'Civilization and Its Discontents' Highlights the Intertwined Pakistani, British, and American Roots of Mohsin Hamid

By Hong, Terry | The Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Civilization and Its Discontents' Highlights the Intertwined Pakistani, British, and American Roots of Mohsin Hamid


Hong, Terry, The Christian Science Monitor


Thanks to Haruki Murakami, we won't have to wait as long for Mohsin Hamid's future novels. Hamid's acclaimed first two, "Moth Smoke" and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," took seven years each. His lauded latest, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," took six, after he discovered Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" and learned that Murakami "runs like a fiend" - marathons, ultras, triathlons.

Why? According to Murakami, "Writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity." Hamid surmises if Murakami runs to write long novels, then Hamid can walk for his short novels: "Walking unlocked me." Grateful readers: His daily five-mile habit should soon beget us "novel four."

Because writing is "solitary work," Hamid reads other novelists' nonfiction - memoirs, essays, interviews - "to hang out with them." Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London - a collection of 36 essays previously published between 2000-2014 with a new Introduction - is Hamid's own invitation to "hang out."

Hamid is an admitted water lily, "a rather unmacho sobriquet (unlike, say, 'masters of the universe')." Water lilies have roots, but living in ponds and streams, they drift. Hamid's roots began in Lahore, Pakistan, but his last four decades have drifted through the US as a California child, Princeton University undergrad, Harvard Law student, and New York professional; London as a temporary resident then a British citizen; and most recently, back to his multigenerational family home in Pakistan.

Organized into three sections - Life, Art, Politics - Hamid intends "the experience of reading this book to be like developing a relationship." We get to know Hamid "a little". He boasts to Toni Morrison about his culinary skills. He gets a free taxi ride from an empathetic "driver who looks like a terrorist" after applying for an Italian visa. He tries for the first time "living in a country and writing about it at the same time" - "Moth Smoke," set in Lahore, was written in New York; "Reluctant Fundamentalist," set mostly in New York, was written in London. But "Filthy Rich" was Pakistani writ-and-set.

In "Art," Hamid shares how he "think[s] about and approach[es] the task of writing." He extols his "thing for slender novels," especially "Sostiene Pereira" by Antonio Tabucchi. From his vantage of being Pakistani-born, American-raised-and-educated, he questions, "People often ask me if I am [The Reluctant Fundamentalist]'s Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener. …

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