Mohsin Hamid’s post-9/11 tale of alienation is about to hit the big screen, writes Amanda Hodge from Lahore
LIFE has grown considerably less complicated for Mohsin Hamid since the release last month of his third novel. The Pakistani author, who achieved international fame
with the elegant post-9/11 exploration of
Muslim-West relations, The Reluctant Funda
mentalist, is still often detained by immigration officials on his way into the US.
But the process is less stressful since he
began promoting How to Get Filthy Rich in
Rising Asia, his new novella tracking the rise of a Third World entrepreneur in the guise of a 12-step program.
‘‘ They would ask me these questions and I would think: ‘ Oh no, I’m going to have to say it, aren’t I?’ ’’ he says of being plucked from immigration queues for secondary security checks while touring the Booker-shortlisted
The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Not that the same questions won’t likely arise this month when Indian filmmaker Mira Nair’s $US15 million ($14.6m) film adaptation is finally released in cinemas, six years after their first conversation.
It is a fortnight before Pakistan’s national elections when I meet the 41-year-old author at his family home, a sprawling multigenerational compound in an upmarket area of Lahore. Hamid previously has confessed to being a ‘‘ political animal’’ and confirms as much when he takes a call from a cousin organising a ‘‘ get to know your local candidate’’ meeting with a man running on Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf ticket.
There is great curiosity about these elections (being held today, May 11), which mark the first time Pakistan will see the transition from one democratically elected government to another. ‘‘ People are just basically craving something less than criminal incompetence,’’ Hamid says with a shrug, suggesting he has little faith they will get it from the new government.
‘‘ If we have an election which people say was basically fair, then that will show a deepening of democracy.’’
Imran Khan at least feels sincere, he says. And he likes his ‘‘ post-ethnic status — Pashtun origin, Punjab-raised’’. ‘‘ So many Pakistanis look like that now. Punjab with Baloch, Pashtun with Sindh . . .’’
That sense of what Hamid calls hybridisation, or foreignness, is a theme that runs through his conversation and his books, beginning with Moth Smoke — perhaps the first English-language example of Pakistani grunge fiction. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is another tale of alienation, narrated by a Lahore-born Princeton graduate and former New York corporate consultant (like Hamid), who recounts to a suspected US spy in a Lahore cafe the story behind why he left America.
The book, released in 2007, became an international bestseller and Hamid was courted by numerous companies hoping to adapt it to film. But it was in director Nair, who has also spoken of her ‘‘ hybrid life’’ divided between homes in Uganda, India and the US, that he says he found the perfect collaborator.
‘‘ I had loved [her films] Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding, so I had the artistic respect for Mira beforehand, and then we had lunch together six years ago and we just clicked,’’ he says.
‘‘ We talked about the experience, among other things, of her husband, who is a Muslim professor at Columbia University dealing with the same stuff. She felt this whole thing — Muslim, not Muslim, American, not American — was a very personal project. I felt comfortable that whatever she was going to do, we were on the same page.’’
Hamid had intended to let Nair just get on with it. But when she struggled to find someone to write the adaptation who understood both the Pakistani and American
context, he stepped in to co-write the first few drafts of the screenplay.
Credit goes to William Wheeler for the final film script, however, which fills in parts of the story the book deliberately leaves to the reader’s imagination. That will irk purists for whom the book’s ambiguity is one of its greatest strengths.
Hamid seems unbothered by the potential fallout — though he will concede it is a
‘‘ disadvantage if you love the book and want to see exactly that in a film’’. He says: ‘‘ In the novel you have only one side of the conversation, the American’s not speaking, so you have to figure out what’s going on for yourself. In the movie it’s not like that. The American becomes a character by Liev Schreiber.’’ He credits Hollywood western classic High
Noon as inspiration for the film adaptation’s noir-ish build-up, which seeks to ‘‘ build a palate of dread around two guys talking’’.
‘‘ I mean, it’s basically just a book about tea and dinner but it becomes this other thing through this High Noon camera work, with tumbleweed and bats flying around, and people lurking,’’ he says.
The ominous flash of metal at the end of the book, which is left to the reader to interpret, is more explicitly explained in the film, though
‘‘ the ambiguity is still there’’, as is the central message that ‘‘ we must not retreat into our ghettos’’.
But, he says, the movie has done things the novel could never do. Like bring an Indian filmmaker in to adapt a Pakistani novel, and use an A-list Hollywood cast — Kiefer Sutherland, Schreiber and Kate Hudson — to support a lesser known British-Pakistani lead actor, Riz Ahmed. (Difficulty securing finance for a film with a Muslim protagonist was one of the reasons for the movie’s delay.)
‘‘ For me it was quite powerful to watch the kind of people it pulled together. Kiefer Sutherland was Jack Bauer in [television series] 24, for heaven’s sake.’’ AS a child, Hamid spent six life-changing years in Palo Alto, California, while his economics professor father studied for his PhD at Stanford University. He left Pakistan as an Urduspeaking three-year-old and returned as an Atari-playing nine-year-old with a west coast drawl. He had to relearn his mother tongue, which is now his third language.
