I was quite taken by the conversation Terry Gross was having with a Pakistani author on Fresh Air on NPR. His composed and very sensible views made me listen more closely. And that is how I picked up Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
Characters: Set in an unnamed city (resembling Lahore in Pakistan), the story is about two main, very dissimilar characters, a young man Saeed- who lives in a very close knit family with his parents and who has a strong spiritual side, and Nadia – a young woman who has left her family to live on her own (terms) and who is not particularly religious. They develop a friendship that leads them to be together for a large part of the novel. Interestingly, Nadia always wears a long flowing black robe covering her body from neck to toe that might make her seem religious/ traditional, but she has very independent ideas about living and loving and sexual freedom, which only goes to make a point that despite ‘conservative’ appearances, people could actually be different/ modern/ progressive in their thinking.
Storyline: The ‘normal’ things like surfing the net or freedom of movement or being able to hang out in restaurants or listening to music- things we take for granted- begin to get obstructed in Saeed and Nadia’s city by extremist militant activities, causing increasing bombings and destruction and killings and curfews. After Saeed’s mother is killed, he and Nadia, like many others in their city, decide to flee their country, reluctantly leaving behind his father who is firm on living (and dying) where his late wife’s memories still lived. The father making his son leave for the latter’s safety, knowing well that he might never see him again and agony of the son leaving his father in peril must describe only mildly the pain of refugees and, to some extent, of the immigrants.
This migration happens through these “magical doors” that are opening here and there around the world, as the reader gathers from short independent scenes from other countries interjecting within the main story. What it also does is it expands the canvas and context of the story from two characters to “everywhere”. Hamid used these “magical doors” to simplify the logistics of movement, ‘a relatively minor thing’, compared to the major issues of what makes people leave their country where they have belonged their entire lives, and what happens when they find themselves in another country among the natives. Saeed and Nadia secretly buy access to one such door through an agent. Against the ever changing backdrop of life with large groups of other refugees in foreign lands they go to, of meagre resources, and of hostility and conflict with the natives, Saeed and Nadia’s relationship also morphs in a way that I thought was very realistic.
Dystopia: The story is set in our present world with internet and smart phones and such, juxtaposed with the elements of wars and unrest in most parts of the world causing migration of large populations, the refugee crisis that develops as a result of such masses taking over other stabler regions /countries of the world, and the hardships of such an existence. It reminded me of the dystopian novels I had read, those cautionary tales set in some future time. But wait a minute! Terrorist activities and wars in vulnerable parts of the world and refugee crisis and hostility towards immigrants – it is all happening now. Are we actually living in a dystopian world? This thought was so unsettling!
Narrative: The flow of the novel is beautiful, and sentences long, as if building a crescendo. Some of the insights and sentences in the book are remarkable and make you think. Besides, it is relatively a short read. (230 pages paperback). I gave it four starts on my Goodreads.
“..an old woman who had lived in the same house her entire life…she had never moved, and she barely recognized the town that existed outside her property…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we cant help it.
We are all migrants through time.”
“He prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents… and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.”
“…for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”
“Thus in the end their relationship did in some senses come to resemble that of siblings, in that friendship was its strongest element, and unlike many passions, theirs managed to cool slowly, without curdling into its reverse, anger, except intermittently… that if they had but waited and watched their relationship would have flowered again, and so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”