OVER THE YEARS, Mohsin Hamid has mastered the art of the big little novel. In the slimmest of novels, the 51-year-old grapples with the heaviest of subjects. His themes have spanned the large issues of the 21st century— terrorism and immigration, racism and homelands. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), which clocks in at less than 200 pages, is even today one of the most astute 9/11 novels. Exit West (2017), at less than 250 pages, reminds us that we are all migrants. His most recent novel The Last White Man (Hamish Hamilton; ₹599) sticks to the slim-novel brief at 192 pages, and reminds us that race is a construct and a dangerous one. To Hamid’s credit, his novels are not vehicles for issues, even as he uses fiction to shine a light on today’s faultlines. He is a smart storyteller who never allows topicality to eclipse the narrative. Readers and critics have lauded his works, The Reluctant Fundamentalist sold one million copies, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 as was Exit West, a decade later.
The Last White Man opens with a Kafkaesque premise; “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” At first, he thinks there is an interloper in the room, only to realise that the interloper is him. When he looks at his reflection in the mirror, “He wanted to kill the coloured man who confronted him here in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself…” With time, others in the unnamed city too begin to change colour. Some reconcile to the new reality. Others resort to violence and arson. And a few recoil and turn against themselves as well. The novel’s opening gambit propels it forward. As a reader, one gets invested in the lives of Anders and his at-first-friend and then loving-partner Oona. What is to become of them, as the occasional flareup and then the riots engulf the town? What would happen if one’s skin colour changed, what would happen if everyone’s skin colour changed?
The novel often feels like a Black Mirror episode with menace lurking in the quotidian. Peril is ever present, always threatening to whisper boo around the corner. This doomy air is dispelled only by the growing relationship between Anders (a gym trainer) and Oona (a yoga instructor). In Hamid’s novels—whether Exit West or The Last White Man—the couple coheres even as the world unravels around them. Just as in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Hamid reminds us that in the final reckoning the only thing that matters is the knowledge that “you have loved,” similarly his other novels raise companionship above all else.
Recently, speaking on a Zoom call, from the US, the Pakistani-British writer says that after completing Exit West he had initially thought of writing a book on “technology and our relationship with it,” but that soon morphed into something else, something that was, perhaps, bigger. The idea that was “calling out to him” had to do with technology and categorisations. He explains, “Technology encourages us to sort things and sort people in particular, liking something, un-liking something, following somebody, unfollowing somebody. And I’m interested in the idea of messing with that, trying to disrupt that. And so this notion of a world where it becomes impossible to sort people by their racial category, was calling out to me more than a novel about our relationship with technology, in general.” Hamid started work on The Last White Man with the title already fixed in his mind.
The evolving relationship between Anders and Oona centres the novel, while their relationship with their parents bolsters it. Oona’s mother (who has recently lost her son to an overdose) is a conspiracy theorist who spends hours watching television and believing that a plot to end her “kind” is near. Oona tries to extract her mother from these theories, but barely succeeds. Anders’ father is dying, he was once a strong robust man, who is now only a man in pain. Even as Oona and Anders try to feed their own relationship they must also tend to their parents and witness the travesties of old age.
Speaking about the relationship between the characters and their parents, Hamid says, “I suppose the novel is a eulogy. It’s a novel about loss, and it’s a novel about people who lose things, lose people they love and also who lose something that they’re attached to, which is this sort of racial identity. Anders is grappling with the loss of his father, alongside the loss of his whiteness.”
Hamid’s novels walk this tightrope between loss and hope. The loss is that of a world changing beyond recognition, a loss of identity and self. And hope is always born from the camaraderie of the couple, whether it is Nadia and Saeed of Exit West or Oona and Anders of The Last White Man. Hamid says, “life is a kind of calamity,” and elaborates that living is about reconciling with the fact that while there is “beauty and poignancy” we will all grow old and die. “We’re here as impermanent beings—is one of the fundamental tasks of being a human being,” he says.
