In 1989, I was invited to a party in London. I was a graduate student at Oxford, supposedly writing a dissertation on D.H. Lawrence but actually doing nothing of the sort. Instead, I’d completed a short novel; an extract from it had appeared in this paper, as had a poem and a review. It was on the basis of these that I must have been invited that night to the party, which was a celebration of the London Review of Books’s tenth anniversary.
Generally uncomfortable at literary gatherings, as all of us probably are, I was cushioned against the brunt of celebrity and erudite chatter by my former tutor at UCL. Various covers of past issues were on display, I seem to recall; one of them had a photograph of Salman Rushdie, which I looked at disbelievingly, as you might at someone you’d known as a child, who’d become famous for some unforeseeable feat, like holding their breath for ten minutes underwater, or journeying to Jupiter; for the fatwa had been recently announced. In the midst of the laughter and condiments of the evening, I was suddenly reminded of what a serious business literature, and life, really were.
I was introduced to several people I admired, and mistaken for another Indian contributor, the late Raj Chandavarkar, by Ian Jack. I ate canapés, searched for something to say to Frank Kermode, and had a glass of red wine. I generally feel neither one way nor another about drinking, but my listlessness about consuming alcohol offends only Indian acquaintances, not Western ones. However, in Oxford, imbibing the occasional port or wine was proving unavoidable, and not unpleasant.
It was mildly wet that evening, but it had stopped drizzling by the time I’d reached the stop at Marble Arch for the Citylink coach back to Oxford. It wasn’t very late, and it must have been a weekday, because there was hardly anyone else at the stop. The other figure beside me, I realised with a sort of relief (certain emotions are as involuntary as intakes of breath), was a South Asian (or, as I’d probably have thought in those days, ‘someone from the subcontinent’), a man of my height and age. He warmed to me as well; just the nature of our glances was enough to establish that we weren’t unhappy to see each other. Soon we began to talk; he was from Pakistan. This, after the small delay between hearing it and understanding it, pleased me; it gave a new dimension to the encounter, of the seemingly familiar becoming imperceptibly unfamiliar – and, as a result, promising.
He was not, I realised in a few minutes after we’d begun to talk, from the same class background as myself. His clothes were of a different weave; his English was different. And this, along with the fact that he was from Pakistan, not to speak of an openness and charm he had, was one of the reasons for my being attracted to his company. There are many upper-middle-class people in South Asia (as there probably are anywhere else) who feel at once less than themselves in, and superior to, their own class, and are drawn to people outside it. This might be a form of naivety as well as a sign of youthfulness; it’s to invent someone else, and also never to delve properly into why one can’t be with them for more than an hour-long journey, or the duration of a momentary encounter, to gloss over the reasons for meeting and separation, and the cause of the division. There’s no real and enduring equality between the classes in India; yet the idea of class itself presupposes a notional human equality in a way in which caste, for instance (which plays a subliminal role among all religions in South Asia), doesn’t. And yet, for all that, class, here, carries with it an old, autochthonic magic, and, as a consequence, an offering – and often, on the part of the upper classes, a presumption – of certain kinds of comfort. In a realm of putative equality, such as the Marble Arch coach stop, the lower-middle-class person might appear to possess a simplicity that is child-like to the upper-middle-class one, as well as a patience and clear-sightedness that reminds the latter of his parents, of the wisdom of age. It’s possible that, for the lower-middle-class man, the other seems to be at once more privileged and educated, and less worldly-wise and intelligent; that he’d view him, then, with a mixture of envy and forbearance. Neither is absolutely sure, in their exchange with the other, of who’s the child and who the adult, and at which particular point in time. This gives the encounter its promise as well as its misunderstandings and its share of unhappy surprises.
When the largely empty coach arrived, our casual but solicitous bonhomie, our comfortableness in each other’s presence, meant that we sat together without giving it too much thought. The conversation continued, until – I can’t remember what took it in this direction – the subject of religion and belief came up. I didn’t mind. It’s another thing I’d noticed in encounters of this sort as a student: that, talking across a semi-familiar, barely-acknowledged divide of difference and even inequality, it’s possible to broach the big subjects. The discussion might almost inevitably, at some point, tackle God, or destiny, or death. This might be an implicit, sly reference to the fact that fate – something that was seemingly entirely arbitrary – brought us together, and gave us our different futures. I was always moved and illuminated by what I heard, because of the straightforwardly human, rather than oracular, quality of what was said. These were subjects and instincts you had to suppress among people of your own background; the phrase ‘matters of life and death’, for them, was incontrovertibly a euphemism – for deadlines and social commitments. In Oxford, among graduate students in the English department, it was even forbidden, I’d noticed, to speak about literature. This had little to do with an ideological position derived from critical theory, which still belonged largely in the background in 1989; it was simply a taboo that was commonly observed. Among Indian students, talk about human emotion in particular – falling in love, homesickness – was considered imbecilic; you had to talk about junior research fellowships, Indian politics, American universities, or the joys of visiting Venice. In the end, I think it must have been homesickness that drew me to this man.