It was to be the first of many extended orbits out of Pakistan; to Princeton at 18, then across the Hudson River to Manhattan as a graduate, London in 2001 and, finally, in late 2009, back to Lahore with a wife and child.
Hamid says he returned in part because he feared he might be too scared to do so if he left it any longer. ‘‘ I’ve never thought I made a mistake in coming back. I’m glad I did it,’’ he says, though neither he nor his wife, a Pakistani classical singer he met in London, has ruled out leaving again.
‘‘ There’s no denying the situation is not great. But you kind of have to believe that it’s also not as dangerous as people make it out to be, that Pakistan is just a normal country with problems.’’
He likens the situation to Australians’ love of the ocean, despite the obvious dangers that lurk there. ‘‘ A city like Lahore is not that different from Rio — tough cities, no doubt, but tens of millions live there.’’ And that’s where the inspiration for How to
get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia comes in. The book speaks to the reader as though he is the main character — ‘‘ You, in the late middle of your teenage years, are infatuated with a pretty girl’’, begins the third chapter, titled Don’t Fall in Love — though it never names your religion, your parents, your city, or the skinny girl who is the subject of your infatuation.
‘‘ A boy who wants to f..k a thing like that,’’ your mother says, ‘‘ just wants to f . . k another boy,’’ it goes on, rudely, smashing — as is Hamid’s wont — the languid South Asian literary idyll of epic clan tales in rural backwaters.
A far bigger issue than this Pakistani bawdiness, however, which first featured in
Moth Smoke, was his decision to rip the labels off his story. For Hamid, a former brand consultant, this move was about giving readers the space to put themselves in the story.
‘‘ In a way, we have all been taught to think of ourselves as peculiar and exotic, and maybe it has kind of eluded us that actually this is how most people live, that this [is the] new urban reality for the two thirds of the world that is predominantly poor,’’ he says.
‘‘ If I name the religion as Islam, then it’s somebody else’s religion. If I name the parents, then it doesn’t feel like ‘ your parents’. Everybody gets that Pakistan is the model for this thing but they’re open to experiencing it differently because the names have been taken away.’’
The decision has exposed Hamid to criticism that he has somehow shirked his duty as a Pakistani to speak out on issues, despite his regular opinion offerings to papers such as The
New York Times and The Guardian on militancy and the persecution of minorities.
Reference to that debate stirs a flicker of irritation in the otherwise equable writer. ‘‘ I don’t feel like I turn away from the tough issues at all and I find it odd for somebody sitting in London or whatever to say that,’’ he says.
Nor does he shrink from commenting on the gross exploitation of the poor that continues across Pakistan.
‘‘ I think Moth Smoke is about that. I think the new novel is about that. If you could actually read this novel thinking it is saying the poor are a bunch of stinky, unclean folks who fart and shit, to me that’s madness.
‘‘ I often speak at university campuses and I’ve never had a student come up to me and say, ‘ Dude, you’re so off base with your class consciousness.’
‘‘ I have had people come to me and say, ‘ You write sex in your novel. Do you think that’s OK in our society?’ ’’
Hamid won’t deny self-censorship is an issue, given Pakistan’s rising Islamic conservatism and militancy, but says it hasn’t stopped him exploring his favourite themes: corruption, sexuality, gender roles, humanism, minorities, spirituality.
‘‘ There’s a difference between insulting symbols that people hold sacred and talking about things that people don’t often talk about in public,’’ he explains. ‘‘ I don’t think of myself as entirely Pakistani but part of me is, and I want to find a way to express what I believe in, in a way that functions in this society.
‘‘ It’s like living in a neighbourhood. In many of the world’s neighbourhoods you know there are certain things that are dangerous. Sometimes those things are slightly dangerous but worth doing, and that is what I do.’’
The same is true, he says, for most Pakistani artists who plug away at their crafts in difficult, sometimes hostile environments, keeping cultural traditions alive in the hope of better times.
‘‘ I don’t view it as bleak but it’s important for everybody to keep doing this. And sometimes that means you have to leave,’’ he says.
‘‘ I’ve been away for 20 years. But it’s like a relay race; we’re all just passing the baton and aspiring to a better Pakistan.’’
If that sets him apart from some of his countrymen, Hamid is convinced it unites him with much of the world’s population, who at one time or another have felt apart from their communities.
‘‘ I used to think when I was younger I should try to be more like people around me. Now I’ve come to realise we’re all becoming more marginalised and eventually people like me are going to be more common. The future of the planet is mongrel,’’ he says with a laugh.
‘‘ And the sooner that happens the better.’’ Mira Nair’s film of The Reluctant
Fundamentalist will be released on May 23.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is published by Penguin and will be reviewed in the books pages next week.
Main picture, Mohsin Hamid; above and below, Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed in scenes from