Mohsin Hamid’s secret doors
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, is topical and prescient. It fearlessly explores the burning social and political issues of our times and the individual’s struggle for fulfillment, space, and self against the odds.
The Lahore-based, bestselling author’s latest book revolves around a young couple from a nameless and increasingly conflict-ravaged city and focuses on the hostility and xenophobia that confronts refugees going west. The novel begins with the first meeting between Nadia and Saeed at “an evening class on corporate identity and corporate branding,” in their home city “teetering at the edge of abyss.” Saeed notices that Nadia has “a beauty mark on her neck, a tiny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse.” He imagines she is religious, because she is always clad in a long flowing black robe. But he is disabused of this notion on his first attempt to converse with her. She then walks across to the parking lot, straddles a motorbike, and drives off—wearing a black helmet, not a headscarf.
Hamid subverts gender roles through his portrayal of a strong-willed independent and assertive Nadia. She has taken the unconventional step in her city of defying her family to live on her own, in a studio flat, and works at an insurance agency. The black robe offers her talismanic protection from unwanted male attention. Meanwhile, Saeed, who works in advertising, lives with his elderly parents—both erstwhile educators—in a small flat in a Colonial building in what was once an up-market district that has become a crowded, commercial area. The cinemas and bookshops that his parents had once frequented have been turned into arcades for electronics. At night, the stars are often obscured by pollution, and sometimes they can hear the sound of automatic gunfire. The city has many resonances with urban Pakistan.
Throughout the novel, Hamid’s judicious use of a familiar location, landmark or incident makes the dystopian futuristic world that Nadia and Saeed inhabit all the more terrifying. The quietness with which Hamid builds up to the eventual derailment and brutalization of their city is devastating. Nadia and Saeed’s lives are overtaken by economic disaster and civil war. Militants launch an assault on the stock exchange and soon take over entire localities. Curfew is imposed. Soldiers, tanks, and armed vehicles patrol the streets. Internet and phone services are suspended. Food becomes exorbitant. The commercial institutions where Nadia and Saeed work are closed. Saeed’s mother is killed. Nadia is no longer safe on her own and moves in with Saeed and his father. Bombs and missiles rain down. Drones and flying robots crowd the sky.
In Nadia and Saeed’s city and others across the globe, there exist secret doors, leading to other lands, including the prosperous countries of the West. Their story is interspersed with brief tales of other migrants who enter and exit through these doors—incidents which illuminate and impel the larger narrative. In Perth, a dark, unknown man slips in through the cupboard door into the room of a pale, white sleeping woman and disappears through the window. In Tokyo, a man sees two Filipino girls suddenly appear in an empty cul-de-sac. In California, an elderly naval man and the police outside his home are not sure whether “the people coming through” are Mexicans or Muslims. In Vienna, militants from Nadia and Saeed’s homeland are responsible for a great massacre, which results in a violent mob attacking hapless, innocent immigrants. But there are happier incidents, too, like the one leading to friendship between a man in Holland and an immigrant from Brazil.
These characters and incidents are unknown to Nadia and Saeed. Threaded through the narrative, they make a symbolic, universal comment on migration: the unfamiliarity of a new land; the encounter with unfriendly strangers; the loss of homeland, loved ones and all that is familiar. Nadia and Saeed’s resolve to leave their battered, destroyed city comes halfway through the book and they endure many tensions and difficulties as they fall victim to an exploitive agent, who finally lets them through a secret door. Exit West describes the transition from homeland to a future land as a “passage [which] was both like dying and like being born.” Nadia and Saeed find themselves on a sandy beach but are rudely shooed away by “a pale skinned man.” Nearby they reach a refugee camp with hundreds of tents and “people of many colors and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown.” They learn they are on Mykonos, where they face additional indignities, including police violence, theft, discrimination, and near-starvation.
Finally, they enter another secret door and find themselves in a palatial bedroom in London, a city where the white buildings opposite them were “perfectly painted and maintained” and nearby were cherry trees “with buds and a few white blossoms.” The house, however, is one of many large vacant homes belonging to the rich; it is soon full of squatters, refugees from different countries—Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Thailand. Riot police try to drive them out. They are attacked by hate-filled, pale-skinned mobs. The outbreak of anti-migrant riots leads to a television discourse to “reclaim Britain for Britain.” The city is soon divided into “dark” and “light” zones—the former deprived of electricity, public services, and watched over by drones; the latter a brightly lit, well-cared-for and bustling urban hub.
Hamid’s spare, tight prose is filled with rich imagery and vivid detail. He captures with great skill the shifting nuances in the relationship between Nadia and Saeed and their responses as a couple and as individuals to each new challenge. Nadia starts to adjust to and make friends with fellow migrants from different countries. Saeed develops a longing for his homeland and to be with his countrymen. She points out that the people he frequents are very different to those he knew in their country and who hold more radical views. The novel makes a telling comment on both the process of migration and indeed the passage of time. Nadia and Saeed are no longer the people they used to be. Their tale of penury, loss, adjustment, and self-discovery takes them onward from a bleak exploitive “worker camp” in London to another door and another city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, close to San Francisco.
This is an extraordinary novel, a lucid and imaginative work which reinforces Hamid’s reputation as an innovative writer. Exit West says much about the world in which we live and warns of the possibility of greater danger ahead. It is also a reminder that the history of humankind is essentially a tale of migration: people have traversed continents in quest of adventure or a better life or, more often than not, as a matter of survival. War, conflict, greed, exploitation, and social inequality are central to this trajectory. This is a novel of its times. It creates doorways of empathy and understanding in an age of promised gilded walls.
Shamsie is a writer, critic, literary journalist, and editor whose latest book, Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English, has been published by Oxford University Press Pakistan. She lives in Karachi.
From our April 22 – 29, 2017, issue