‘But there is something I do not understand about Hinduism,’ he said, polite but forthright – yet maybe not absolutely forthright, because he was troubled by something beyond the question. It looked as though a moment of reckoning, much-delayed, had come.
‘What is it?’ I asked; my smile was meant to be accommodating, but also to remind him, I hoped, that I wasn’t a representative of the Hindu faith.
‘The idea of reincarnation – I have a problem with it,’ he said.
‘Well, it’s difficult to take literally,’ I conceded.
‘No, it is not a logical idea,’ he persisted, frowning as the coach went down the darkness of the motorway without urgency. He was following a train of thought, and now he turned and confronted me, still, however, courteous. ‘Suppose you were to die, but, some time before you died, you were to have relations with your wife.’ There was no one at this time I knew that I wanted to marry, and I remember envisioning a faceless, elusive, vaguely Indian woman. ‘Suppose just after you died after having relations your wife became pregnant.’ He looked at me and I nodded at the complexity of this strange, already posthumous future. ‘Then’ – here was the clincher – ‘your soul, or whatever you call it, can enter the foetus in your wife’s womb?’ He stared at me in expectation; I was silent, and he took it to mean that I wasn’t convinced. ‘Can it not?’ he asked, and I nodded distantly: ‘I suppose it can.’ ‘That is,’ he concluded vigorously, ‘according to this idea, you can be born as your own son.’
He probably hadn’t meant to challenge me; he’d probably sensed that I wasn’t religious, and took this as an opportunity to clear up a metaphysical glitch with someone who at least nominally belonged to the faith.
‘Religions are not rational,’ I responded weakly; and then, because I could get childish in an argument, added: ‘The Koran isn’t completely logical, is it?’
‘It is completely logical,’ he corrected me. I have a memory of the eerie Hoover building passing by.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘Everything in it makes sense?’
He turned to me, unruffled, as if to someone who was ignorant about the basic facts of existence. ‘The Koran is completely logical because it is the only book in the world that is the word of God.’ This was spoken with almost a publisher’s zeal, a sales pitch to end all sales pitches.
My childish stubbornness was growing. ‘How do you know?’ I asked. He stared at me, again, as at an ignoramus, and I said: ‘How do you know it is the word of God?’
‘Because it says so in the Koran,’ he replied. Instantly, his expression changed, as if he’d decided he wanted to shrug off this business; it didn’t interest him any more. ‘Excuse me, if I am not mistaken, you have been drinking?’
I stared at him, astonished that the anniversary wine, this residue of literary hobnobbing, should still be issuing from my breath (no wonder they call alcohol ‘spirits’). Indignant, but not insulted, I said: ‘I wasn’t “drinking”. I just had a glass of wine.’
After this, we reached a sort of impasse. We must have pretended to doze; I remember the lights coming on, and him getting off somewhere on the outskirts of Oxford. It would be simple enough to dismiss the man’s remarks as stereotypical; and yet I couldn’t wish away his warmth, his accessibility, the sense of comfort he gave out. It was a comfort I couldn’t have expected from someone of my own background (we might never have entered into a conversation); this was part of an older equation, thrown out of its own context, involving an old sense of dependence, and possibly, on my part, a subtle taking advantage of. Whether or not that equation was unfair and weighted on one side – it was – there was no point in denying that its emotions were complex and real. Our equality – at once false and true – inside the coach had led him to open up with me, with such awkward results.
Like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I believe that there are certain statements and positions you just can’t agree with. Unlike them, though, I have a pathological inability to take extreme opinions or actions, including religious ones, at face value. I don’t only mean that political parties – the BJP in India is a good example – blatantly manoeuvre religion for political gain (the way in which British political parties use the issue of immigration is a subtle, undeniable modulation of this); I mean that there are certain views and acts – voiced on evangelical radio stations, executed by suicide bombers – that make you speculate about them beyond their stated motives and objectives.
To confuse matters, there’s the curious human affinity that draws us – not through conscious effort, or as a result of an education in multiculturalism – to those who are, culturally and in other ways, unlike us, until, sometimes, we realise with a shock that we don’t know them. The unsaid is at work in motives and actions on both sides; in the group of people we call ‘us’, and in those we begin to name, at certain moments, ‘them’. The unsaid undercuts the dichotomy that Hitchens imposes on the debate, between the ‘literalists’ – the archbishops, priests and mullahs, the unemployed bus driver or corporate professional turned ‘fundamentalist’ – and the ‘ironists’, or novelists like Salman Rushdie. Irony is taken as an acceptable manner of not saying something, or saying something and meaning the opposite; but the unsaid that governs the terrorist’s attenuated destiny, the mullah’s rant, and Hitchens’s polemic, isn’t irony, but something else.
