Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on Drugs, Class, and Modern Pakistan


Last month for my book club, we read Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke. I read his second, more well-known novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a couple years ago and quite enjoyed it, thus I really pushed for Moth Smoke during the decision-making part of our prior book club meeting. I remember thinking The Reluctant Fundamentalist would be great for discussion, and I hoped this one would be the same. [Honestly now, I can hardly remember a thing about TRF except that I liked it…and my review on it was too ambiguous to jog my memory!]

For a book that you read and feel has so much to discuss, it was actually another one of our unusually short discussions. Perhaps we felt the story was pretty straightforward; perhaps none of us had enough personal connection to the culture to really share insight; perhaps it left us in the same wordless daze I clearly felt when writing about TRF.

In Moth Smoke, the main character, Daru, is a young man clearly on a downward spiral. At the opening, we find out he’s on trial, and it’s the story’s subsequent flashbacks that give us the full picture. After getting fired from his banking job, Daru can’t find another job and eventually loses motivation to do so. Naturally, his funds dwindle and he finds himself surviving without the luxuries he once had. His casual habit of smoking weed spirals into a pervasive, though not crippling, drug addiction. Daru turns to drug dealing and a series of heists to keep money in his pocket, and you, the reader, are following his story knowing the ending, but wondering how he got there.

The notable thing about Moth Smoke is how slowly and naturally Daru’s downward spiral feels. It’s never set in a melodramatic light; even the big occurrences that signal his decline are told casually and without much fanfare. Further, the story is told through different perspectives—that if Daru, his best friend Ozi, and Ozi’s wife Mumtaz. As you read each of their words, you understand each of their perspectives. And it ends up diluting the gravity of Daru’s situation; essentially, we’re seeing several angles to the story, rather than a Daru-centric one.

I think one of the big takeaways from this book—and I believe from TRF as well, because the background of the two main characters were strikingly similar—is a statement on the influence of class in Pakistan culture. Daru and Ozi grew up together and attended the same well-to-do private school, but their different backgrounds dictated what they did with their adult lives. Daru grew up poor, was given the opportunity for a good education, but didn’t have the same wealth to fall back on in his adult life; he had to continue working for his place in society, and that left him with a lot of resentment.

The most interesting character to me was actually Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife. She attended college in New York with her Pakistan background mostly absent from her life, even dreading run-ins with traditional Paki boys she met. When she met Ozi, they married, had a child, and headed back to Pakistan, her life took a turn she was unprepared for; growing up so independent, so much an “American” woman, she strongly disagreed with the traditional role of wife and mother she was forced into under Pakistan culture. Mumtaz reminded of so many girls I met in college, wondering if they ever feel as conflicted about their cultural heritage as she was.

This book had a fairly positive response amongst our group, but I don’t think anyone really felt passionate about it. The main reason for that, as discussed, was just that no one really liked Daru. And you don’t have to always like your main character, but no one cared about him. He was ultimately a lazy individual that blamed everyone and everything around him for his current plight, without ever making a real effort at improving himself and his situation. And who has time for people like that?

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