A few thoughts on Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West’

It’s been ten years since I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details about the book but I remember 2 things very vividly: frantically looking for missing pages at the end of the book and the book just really affecting me.

Cut to, being gifted Exit West, and I think of Mohsin Hamid fondly before I begin reading. And as soon as I start reading, pretty much from the first page, I’m instantly reminded of the kind of genius there is in Mohsin Hamid (and questioning why I haven’t read his other books?!). I’d basically forgotten the sheer joy of reading something (and someone) that seems so effortless but as you’re reading it, you also get the realisation of how it really isn’t that effortless and oh dear god, how in the world did he pick these words to flow one after the other so perfectly?!

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

I don’t want to give anything away about the plot except what’s already in the blurb: it’s a story about Saeed and Nadia, two people who are living in a world very much like ours, navigating and exploring relationships not just with each other but also with their sense of identity and place in the world, especially across the canvas of the refugee crisis.

Writing about migration in the light of what we’re all witnessing in the world right now, is something I don’t imagine to be easy. It could very easily be viewed as just another writer using just another trope to sell his work while everyone’s still talking about the subject. However, not once does it feel like you’re being pandered to while reading Exit West. Saeed and Nadia feel completely real (despite the fact that they come from a fictional country), and the narrative completely justified, needed even.

What’s brilliant about the book is what Hamid chooses to focus on — the situations refugees face immediately before and after migration, and not the journey. Using just the right amount of magic realism to keep the focus where it’s needed for the story is also where Hamid’s genius shines through. This allows him to explore his characters psyche better (instead of focusing on how difficult journeys are physically), which in my opinion is way more interesting.

Through Saeed and Naida, Hamid carefully lets the reader explore the idea of how we choose to value human life. He lets us question — without judgement — our stance on situations that we may or may not have direct control over. But most importantly, he introduces the reader to empathy. He is not creating heroes out of his protagonists, neither is he leading you to a particular opinion about them. He’s very graciously allowing you to spend some time with his characters, introducing them to you in bits and pieces — in the same way you would get to know a person in real life over time — all in a span of a little over 200 pages (which is another thing that seems quite impossible for a book that brings you so very much). And it is through this journey that you essentially take with the characters is how you end up empathising with (and relating to) both Saeed and Nadia and their ideas of family, friendship, religion, sex, and humanity.

What I love about Mohsin Hamid’s writing is the incredible control he has over his words and emotions on the pages. There is an experienced restraint, and yet a ridiculously beautiful, lyrical quality to his prose. It’s almost like he’s singing the words out to you and you won’t be able to stop listening, even when there’s a scene describing a bunch of kids on the street playing football with a severed human head.

Exit West is definitely one of those books that’s going to stay with me for a long time, and I’m sure one that I will revisit time and again, just to be able to meet Saeed and Nadia once more, and feel privileged that I don’t have to live their lives everyday, and that we must do something about those that have to.