Book – Discontent and its Civilisations: Dispatches from Lahore, London and New York
Author – Mohsin Hamid
Publisher – Hamish Hamilton
Pages – 208
Price – Rs 1,309
The essayist is an endangered species, fast fading from newspapers. Now we have articles by specialists, experts in their field, making eminent sense about specific things. The classic essayists, the Charles Lambs and Mark Twains and EB Whites, had wide ranging interests, turning out pieces that were witty, polemical and wise. They wrote because they were men of letters, who were supposed to know better than you or me. There is an airy self-assurance about the traditional essayist, the kind you might expect in a prophet on a mountain, clearing his throat for a longish lecture.
As White once wrote, “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” What with the specialisation of knowledge over the 20th century and with people losing their proper respect for clever people, modern essayists must find it hard to keep up the “effrontery” to write. They have a sceptical audience to please. So in Mohsin Hamid the essayist, we find a more inward-looking voice, as if he’s testing some thoughts out as he writes. He is not, however, entirely free of that childlike belief White accuses essayists of, neither does he shy away from the occasional declamation.
Discontent and its Civilisations: Dispatches from Lahore, London and New York reaches across time and cultures in its reference to Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents. It is a slim volume, divided into three parts, “Life”, “Art” and “Politics”, with pieces that appeared in various publications between 2000 and 2014, 15 years that would take the author from New York to London and then back to his home town, Lahore.
If Freud wrote about the repressive conformity imposed by civilisation, Hamid, theorist of identity, speaks of “civilisations”, which splinter people into categories: Muslim, Western, European, American. These are “dangerous illusions”, born of discontent, participating in “globalisation’s brutality”, designed to “deny our common humanity”. Much of the volume seems devoted to reconciling the different facets of identity — personal, political, cultural and professional.
Hamid, firmly of the “personal is political” school, draws extensively from his own life in this exploration of identity. This works when he is talking about, well, his own life. There are charming stories of his early days in Pakistan, of moving back to the country at the age of nine and finding anew a half-forgotten language, of a wordless flirtation with a veiled woman at a Sufi concert, of the radical, irreverent crew at the National College of Arts, Lahore. Written over a decade and a half, the pieces also give the sense of a changing Pakistan, increasingly besieged by wars without and extremist violence within.
But the personal is perhaps political as well as fictional, where Hamid is concerned. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the author and his protagonist had shared several biographical similarities. Art, in this book of essays, is largely art by Mohsin Hamid — how he wrote his novels, what drove him to write, what didn’t. Adrienne Rich, looking back on her own essays in 2001, is critical about using autobiographical material to make a point.
“By the late 1990s,” she says, “in mainstream American public discourse, personal anecdote was replacing critical argument, true confessions were foregrounding the discussion of ideas.” The discussion of ideas is often lost, with Hamid, in a fine vapour of personal trivia. Do we really want to know about what’s on his softboard? Or how he changed his e-mail settings? Are we too concerned that characters be “likeable”? Well, are we? We’re not really sure because Hamid raises the question and then escapes into a Calvino quote he keeps taped on his printer.
When it comes to politics, though, the personal begins to recede. Hamid often relies heavily on the works of other writers, such as Zahid Hussain and Anatole Lieven, to tell the story of a riven and bloodied Pakistan. The essays in this section have a habit of starting with the particular, drones or the persecution of Ahmadis or Baloch separatism, and then turning in the widening gyre until they encompass everything- extremism, militancy, the US, religion, plurality, inequality in Pakistan, India-Pakistan and Pakistan, the subcontinent. So they tend to fall back on the usual pieties about the subcontinent, which can get old when repeated across a dozen odd pieces.
But the last essay, Islam is Not a Monolith, makes for a poignant read at time when gunmen mow down cartoonists, the IS is busy making a spectacle of itself in the name of some pure, doctrinaire version of religion and Islamophobes flower across the world. Hamid makes a careful distinction between “lived religion” and the dogmas of scripture, between religious faith and the cultural markers of identity that people adrift in a globalised world may deliberately adopt. In forgetting these distinctions, he says, “it is we who create the monolith”. It is one of the more convincing moments of the modern essayist.
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