Globe and Mail interview with Mohsin Hamid (April 1, 2000)
Novelist by night
By Simon Houpt
To the collection of sundry day jobs filled by part-time writers in New York City - a list which includes waiter, salesman, medical experiment subject, editor, nude model, sanitation worker, circus clown and cab driver - we may now add highly paid management consultant. This latest addition comes courtesy of Mohsin Hamid, a 28-year-old author whose impressive debut novel, Moth Smoke, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux to strong reviews and promising early sales. In her jacket blurb, Nadine Gordimer said Moth Smoke was among "the two or three best novels I have read this year."
High praise. So is Hamid a businessman or an artist? Both, it appears, in equal measure.
For the past two years, Hamid has worked at the Manhattan office of McKinsey and Co., a worldwide consulting concern. During the firm's notoriously intense 12- to 14-hour days, Hamid designed strategies for media and financial- sector clients. On week- ends and during his vacation periods, he would grind away on his novel.
Moth Smoke actually began life in 1993, three years after Hamid left Pakistan to study international relations at Princeton University. He wrote the first draft for a creative-writing class with Toni Morrison, then revised it a few years later for his thesis at Harvard Law School, but the finished novel bears no trace of its academic origins. Moth Smoke is a taut, moody tale that pulsates with intelligence and sensuality - and is about as far from a law-school thesis as you could get, unless there's something deeply funky going on at Harvard we don't know about.
Unlikely. Harvard "was very American-focused, which I found alienating," Hamid said, the late afternoon light slipping across his face in a Greenwich Village café. He is a regular at this haunt a few doors from his apartment, and he sits for hours nursing a single Earl Grey tea, served South Asian style with warmed milk, a remembrance of home. "I didn't like being programmed for a profession."
Hamid has never liked to be boxed in. For many years, his family defied gender stereotypes, his mother working as an accountant while his father pursued a PhD and took care of the kids. Dad now works in the Philippines for the Asian Development Bank while Mom paints and travels. In his pursuits, Hamid is manifestly a blend of his parents.
Moth Smoke traces the downfall of Darashikoh (Daru) Shezad, a 28-year-old Lahore banker who grew up in the shadow of Pakistan's jet set. Though his grades were better than those of his childhood best friend Aurangzeb (Ozi), Daru was unable to pursue a foreign education. When Ozi returns with a U.S. degree, Daru finds himself disastrously attracted to his friend's beautiful new spouse.
But Hamid's is a probing and playful intellect, and he is offering something much richer than a simple love triangle. Moth Smoke is bookended by short excerpts from the story of Shah Jahan, the Mogul emperor of India (1628-58) who built the Taj Mahal. Two of his four sons, Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, fought each other for control of India until Aurangzeb beheaded his older brother. Hamid uses the historical antecedent to shed light on the contemporary grudge match between Pakistan and India, blood brothers whose animosity threatened to go nuclear in the summer of 1998, when Moth Smoke takes place.
While Hamid is wary of being taken as a spokesman for his motherland, he allows himself to muse on the importance of Pakistan's nuclear aspirations, which play a role in the book.
"There's a great deal of pride," he says with characteristic self-assurance. "It is the pride of a country which has seen itself overrun by many things not of its own making, from the Mongols and the Huns and Alexander the Great and the British, to global capitalism, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the U.S. arming of Pakistan, CIA involvement. Against all this sort of stuff, [possessing the bomb is] an assertion of an ability to stand firm. For a poor country, that has a huge amount of resonance."
Though Moth Smoke has received an enviable amount of attention, Hamid will stay at McKinsey for now, continuing to write as a way to grapple with his feelings of moral compromise.
"It's a bit paradoxical to be somebody from a country like Pakistan - which you can sort of see being ground up by the global system - and to be working at the core of that system," Hamid suggests, sipping his Earl Grey. "You can't blindly accept that if everyone plays by the rules, all men will be equal and all countries will be better off."
He sees a parallel with his own life in the story of the janissaries. They were elite soldiers in the Ottoman empire who were recruited from the conquered Christian lands, trained and then returned to rule over their defeated homelands. "I'm sure it was tough for some of them, the idea of being a ruler in an empire that diminished where they came from," says Hamid, pausing. He doesn't want to go into too much detail on this. It's the seed for book number two.