Mohsin Hamid on Reality, Race and Religion
What: “I Don’t Believe In Reality”
Where: Drama Theatre, School of the Arts
Who: Mohsin Hamid
When: Sun, 10 Nov
By: National Arts Council, Singapore Writers Festival
You may have read the books, you may have seen the movie, you may even share a similar heritage with this South Asian writer. Or you may be like me…Pakistani but never been to Lahore, loves books but never read a Mohsin Hamid, adores Kate Hudson, but never watched The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
So on a very ethnic day (I say this as I had been scouring Kandahar street at noon), I set out to discover who Mohsin Hamid is. I mean, I had seen his books in libraries and heard of him, but more importantly, I wanted to find out what about reality he doesn’t believe in.
I was greeted by posh-sounding South Asian literary contemporaries-with their crop haircut and pashmina wrapped around their plump shoulders, carrying a Mohsin or two in their hands. I was lost in conversations not involving me, but rather, surrounding me. The air was filled with laughter and loud banter in thick accents.
I sat there, not a desi, but a typical Pakistani.
And here’s this man, brown, semi-bald and short-bearded- a classic desi man, but not a typical Pakistani. The Princeton and Harvard graduate who weaves themes such as politics, modern society and success into his prose with great eloquence, claims he has no first language. Having learnt Urdu and Punjabi before English, Hamid tried to reconcile the two worlds he lived in- Pakistan and America- through creating imaginary countries of his own that didn’t exist in reality. But then again, he doesn’t believe in reality…or does he?
Hamid started off with a introduction to set the scene, so non-readers like me would be able to grapple with his writing. After listening to him read out chapters from his books, I realised instantly, that I was a fundamental player in this literary work. That is, I get to shape what happens. I am not passive. And so are you.
The novel unfolded like a court trial as contradictory narratives were presented. And the reader becomes the judge in his novel (a law school dissertation in disguise). But then, he says, there are essays and there are novels. An essay is an opportunity to present a point of view, a novel, is something else.
He speaks of the urban reality of growing up in Lahore- the crime, drug use and sexuality in Moth Smoke, while The Reluctant Fundamentalist quickly evolves into more mature concepts like identity and spirituality. It is about a man living in New York. A man, who like many of us, questions, “Why am I here?” and “What am I doing?”
Mohsin Hamid had completed his book before the September 11 attacks in 2001, so he had to, then, grapple with the aftermath of 9/11. And he didn’t want to deal with 9/11.
“I wanted to create a mirror for the reader, not a gramophone for myself,” he said, standing at the rostrum.
He questioned, “If Islam was a voice, what would that voice be?”, then answered, “There is no such thing as a Muslim voice.” In a sense, he meant that Muslims as individuals are unique. While The Reluctant Fundamentalist evokes a feeling of dealing with religion, it is not at all about religion.
Hamid cites an example of an encounter he had with a dreadlocks guy from the USA who thought he was writing about him and that the book actually described him. On the other hand, a young lad from Karachi wrote in a letter to Hamid that his friends and him loved the drug and sex scenes the most. Basically, Hamid is trying to point out that the generalisations we make about each other are often false.
He then talks about the creation of the film, based on his book, which served as a political act where people could all transcend their differences and make a film together. The film was a collaborative effort by Americans, Pakistanis, Indians and other nationalities.
Mohsin Hamid, goes on to talk about his self-help-sounding-title novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It entertains with underlying issues like, “How do we live?” and “How do we die?” spiritual questions. He adds that so much of religion is now politicized: “It’s not getting rid of the anxiety, it’s monetizing it.”
The book resonates with everyone and is not a purely Muslim, Hindu or Atheist book.
Finally, Mohsin Hamid tackles the much-awaited statement we were all there for, “I don’t believe in reality.”
“I don’t believe in reality. We are all constructing this. Whether you are a Zen master, Sufi mystic, or neuroscientist, the stories we tell about ourselves are partly fictional,” he says.
In other words, we create our realities.
With regards to books, “We [writers] create a half novel, the reader creates the novel. Writing a novel is a quest to answers I don’t know.”
“I never know what I am,” says Mohsin Hamid.
I, the audience, the reader, was left to construct. My own reality.
Nawira Baig is a Mass Communication graduate from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies, and is currently pursuing a degree in psychology. She has a newfound passion-being a hijabi.
Bio of speaker: Mohsin Hamid was born in 1971, in Lahore, Pakistan. He is the author of Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. He is an award-winning author with his books making it to the bestsellers list and translated into over 30 languages. His book has also been adapted into film. Mohsin Hamid regularly writes for the New York Times, The Guardian and other publications. Having studied in the USA, he now resides in Lahore.