"Moth Smoke". It’s an evocative title. Impossible to read those two words without visions of wafting smoke rising before your eyes, of moths drawn to flames, and inevitably, of junkies hurtling along to their deaths.
So which of these is the author getting at? Short answer: All Three.
Moth Smoke is set in Lahore, Pakistan, just prior to the turn of the millennium. The heady days of the late nineties - the coming of the dot-com era to South Asia, the clash of the rural, feudal rich with the aspirational professional middle class, the competing nuclear sabre-rattling by two impoverished nations that should have known better - are brought forth with clarity and panache.
With a naming scheme that I’d have given my eyeteeth for, Hamid’s narrative follows a brief period in the lives of Darashikoh the unemployed educated bachelor, Aurangzeb the well-meaning but callous-as-only-the-rich-can-be lawyer and family man, Murad the M.A.-educated rickshaw-wallah and armed robber and Mumtaz, wife of Ozi, clandestine investigative journalist and adultress. Darashikoh (“Daru”) and Aurangzeb (“Ozi”) are childhood friends separated by the fact that Ozi’s father is a high-ranking civil servant with access to extensive illicit funds while Daru is the son of a dead-in-combat soldier with limited resources.
The book begins with Daru welcoming Ozi back from a long stay in New York, where the latter studied law and acquired a wife and son. Shortly after, Daru loses his job in a multinational bank.
What follows is the story of Daru’s descent into the world of drugs, deceit and adultery, as he goes from being the occasional smoker of a joint to a heroin addict, from being an angry banker to a delusional, psychopathic robber, from a slightly jealous friend to…but whether he’s a victim or a perpetrator is for the reader to decide.
Daru essentially becomes the proverbial moth, drawn to his own destruction, unable or unwilling to pull away in time. Without ever becoming downright evil, Daru’s transformation is alarming to us, his ability to rationalise his acts almost scary.
Another interesting aspect of Hamid’s writing is his ability to make all the main characters sympathetic. The use of brief ‘POV’ chapters from Murad, Ozi and Mumtaz is the main vehicle to accomplish this, of course, but even otherwise, a detached view of the story shows us that all four of them are only following one very possible, very likely path of the multiple destinies before them.
So what is Moth Smoke about? The classlessness of drugs? How dangerously easy it is to slide down the greasy pole? The dynamics of an extra-marital affair? A bit of all of these, and in a way that is not muddled or pretentious.
The prose is simple, the plot is kept front and center, and while there are few moments of breath-taking prose, the attention to detail keeps it authentic and rooted in reality. The narrative structure is a little overused these days but still very intelligently done and the plot twists are really well-hidden, coming out to hit the reader like a well-delivered punch. All in all, the book is definitely one of the most absorbing one’s I’ve read.
And finally, a thanks for the shout-out Hamid gives to Rudyard Kipling’s immortal Kim in the conversation about his manservant Manucci, who was ‘found by the Zam Zamah’.
Strongly recommend. Buy it here.