Mohsin Hamid brackets his first novel, Moth Smoke, with the story of Aurengzeb, the brutal ruler of the Mughal Empire. On his deathbed, he regrets his life of cruelty and tells his sons not to follow his example. But it was too late; the sons had already inherited their father’s fighting spirit.
Against this ancient canvas, Hamid tells a story of modern Pakistan, rich with corruption, drugs, and privilege. Daru Shezad is a restless, bored banker who looses his job and spirals downward from there, sleeping with his best friend’s wife and wading ever deeper into criminal activities to support himself.
I knew the story would be dark when, early in the book, Daru drives the roads of Lahore on the way to visit a friend he’s not seen in a long time. He drives with his knee as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and fills it back up with hash. I could not forget years of seeing news coverage of car bombs exploding in Middle Eastern countries. Daru’s elaborate cigarette choreography was ominous. Didn’t he know he lived in a dangerous place?
The answer to that question is, not really. The title, Moth Smoke, comes from a game Daru makes up involving a moth, a flaming candle, and a tennis racket. Like the moth who can’t help but fly close to the flame, Daru cannot see his own reckless behavior. The game mirrors his accelerating downward spiral. Daru isn’t an admirable man, or even a likeable one, but he is disarmingly clueless as to his flaws. For instance, while he fiercely resents not quite ranking with the jet set, he sees nothing wrong with physically and verbally abusing his young house servant, refusing to pay his salary for weeks on end. Despite his modern lifestyle, he is still tied fast to the ancient tradition of class.
Hamid neither glorifies nor judges modern Pakistan and there’s no sentimentality for tradition. In Lahore, as in other cities of the world, people get jobs, lose jobs, go to parties, and fall in love, and betray friends. In Moth Smoke, though, it takes place in the shadow of Pakistan’s first nuclear test and you cannot forget that Pakistan is another character in this story.