MIXED MES­SAGE

Mohsin Hamid’s post-9/11 tale of alien­ation is about to hit the big screen, writes Amanda Hodge from La­hore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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.

The Re­luc­tant Fun­da­men­tal­ist

Main pic­ture, Mohsin Hamid; above and be­low, Kate Hud­son and Riz Ahmed in scenes from

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