadowed eyes, manacled, cuffed, disheveled, proud, erect. A man capable of anything and afraid of nothing.”
But if Daru’s afraid of nothing, it’s because he has nothing left to lose. Hamid’s novel shifts back some months, to the day when Daru’s long slide began. Before he was languishing in prison cells and shuffling into courtrooms in chains, he held a respectable position at a bank. But even then, his position in middle-class society was fragile.
Ozi and Daru’s fathers served in the army together, and Ozi’s father watched over Daru after Daru’s father died. Daru and Ozi went to the same elite school, the most prestigious in Lahore, Daru’s tuition paid for by Ozi’s father. Daru did better than Ozi on the SATs, but while Ozi was accepted into three foreign universities, Daru wasn’t accepted into any, because Ozi’s father’s generosity didn’t extend as far as college tuition and it’s difficult to obtain financial aid if one’s a foreign student. Ozi went to study overseas; Daru stayed in Pakistan. Ozi loved studying in America; Daru hated the local college where he ended up.
While the book is specific to a time and a place — Lahore, Pakistan, spring 1998 — the essential difference between Ozi and Daru comes down to the difference between the poor and the comfortable everywhere: one has a margin for error in his life, whereas the other does not. When Daru snaps at a rude client at the bank and is immediately fired, there’s no safety net to break his fall. He obtained his job only because Ozi’s father called in a favor, but now the economy is such that even Ozi’s father can’t help. Elle Magazine called this “a crackling funny first novel,” and it often is, but Daru’s slide into addiction and criminality is harrowing. The crackling surrounds a deadly serious core.
Hamid is best-known for his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Moth Smoke, recently re-released by Riverhead, was his first. The plotting is masterful, especially for a first novel; Hamid’s shifts in perspective are effective, and while we know from the courtroom scene at the beginning that a child will be killed, we don’t know which one, which makes the appearance of every child in these pages an event fraught with peril. Moth Smoke was published to considerable critical acclaim in 2000, which is to say after Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapons, and the arms race between Pakistan and India form the jittery backdrop to Daru’s long goodbye.
The book is suffused through and through by a terrible uncertainty, a sense of ground shifting beneath one’s feet. Hamid uses Daru’s descent from middle-class respectability to desperation as a lens through which to examine the corruption and the complexities of late-90’s Pakistani society. It’s not an especially flattering portrait, but a major strength of the book is Hamid’s refusal to take an easy moralistic stance. Daru is a victim of circumstance, but he’s also capable of cruelty, poor decisions, and hypocrisy. He feels victimized by the monied classes, but mistreats the boy who keeps house for him. He carries a strain of entitlement; he’s insulted by the suggestion that he sell cars for a living. Through his education and through his friendship with Ozi he’s been allowed a glimpse at an entirely different Pakistan, the Lahore of the monied elite, and his rage is fueled by the impossibility of crossing the border from his Pakistan to Ozi’s. Ozi’s Pakistan is a fortress. Money is the only way in.
Ozi is amoral, but on the other hand, as he notes in a chapter told from his perspective, he manages not to slap his housekeeper and he doesn’t sleep with his best friend’s wife, which is more than can be said for Daru. Yes, Ozi acknowledges, the rich in Pakistan use their money to create their own reality, separate from the rest of the struggling country, but what choice do they have? “The roads are falling apart,” he notes,
…so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser. The phone lines are erratic, so you need a mobile. The colleges are overrun by fundos who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad. …Thanks to electricity theft there will always be shortages, so you have to have a generator. The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. It goes on and on.
It’s a cynical stance, but not an incomprehensible one. The book sounds a warning of the perils of allowing a considerable sector of the population to slide into disenfranchisement while the 1% seal themselves off in a privatized bubble, and it’s as relevant now as it was upon first publication twelve years ago.