“When the uncertain future becomes the past, the past in turn becomes uncertain.”
― Mohsin Hamid, Moth Smoke
Moth Smoke opens with a court room scene, which is ironically quite a popular setting in vernacular soap operas produced in both India and Pakistan. Early on in the book, we are introduced to the defendant, Darashikoh Shezad (Dara for short), who is accused of killing a boy in a road accident, a crime that we are given to understand he might be wrongly accused of as the novel progresses. Hamid uses multiple narrative voices to move the plot of this crime novel, including those of his best friend Ozi (Aurangzeb), who is the son of Dara’s benefactor, and Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife who has an affair with Dara, and who stands for all that is glittering, upper class, air-conditioned Lahore, a particular echelon of the city that is painted as a center of light in the midst of poverty, sweat and toil. Mumtaz (and her undeniable portrayal as a personification of the city) is symbolized as a candle to Dara as moth—Hence the title of this book.
Dara is shown to us as a middle class man fallen from grace—he is painfully aware that the only reason he had a cushy bank job (as perceived from a lower middle class perspective) was because of the strings pulled on his behalf by Ozi’s father. A tortured conscience prevents him from fully engaging with the corrupt Nepotism that is part of the inflexible reality of Lahore at the time. This is not to say that Dara is without fault: an anti-hero in the Modernist tradition, he is characterized by his listlessness, ennui and general dissatisfaction with life. However, this characterization is a telling choice on the part of the author, considering the time (within the novel) is the summer of 1998, the year of nuclear testing in Pakistan, and a flexing of South Asian geo-political force between India and Pakistan.
Moth Smoke is a narrative set against the backdrop of the tension and ennui experienced by liberal Lahori society at a time when political and military forces pushed the economy into a downturn. The utilization of shifting points of narrative and multiple voices enhances this tension successfully. In addition, having access to the points of view of Mumtaz, Ozi and Murad Badshah enhances our understanding of the world Dara is forced to circle, as the proverbial moth to a flame.
Hamid does a remarkable job of setting up what goes on behind closed doors in Lahore high society. He also informs us how these secret activities affect the law and economy of the city, and the aspirations of the have-nots who live around the Pajero-driving, cordless phone-toting have’s. In this vein, Dara and Ozi are set up for comparison from the start; Dara was always more intelligent than Ozi, but it’s always been Ozi who has been more successful due to his family’s connections. They are old friends with an almost sibling rivalry, a fact highlighted by Hamid’s allusion to the historical Aurangzeb and Dara, brothers and sons of Shah Jahan, a Mughal Emperor whose dynasty’s contribution to South Asian cultural and political identity still echoes in the minds of Indians and Pakistanis who grew up within the British system of education.
This same allusion is actually what fascinates me the most about Moth Smoke as one of the early forerunners of the modern South Asian novel: Hamid very consciously chooses historical names and references to frame this very modern tale (relevant to the entire 2000’s, so far) within the confines of factual history that took place during the time of the nascent East India Company of the 1700s in Mughal-ruled India. This historical period is often considered one of the golden phases of South Asian history, and is discussed widely with a sense of pride across India and Pakistan. In an interview published in Duke University’s Chronicle (2000), Hamid stated that the reason why he chose this particular story line is because he wanted to pull from a moment in history that “bypasses the colonial experience”, which allows the author to direct the reader’s attention away from British Raj themes (ubiquitous in many South Asian narratives) and instead, towards the far more sinister and interesting forces of economic growth & stagnation, capitalist market tendencies and identity crises brought on by class systems in modern South Asia.
Ultimately, Moth Smoke is an ill-fated love story, as well as a Bildungsroman gone wrong in a way that insightfully captures the dysfunction and loss of self-hood experienced by Dara. In doing so, this novel speaks to the anxieties and disparities of a very specific time in the history of urban Pakistan, specifically Lahore, in a manner that many South Asians of my generation can identify with.
The Chronicle (2000) “Mohsin Hamid” Retrieved April 14, 2013 from http://www.dukechronicle.com/articles/2000/02/18/mohsin-hamid