Let me be honest in confessing that I had about as much enthusiasm for reading 'Exit West' as a gynaecologist told to sit through a 12 hour case of obstructed labour– hells to the no, baby.
My dislike for all things Mohsin Hamid has been strenuous for everyone who knows me but allow me to be the first to confess– I was dead wrong. Yes, I have hated the man since I was a teenager and stumbled across a copy of his book 'Moth Smoke' in my high school library. 'What a mass of steaming horse-poop', I had thought loftily, at that point in my life, 'if this what a privileged Pakistani writer is able to produce with all the benefits of a Western Liberal education, count me out.'
But then I read an opinion piece by him in TIME magazine, a little after the American invasion of Afghanistan began. It left me… moved. There was something about his words that just reached past the façade of cynicism and insensitivity that we wear daily as Pakistani's and said, it's okay, we don’t have to wear the mask anymore: it's okay if we show the world that we cry while reading poems by Faiz, or listening to Coke Studio. We're an emotional lot. Like Italians, that makes us both volatile and vibrant.
Then I made the mistake of reading 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. Whisky Tango Foxtrot. I mean, what even–?! Still, Mr Hamid was better than the plethora of other South Asian writers who insisted on expressing emotions by evoking Mangoes and Mangroves and Monsoons © so, it was easy to forgive him, even appreciate him. Here was a guy who moved his story along purely on a character's agency. Or in the case of 'Moth Smoke', making a city like Lahore, a character in the novel, in and of itself.
What Mr Hamid really seems to have, is his scalpel on the pulse of the world. His novels have not just been timely but symptomatic of the times we live in. One could accuse him of cashing in on the latest intellectual challenge in geo-politics, but do so would be both disingenuous and dishonest– if not him, then who? Who else would write about the migrant crisis? Who else could put the enchantment of magical realism on something as harrowing as forced displacement, the conversion of law-abiding citizens to lawless refugees?
'Exit West' is a novel that is acclaimed for casting this issue into a more compassionate light, for putting the reader in the tattered shoes of its heroes, Nadia and Syed, as they grapple with life, love and loss in a disturbingly 'post' post-apocalyptic world. How do you pick up the pieces of a broken life in a broken world?
Yet, 'the end of the world can be cosy at times,' Mr Hamid asserts and so it is, with initial passages in the book that deal with Nadia and Syed's blooming romance, a love story that is as awkward as any first love, made no less so by the war that engulfs them. Sure, Nadia, in her Burka Averger-esque bravado, is less than likable, while Syed often comes across as a genial doormat, the two of them together have a chemistry that is unlike anything you will come across in any recent novel. You find yourself rooting for them, even as you feel like kicking them.
Many people have accused Mr Hamid of not having a realistic basis for the arc of their love story but to all these people, I have one simple query: how can love be sustained when you can simply walk out a door to another life on another part of the planet? When lives become untethered from the usual safety nets, the usual norms of society no longer apply.
It is in this free-fall that 'Exit West' really comes alive, in it's tender gaze at the abyss of human loss and humanity's tendency to turn back from annihilation simply because compassion comes more naturally to us in our loss than cruelty. In this regard, Mr Hamid echoes his own hero, Haruki Murakami, compelling us, as readers, to root for a happy ending when all evidence points in the other direction. Mr Hamid is not as bleak as Mr Murakami. At least, not yet.
My favourite sequences in the novel were where Mr Hamid inserts little snippets of incidents happening around the world, told from the point of view of the character(s) participating in them. They served to widen the perspective of the novel which would otherwise have become stifling if it had just focused on Nadia and Syed. They also serve as reminders of just how high the stakes are for everyone involved.
'Exit West', for me, was a remarkable novel, not just for its vision but for the undeniable voice of its writer, a man, who, one hopes, will continue to tell this unfolding story of our world seemingly at war with itself.
We are all migrants through time.