moth smoke by mohsin hamid

i loved this book.   the first novel of a pakistani author (who studied writing at princeton under the tutelage of toni morrison and joyce carol oates) is set in lahore during pakistan’s 1998 nuclear weapons tests.  each chapter has a different narrator — “witnesses and liars all”  —  speaking as if delivering their testimony at the main character’s trial for murdering a child.  everyone has their own perspective.  everyone their own truth.  the reader becomes judge.

our hero or anti-hero, darashikoh shezad or daru, is a young banker who, dulled by a hang-over and provoked by the bullying of a client, forgets his place and gets himself canned.   he slides into poverty, drug dealing, addiction and violence.  he falls in love with his best friend’s wife.   the three of them — daru, his childhood friend, the handsome, rich and politically powerful aurangzeb, and aurangzeb’s wife, mumtaz — party with lahore’s elite while fundamentalists celebrate nuclear capability with parades, speeches and kalashnikov fire.

disillusioned by his inability to get a job, bitter, stoned and obsessed with mumtaz, daru quickly goes from party boy to pariah.   “there are two social classes in pakistan,” is the tongue-in-cheek theory of one of daru’s university professors.  “the first group, large and sweaty, contains the 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.”  daru’s place in upper-class society was always peripheral, based solely on a single powerful connection.  bad luck and a couple of mistakes thrust him irrevocably out and into the world of the perspiring hordes.

the title of the book and one of it’s main motifs emerges in this scene.   his power has been turned off and daru finds his servant staring at a candle.

i walk over to him, my shadow dancing on a different wall from his.

“what is it?” i ask him.

“a moth in love, saab,” manucci says.

sometimes i don’t understand what he’s talking about.   but i do see a moth circling above our heads.  “bring me the fly swatter,” i tell him.

“no, saab.”

i hit him across the top of his head, not too hard and with an open hand, but forcefully enough to let him know that i won’t put up with any impertinence. “what do you mean, no, saab?”

“please, saab,” he says, cringing.  “watch.”

the moth circles lower, bouncing like a drunk pilot in turbulence.   i could clap him out of existence but i don’t, because i’m getting a little curious myself.

the moth starts to make diving passes at the candle.

“he’s an aggressive fellow, this moth,” i say to manucci.

“love, saab,” he replies.

“i never knew you were such a romantic.”

he blushes,  “the poets say some moths will do anything out of love for a flame.”

“how do you know what the poets say?”

“i used to sneak into pak tea house to listen.”

the moth stops swooping, enters a holding pattern about two feet above the candle, and then lands on the wall in front of us.  it’s gray with a black dot on its back that looks like an eye.

“that’s an ugly moth,” i say.

i wait for manucci’s response, but hes says nothing.

the moth doesn’t move.

“he’s afraid,”manucci says.

“he should be.   love’s a dangerous thing.”   i look carefully.  dark streaks run down the moth’s folded wings.   “maybe he’s burnt himself.”

the moth takes off again, and we both step back, because he’s circling at eye level now and seems to have lost rudder control, smacking into the wall on each round.   he circles lower and lower, spinning around the candle in tighter revolutions, like a soap sud over an open drain.   a few times he seems to touch the flame, but dances off unhurt.

then he ignites like a ball of hair, curling into an oily puff of fumes with a hiss.   the candle flame flickers and dims for a moment, then burns as bright as before,

moth smoke lingers.

i lift the candle and look around the mantelpiece for the moth’s body, but i can’t find it.

for a moment i think i smell burning flesh, and even though i tell myself it must be my imagination, i put the candle down feeling more than a little disgusted.

of course daru is the moth.   as is mumtaz.   and pakistan in it’s race to arm (at one point daru surprises his young cousin and friend at their computer, “what are you two doing?” “looking at naughty pictures?”   “but instead of naked women i see a jerkily expanding mushroom cloud, a burst of digital pastels.”).   to that list let’s also add a society focused on wide-screen TVs,  SUVs and religious fanaticism.

one last interesting fact.  the names of the three main characters — darashikoh shezad (daru), aurangzeb and mumtaz — are also the names of  the actors in a bloody historical drama.  the emperor shah jahan’s eldest and favored son, shahzada dara shikoh (often described by historians as luckless) was defeated and put to death by his brother, the future emperor aurangzeb.   their mother was mumtaz mahal, the wife for whom shah jahan built the taj mahal.

muhammad dara shikoh was a patron of the arts and a religious pluralist — a liberal muslim who rejected orthodoxy.  aurangzeb, who had his brother’s head delivered to their ailing, imprisoned father, was a conservative who imposed islamic law and destroyed the schools and temples of non-muslims.

moth smoke is a story of power and rivalry and jealously and corruption.  one in which characters use words like “love” when they really mean “obsession,” “addiction”  or “extremism.”