This has, of course, been the eternal conundrum of human life, but perhaps, in recent times, the rate of change has accelerated. In order to deal with these changes, Hamid feels we tend to look back at a past with great nostalgia, whether it is the “Golden Age of Islam or some imagined golden age that Hindutva is rooted in, or Britain before migrants arrived. Or America in the 1950s”. Our spiritual traditions—whether it is Hinduism or Sufiism or Islam—try to show us ways to deal with the drama and impermanence of life. He says, “In my novels, what I often try to do is to explore those ideas, against this dramatic backdrop, which in the novels is even more dramatic than just the fact that we’re all getting older. I want to see what are the ways to transcend this and to move beyond it.” He has always been fascinated by the literature and poetry of the Sufi tradition, where love “is the way to transcend the terror of being a temporary being.” He says, “So, each of these novels is in its own way a love story. And in Exit West it’s a love story very much about letting go and letting go of each other. And in The Last White Man, it’s maybe three love stories. The love of Anders and Oona, who actually come to see each other more clearly as the novel progresses. But also the love of Anders for his father and Oona for her mother, both of which are also playing out against the backdrop of all this change.”
“What my novels often try to do is to win through to a kind of optimism, not a naive optimism, but an optimism that if we imagine differently, different things could happen. So, an optimism of action, not an optimism of passivity. That is very important to me”
Share this on
In The Last White Man, Oona’s mother is revolted by the darkening of people, and Anders’ father is uneasy with it. But it is this change that brings Oona and Anders closer together. While the world spins senselessly, they find solace in each other. With Anders and with time, Oona finds that she can “shed her skin as a snake sheds its skin, not violently, not even coldly, but rather to abandon the confinement of the past, and unfettered, again, to grow.” Optimism is essential for Hamid’s enterprise. It is his way to push back against a nostalgic politics that harps on the past. He says, “All around us we see environmental degradation. We see rising inequality. We see rising intolerance. That does predispose us towards a kind of nostalgic politics, to people who say, ‘Oh, the way it used to be 50 years ago or 500 years ago or 1,000 years ago was better,’ and we should use that as our inspiration of where we need to go. That’s very dangerous because usually the past wasn’t really all that good. We need to resist this profound nostalgic political impulse. You can’t really resist it unless you find something else to attach your imagination to, and I think unless there’s some sort of optimism about where we might go, it’s very difficult to attach our imaginations to things. What my novels often try to do is to win through to a kind of optimism, not a naive optimism that everything will be fine, but an optimism that if we imagine differently, different things could happen. So, an optimism of action, not an optimism of just passivity. That is very important to me.”
HAMID IS PERHAPS better suited to write of homelands and borders than most, as he has spent chunks of his life in the US, the UK and Pakistan. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, he wrote his early novels while working as a management consultant. Back at Princeton University Hamid was in Toni Morrison’s class. One of the possessions he holds most dear is an early draft of Moth Smoke, edited in her “beautiful handwriting in fountain pen”. He worked in London in the early noughties and moved back to Lahore with his family in 2009.
Living across the globe, Hamid has written from different vantage points. Moth Smoke published in 2000, is set mainly in Lahore, and was written largely when he was in the US in his 20s. He spent his 30s in London, writing The Reluctant Fundamentalist that was mainly set in the US. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia never named a city in particular but was clearly about an Asian city and was written while in Lahore. His last two novels have similarly pushed back against particular geographical names and locations. He says, “I needed to resist the instinct to be representative of this place, to say, ‘I can describe this place’ or ‘I’m reporting from this place’, because I think that is quite dangerous to allow yourself to imagine that you can be representative, and so I intentionally de-specified the place of that novel.” The Last White Man was written in both Lahore and New York. He adds, “The power of literature is that we can imagine ourselves into existences that are different from our own, into lives of people who are not us, and so that’s what I really wanted to do with this book.”
Hamid’s signature style, perfected over time, is his reliance on the comma and his neglect of the full stop. His writing day is spent pacing up and down in his study and reading aloud every line to himself, rather than simply clacking at keys. He says, “I write more with my ears than my eyes,” adding, “the way we process language is through our aural circuitry. The circuitry of our hearing. And of language.”
In order to create a musicality to his text, he uses proper nouns repeatedly. To take a random example, on page 162 of my proof copy, a single sentence runs for 28 lines without a full stop, with close to 30 commas and 10 mentions of the name Oona and three mentions of Anders’ name. Hamid explains his technique, “I’ve tried to lean heavily on the comma. A comma is a kind of forward leaning pause. It’s a pause, but you keep going.”
His choice of punctuation is for reasons of both style and content. The lack of full stops endows the text with rhythm and slackens resistance. Hamid says, “You don’t stop to resist the sentence until you’ve gone quite a long way. And that’s nice because it continues to carry the reader along through ideas that may be strange, or maybe initially, off putting. If the musicality of the ideas is one that you accept, you may very well choose to accept the words.”