“But I’m finding I can live with myself, which shocks me more than anything.
Maybe I am a monster, after all.”
Across the street from Lahore’s famous Hafiz Juice Spot sits a run down “bookstall”, trading and selling used books. Reasonably distant to the Pak Tea House; its business location can seriously be questioned considering the literate lackluster of the location. Fast paced businesses surround the closet sized store leaving to wonder who would stop by for even a quick glance?
Fortunately, my brief visit to Lahore left me with several hours to spare on Lahore’s historically drenched Mall Road and I found myself sipping away at an ice cold Chaunsa Mango Shake. My brief skim through Lahore’s literary history that prequel-ed my Punjab trip had me visualizing the mecca of art and knowledge known as the Pak Tea House. Unaware of Lahore’s geography, I was delighted to find it on my Mall Road stroll. I’m not a tea or coffee drinker. I prefer my drinks cold and protein oriented and so I decided to settle for a piece of banana cake and water.
There are places you come across to in life where you find yourself wishing to liquefy the vicinity of your setting and store it forever. Such is the vibe at the Pak Tea House, even with its rather modern renovations. Pictures of Pakistani literary greats line-up along the wall and a writer’s block would be hard to come across even for someone constantly (and wrongly, if I may add), labeled with ADD, like myself.
In my struggle to capture this common but uncommon Lahori landmark, I realized I had failed to bring my tablet or even a piece of paper. Therefore, when I retreated to read, besides a politically ravaged newspaper — that frankly did not do justice to the setting it was placed in — I had nothing to feast upon.
I asked my attendant to save my place, realizing his sarcastic smile had sprouted considering there was no one but myself at the “cafe”. Remembering the run down store that “seemed” to be selling books, I left in search for it. Passing high-end banks and family businesses that had stood the test of British, Indian, and now Pakistani times, I ended up at the store.
His lips were as red as Monroe’s lipstick and the books stacked around him were as organized, collected, and “clean” as his stained shirt. It did not take a genius to conclude to his paan addiction. The judgmental bit in me had already decided that this man knew nothing about the literature he was selling. After watching me browse for a minute or so, the man asked me in a Punjabi drenched Urdu what I was looking for. Smiling back I asked him how he knew I was from Karachi; his reply a brag about how he had worked at this spot for two decades now. Ignoring his question about what books I wanted, I recalled a list of Pakistani literature a friend had drawn up and started looking for one of them. After a quick browse, the man asked me again what I was looking for. I gave in, asking him if he had any of Mohsin Hamid’s books? He smiled the smile that I had smiled at him when he had asked first, and brought a stack of books by the author. One after the other, he picked them up, explaining each one, defining his favorites, grunting at the average, lighting up for the spectacular. By now I was dumbfounded. The judgmental nature of mankind had found me far out of my crease, and I was stumped. This man knew his books, especially his Pakistani books, far better than I may ever will. In his awe, I decided to pick up his favorite Moth Smoke for a mere 100 Pakistani Rupees.
I only read the first five pages of the book at the Tea House, but I could tell it was something special. When I’ll look back at this book further down the road, it may just be ordinary, but the capitulation of my personal life assisted with the stagnancy of my professional world made Daru Shehzad’s story special.
Recently, I had been gradually been losing hope in humanity and more so myself; and as a human being, it feels nice to be fed the food that justifies your negligence towards society. This fiction was my cheesecake. There were no heroes. Everyone was an asshole. It was perfect.
Daru can’t keep it in his pants, so he’s a bad person? Mumtaz, lustrously beautiful, despises being a mother, so she’s a bad person? Ozi is a corrupt murderer, so he obviously is, a bad person?
All of us are bad people. Every single one of you. And me. A lot of religious fanatics right now are probably smirking away thinking they’re not, or a bunch of folks working for a charity will think that all they do is work for the betterment for the world, how could they be “bad”, or maybe ex-vice president Al Gore will consider his single handed fight against climate deterioration enough reason to be labeled a “good” person. No. You’re not.
By now you’re thinking, how has this turned into a pleasantly inspiring afternoon in Lahore to a sadistic rant by a satanic conformist. Wrong again.
Moth Smoke is a desperate ray of sunlight reflected onto society’s obsession with negativity. Daru saves a child. Mumtaz sacrifices her dream for her husband. Even Ozi is ready to change for the love of his life. We don’t see that. We conclude at their negatives, just like society will conclude at ours. There are presets in societies. This is right, you are wrong. If you’re not part of the mold, you’re a bad person.
You know what’s amazing? There is no perfect mold.
I’m not advocating disloyal sex, murder, drugs, and all that good stuff. What I am advocating is imperfection. That is what Mr. Hamid gives me with Moth Smoke. The incredible tenacity of imperfection.
We all have something from our past, in our present, and maybe even in our future, that if seen through the nakedness of Moth Smoke, would be shunned traumatically by society. So traumatically that it would leave us dysfunctional as human beings; maybe even physically kill us.
Remember when you sit up in your high seats with your ears perked up ready for the next piece of mouthwatering human negativity, that you too have the an Achilles’ heel. You too have insecurities that will keep you up at night. I know for a fact that I have many. Decisions that will forever haunt me.
The way Mohsin Hamid perpetrates the metaphorical expansion of the story of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb is incredible even to the non-historian type. Aurangzeb’s baseless claims on Dara Shikoh’s blasphemy have repercussions that send shock waves across the Mughal Empire. Just as Ozi’s claims rock Lahore’s media, even at a time where nuclear war is expected to implode. The writing is not annoyingly complex or statically simplistic. Like Dove’s real beauty ad campaign a few years ago, it is a fiction that exemplfiies realities. It is a “nude” of human nature in its most extreme form, and as are many audacious works of art, it is beautiful, but not for the likes that will scamper for fictitous perfection.