Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

In Lahore, Daru Shezad is a junior banker with a hashish habit. When his old friend Ozi moves back to Pakistan, Daru wants to be happy for him. Ozi has everything: a beautiful wife and child, an expensive foreign education – and a corrupt father who bankrolls his lavish lifestyle.

As jealousy sets in, Daru’s life slowly unravels. He loses his job. Starts lacing his joints with heroin. Becomes involved with a criminally-minded rickshaw driver. And falls in love with Ozi’s lonely wife.

 But how low can Daru sink? Is he guilty of the crime he finds himself on trial for?

I have an interest in literature written in an Asian or middle-eastern set up so the choice to read Moth Smoke wasn’t a hard one at all. In one line this book can be described to be about sex, drugs, and class conflict in 1990s urban Pakistan. It urges the reader to judge the trial of an ex-banker and heroin addict who has fallen for his best friend’s wife. The book highlights one key transition affecting the life of a warm hearted banker. The first cause is the personal financial crisis he goes through after losing his job. Second cause is the society. It is interesting to see the role society plays in making him a darker person.

After Ozi and his family return from New York, Daru has his old friend back and he thoroughly enjoys their company. He finds Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife very intriguing in her ways of being and her open-mindedness. Mumtaz is a very non-conventional asian woman. She doesn’t feel affection towards her son and doesn’t appreciate her husbands inherited surreptitious fortune. Because of these reasons her married life is going through its lows for a couple of years now. She is an anonymous journalist and covers controversial stories and this is where she gets the excitement and enthusiasm in her otherwise boring and lonely life.

Slowly, joblessness makes Daru ‘try’ hash and soon becomes an addict and a seller too. During this phase, it is very clear to see his life falling apart. Daru and Mumtaz find a lot in common and indulge in intoxication and bantering. Slowly these meetings blossom into a full fledged affair.

Another harsh reality that dawns upon reading this book is the huge rift in lifestyle for people belonging to different classes in society. Daru despite being a better student and more hard-working has a much harder life and cannot take anything for granted. On the contrary, Ozi has a dont care attitude has the best cars, alcohol and mansion in town without having made any effort to achieve or deserve it.

What I find most fascinating in this book is the way in which Hamid forces the readers to rethink about the three central characters. Daru starts off as being the likeable guy who unfortunately loses his job, who was a good student in school, misses his mother, happy about his friends, doesn’t like too many favours from his family/friends and a friendly character overall. His character progressively becomes darker. This is shown by his hatred for his friend Ozi because of his financial situation, his betrayal to his ‘best friend’s wife.

Ozi starts off as being the spoilt New York returned guy who cannot manage without air conditioners. Slowly, Hamid brings out other characteristics like being a good father, a faithful and loving husband very strongly. Taking a look at the third central character Mumtaz, the initial description of an asian married woman with a young child makes her sound rather normal but her nature is far from that. She loves her privacy, loves adventure, enjoys alcohol, indulges in an extra-marital affair and does anonymous magazine articles about most controversial issues that society normally shuns away from. In the end, it makes it extremely hard for the reader to make any judgements about any of the protagonists.

However there is a downside to the book. The analogy that Hamid tried to portray between Shah Jahaan’s sons and the characters of the book failed quite badly. I don’t know if it was just me but I was slightly lost and disinterested during that phase but I am glad I dint give up on the book.

Overall verdict: 4/5


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