MOTH SMOKE (Nazish)
I fear for this writer’s life…to write about what life is actually like in a modern city in Pakistan is fairly bold. An inviting trouble! A chronicle to self destruction! What the world knows of our country is through good old PTV World, which insists on pretending that in Pakistan, every female covers their head with a dupatta and domestic problems are the only issues of concern. There is absolutely no adultery, drug or alcohol usage. Pakistan is a model Muslim country!
The reason that Pakistani society is failing according to the novel, both at a national and an individuallevel, is selfishness. Just as Daru’s decisions are aimed at gaining immediate and maximum pleasure, the consequences be damned, great swathes of society are shown to be doing the same. The entire Pakistani elite have essentially opted out of the functioning of Pakistani society – driving 4×4 cars rather than investing in public road maintenance, attending foreign universities rather than supporting local ones – leaving the masses and the public institutions they rely on to fend for themselves. Hamid makes it clear that the only result of this strategy is that central budgets get smaller and the state gets weaker, until it inevitably collapses.
This book is loosely based on the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan’s sons – Aurangzeb and Darashikoh. A rivalry between them led to Aurangzeb defeating his brother, and delivering his head to their father.
Moth Smoke is about passion, jealousy, rivalry, adultery, desperation, materialism and class differences. It is about Darashikoh or Daru, a poor boy who grew up best friends with the rich kids, Mumtaz, a bad mother and wife, and about Aurangzeb or Ozi, Daru’s best friend and Mumtaz’s husband. Daru had a fairly normal childhood, and was fine until college, when all his friends left him behind in Lahore while they went to the States to pursue their education, in spite of him being smarter than most of them. Daru stayed back to study with desi professors like Professor Julius Superb (an excellent character, the story behind the name is one of the most amusing bits in the book). The bitterness at the unfairness of life and the fact that most of it was beyond his control, leads to him festering hate and anger for the very circle that he moves around in; the rich, the famous and the elite…who serve him a Rs. 4000 bottle of imported alcohol, while he can barely afford to shell out Rs. 800 for the cheap number two kind.
When his best friend returns, with a wife and kid in tow, Daru is pulled back into the rich circle that he cant keep up with. Infact, the day after the first night of Ozi’s return, Daru loses his job. And from then on, his life goes downhill. He becomes too dependent on drugs and Ozi’s wife. ”She’s drawn to me just as I’m drawn to her. She can’t keep away. She circles, forced to keep her distance, afraid of abandoning her husband and, even more her son, for too long. But she keeps coming like a moth to my candle staying longer than she could, leaving late for dinners and birthday parties, singeing her wings. She is risking her marriage for me, her family, her reputation. And I, the moth, circling her candle, realize that she’s not just a candle. She’s amoth as well, circling me.”
We are given an insight into each character, including Daru’s drug supplier (who happens to be a rickshaw driver). Each character explains why they are ”bad” or essentially good…why Ozi feels it is necessary to be corrupt, why Mumtaz must sleep with her husband’s best friend, and why Daru has to take to selling drugs himself.
The book is full of interesting theories:
”There are two social groups in Pakistan. The first group, large and sweaty, contains those referred to as the masses. The second group is much smaller, but its members exercise vastly greater control over their immediate environment and are collectively termed the elite. The distinction between members of these two groups is made on the basis of control of an important resource: air-conditioning. You see, the elite have managed to re-create for themselves the living standards of say, Sweden, without leaving the dusty plains of the subcontinent…They wake up in air-conditioned houses, drive air-conditioned cars to air- conditioned offices, grab lunch in air-conditioned restaurants (rights of admission reserved), and at the end of the day go home to their air-conditioned lounges and relax in front of their wide-screen TVs.”
Daru’s is a fairly negative character, he is the type of a person who believes he is more intelligent than those who have made it around him, but has not been given a chance. He is a blamer…he is whiny and lazy, has a lack of morals because he sells drugs to kids and starts robbing boutiques, beats up his servant…he could be described as a useless, horrible man.
But when you get to know the story from the useless, horrible man’s side, it almost makes you feel sorry for him. And for countless others like him in that country, who could’ve made it, if it hadn’t been for the fact that you just can’t make it there – without a foreign degree, uncles in high places, full option, powerful Pajeros that run over pedestrians and of course, air conditioning.
It was an incredible book – for me, more so, maybe because it was like a guy on the street of my country telling me why he’s resorted to begging and stealing now…even though he has a Bachelors degree. Maybe too slow for some, maybe scattered with too many Lahori terms(there is no glossary), and may be a lot of people won’t feel sorry for him… But I think it’sdefinitely worth a read, and one of the best books I’ve read…
“Moth Smoke” is well worth a read if you are interested in transgressive fiction, modern South Asia, or just a nuanced character study of those whose moral superiority is matched only by their own moral failing.