As reviews of Mohsin Hamid’s second novel began to appear earlier this year, I was reminded, for some reason, of that encounter from almost twenty years ago. Not that my story and Hamid’s are exactly similar; but there are several points of contact. Sometimes, while reading reviews of a book, you find (especially if there’s something about it that’s begun to intrigue you) that you’ve begun to invent it, that you’re already becoming familiar, in a silently persuaded way, with a work you really don’t know. At some point, my story became part of what I imagined Hamid’s novel to be. What had brought these two stories together in my mind – one a memory, the other an outline of a novel I hadn’t read – was the crucial piece of information that Hamid’s book was a monologue, or a dialogue in which you never heard the other voice, which emerges from a chance, even bizarre, encounter between a Pakistani man and someone who at first appears to be an American tourist, on the streets of Lahore. The novel is structured around this encounter, but it isn’t directly about it: what it’s about (in the form of a long confession addressed to the hapless and increasingly ‘reluctant’ interlocutor) is the speaker’s previous life in America, leading up to his present one in Lahore. But the idea of the encounter and, along with it, of the present moment, the here and now, is an all-important one to the novel, despite its being a structural device (or maybe precisely because of this), primarily a part of what used to be called ‘form’, and only secondarily, and by implication, informing ‘content’. These elements must have led to that feeling of growing recognition and to that interweaving in my mind; the notion of the unforeseen encounter and its consequences, or its ultimate lack of consequence, and, more pressingly, that of the urgency of the present moment, its magic and deceptions, its spaciousness and promise, its political immediacy, and the constant, unfulfillable sense of illumination it offers.
Having become almost too well acquainted with my construct of the novel, I risked being disappointed when I read it. That wasn’t to be. The former was quite different from the latter, but the journey from one to the other was seamless, and, from the start, I was gripped. The differences were obvious. Hamid’s narrator, Changez, is neither entirely like me nor my companion on the coach. He is one of South Asia’s proliferating and, by now, customary success stories, the sort magazines probably leap to associate with India, but could equally well come out of Pakistan. A Princeton graduate, like Hamid, Changez – again, not unlike Hamid – has worked in what might loosely be called the corporate-financial world in New York, a driven and exceptionally energetic domain. In contrast, I strongly suspect, to the man I met in Marble Arch, Changez used to be a believer in Western corporate meritocracy. Indeed, he’d been a star performer for an acquisitions firm called Underwood Samson; the fruits of belief have been tangible, the costs – which Changez becomes more aware of after 11 September – intangible and alienating, as they often are. Changez had a girlfriend, Erica (most reviewers have pointed out Hamid’s penchant for allegorical naming), a delicate, privileged, quite probably Wasp woman with literary talent and ambitions, with whom he had a curious, largely asexual relationship. The relationship, like Erica’s sanity, begins to come undone by the second half of this short novel; under some mysterious psychological duress, possibly to do with Chris, a lover who died (several works are glancingly but effectively invoked by Hamid, including ‘The Dead’), she becomes increasingly inaccessible and remote. At the same time, Changez’s treasured American self, especially after it experiences a contradictory and scandalous moment of happiness on witnessing the destruction of the Twin Towers on television in a hotel room in Manila, begins to crumble, as does his sense of his corporate mission:
The following evening was supposed to be our last in Manila. I was in my room, packing my things. I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realised that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.
Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist.
‘Not fiction but news’: Hamid is unobtrusively, but constantly, addressing the reader, hinting at how to read his novel; how not to be manipulated and led in the way that, in a sense, Changez’s companion is, but to become attuned to its hidden, recurrent inversions. There’s an almost delightful allegorical symmetry to the flow of events, as well as a sensuousness and finish that might belong to some other form of art: music, perhaps.
Despite its minute probing into the narrator’s thoughts, this is not a conventional psychological novel; much of its magic – the enchantment and innocence of the relationship, the absolute familiarity and foreignness of America, the fragrant boisterousness and menace of Lahore – hinges on the unsaid. Hamid manages marvellously well in creating a novel that’s rendered entirely in terms of the spoken word, and governed by the shape of what’s evaded or not uttered. Two registers of the word ‘formal’ come to mind as one reads. One has to do with politeness, etiquette, and even over-elaboration and circumlocution. In the book, it has to do with the way in which something spontaneous and immediate, like speech, is constantly qualified by adornment (‘irresistibly refined or oddly anachronistic’, as Changez says while speculating about the qualities in him that Erica might have been drawn to), and comes to seem disorienting and at one remove. The other has to do with Hamid’s own craft and practice, his working within the genre of the novella, James’s ‘blessed nouvelle’, with its unique tensions, restrictions and essential playfulness. The pressures and deflections of the form allow Hamid to visit the various genres that are common to South Asian anglophone writing, which are often connected with the revelation of identity – autobiography; travelogue; the novel of diaspora or exile – and to commit himself to none of these. For both author and narrator are involved in various kinds of disclosure, and yet are always making the temptations of disclosure and topicality (to do with Pakistani, immigrant or Muslim identity; to do with 9/11) surrender to formal – in both senses of the word – considerations. The result is a cool equipoise that is not possible in ‘real life’, where our desires for both the earthly and the immutable generally end up being so messy; but no less moving or true for having achieved a sort of perfection.