Ever read a book that you read almost ‘ferociously’ (because, voracious just would not do justice to what you are feeling!), but when it came to the last ten pages or so, you felt like leaving it alone, lest the story would end and you would not be a part of it anymore? Ever felt the need to procrastinate – not because you wanted to idle away the time, but – because you wanted the aftertaste of that book to linger in your head for days after you have finished it? To me, Moth Smoke was just that!
A debut novel by Mohsin Hamid, it reeked of freshness. Its story was set in a Lahore that was far removed from the beautiful picture of an ancient city filled with conservative people. Instead, the main characters in the book either belong to the rich and affluent society, or wish to belong there. The rich spend thousands on parties where anything and everything is imported. They dance to remixed versions of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan songs. And do drugs.
The beauty of the second person narrative lies in the fact that Hamid has decided to make ‘you’ the judge of this trial of a murder that may or may not have happened. And although you know what is fated in the life of Darashikoh Shezad, you still sit and listen to his tale about being unemployed, falling in love with his best-friend’s wife and later turning to drug peddling and heroine to see him through the day. There’s Aurangzeb (Ozi) who is handsome and rich. You know he is loving and caring, so you feel as bad as Daru when you see Mumtaz increasingly spending time with Daru, and you don’t quite feel betrayed when Ozi frames Daru for the murder. There is Mumtaz who seems to have convinced herself that she is a monster because she does not seem to feel anything for her son. She craves for her independence, and you can not really blame her for trying to gain some sense of it by sleeping with her husband’s best-friend. Murad on his part seems to be very good at justifying the robbery and seems adamant on proving to you that he is not really ‘fat’ as the meaning of the word would have you believe. He has his way with words. And even if he may not convince you, he almost succeeds!
But the most amazing parts of the prose I would say, are the parts that deal with Prof. Superb. His opinion on the matters relating to the case, may not exactly qualify as evidence in court, but it is definitely good food for thought. Be it the description of the case as a large purple box or the segregation of Pakistan on the basis of those who have air-conditioning and those who don’t; you are always left wanting to hear more from him.
Again, what endeared it to me were the analogies that were neatly tucked in between the story. And by the end of it, you know all the characters are flawed. They all are guilty of one thing or the other. However, you feel that you could sympathise with each one of them, and at some point you are convinced that you would have done just the same.
I shall not make any pretence of it; I am in love with Mohsin Hamid’s works. He got me gripped with the idea of using the second person narrative, and now I am almost an addict. It is not just that. It is in the way he begins his story with an anecdote of Mughal history and ends it with the same. It is in the way he describes the characters and their actions, so that they come alive in your mind and you feel like you are truly interacting with them. It is in the way he drops these short sentences somewhere discreetly in the story that leaves you pondering about them, long after you have turned the page. It is in the way he takes something as trivial as the word ‘fat’ and turns it into something very profound. It just is!
You know that Daru is destined towards his own doom from the very beginning, and you also know that Aurangzeb is the reason for his undoing. You still read it. You still hope that Daru would not fall for Mumtaz. You still hope that he will get out of his Heroine addiction. You still hope that he pulls himself together!
Also, his whole life and its trials and tribulations seem to mirror the political situation in Pakistan at that point, with the nuclear testing. Mohsin Hamid has tried to draw subtle comparisons at every opportunity he gets. This is reflected in sentences like, “They say the nuclear tests released no radioactivity into the atmosphere. Each a huge gasp, smothered unsatisfied.” And, “when the uncertain future becomes the past, the past in turn becomes uncertain.” He could be talking of either or both situations, but we will inevitably search for its meaning in both.
When it comes to the title itself, it would be presumptuous of me to dwell on that which has been already dealt with so comprehensively. However, what is worth noting is that, by the end of the story, we realise that it is not one single moth and a flame that we are dealing with, but each character is a moth to his own flame, and sometimes the flame is another person, and sometimes the flame is the moth to another person’s flame.
The story on the whole, deals with a person’s attraction to that which he knows to be dangerous for him. He knows he should keep away, but like a moth to a flame, he keeps inching a little bit closer to the flame each time, until he is consumed by the flame and turns into moth smoke. And that is when ‘you’ realise that ‘you’ have just become the moth to the flame of this book!