The Reluctant Fundamentalist was my doorway to Mohsin Hamid’s world- where prose is usually long, grappling and accommodating numerous ideas, and yet, lyrical. Hamid’s style of writing is the perfect ingredient to induce the most polarising responses. His long, winding sentences possess the quality to either seduce or off-put the reader, and sometimes, both. While Exit West didn’t put me off, there were a few occasions where I wished Hamid had used fewer commas and more periods. But a distinctive feature of his novels is his uncompromising writing- even the most dramatic interludes are penned with spare, reporter-like precision, in words, or the lack of them.
Exit West encapsulates the current state of global migrant crisis to show how migrants, after all, are humans fleeing unlivable, strife-torn lands. It does so by giving us, two protagonists- the restrained Saeed and the independent, vivacious Nadia. They are the only named characters. Others run namelessly in the book. The ploy works, especially because, while the reader is trying to comprehend the layered narrative, he is eased up for not having to tackle with remembering a dozen names.
The chief migrants in Exit West, Saeed and Nadia, start off ‘in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war’. These lines offer a glimpse of what pages ahead are hiding from us, and almost immediately the tone is set. The city is never named, and rightly so, as war can spark up in any country. It reminds me, which country, after all, is at complete peace today? In the initial leg of the book, which establishes the protagonists, and their tender, tentative endeavors of love, readers are fed respite- loads of it- as even in trying circumstances like these, we find, then connect and subsequently savor the charm of the pair.
“and Saeed said ‘It feels natural to have you here.’
For me too’, Nadia replied, resting her head on his shoulder.
‘The end of the world can be cozy at times.’
She laughed.’Yes. Like a cave.’ “
Only so that later we digest the enormous chains of strain that creep into their relationship, as they flee from their home-city to another city, and then to another.
Hamid evokes emotions through a suppressed style of writing in depicting scenes of violence. He writes about how war has irrevocably gripped the city in its clutches, the suppressed fear people are harboring in the back of their heads, and sometimes, unwittingly right on their faces, and meanwhile, how life is adapting to this new life.
‘Funerals were smaller and more rushed affairs in those days, because of the fighting. Some families had no choice but to bury their dead in a courtyard or at the sheltered margin of a road, it being impossible to reach a proper graveyard, and so impromptu burial grounds grew up, one extinguished body attracting others, in much the same way that the arrival of one squatter in a disused patch of government land can give rise to an entire slum.‘
Hamid has a queer fascination for windows and doors. He describes windows in people’s houses as a ‘border through which death was possibly most likely to come‘, alluding to the shells that landed on windows without a warning. Doors serve an even more interesting role- they are magical doors, ‘that could take you anywhere‘. Hamid employs door as an element of magical realism, only to circumvent the arduous journey of migrants from one city to another, so that the psychological and emotional dimensions sticking to the migrant for a lifetime can be explored in depth, unlike the painstaking, furtive travel which is physically tumultuous.
Hamid explores the vagaries of love, as much as its consistently cyclic nature, of caring and protecting. As the couple tries to escape the chaos, they give birth to a chaos between them that lurks still and silent, but that deeply unsettles their natural comfort.
‘Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.‘
‘Every time a couple moves, they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us. So it was with Saeed and Nadia, who found themselves changed in each other’s eyes in this new place.‘
They at first escape to Mykonos in Greece, then London, and finally, Marin near San Fransisco. In all this, they find fellow companions, migrants from different nationalities, all breathing one feeling of perpetual escape. Towards the end of the book, Hamid writes that they begin ‘slipping away from each other, as people all over the world are slipping from where they had been‘. He points out to a future where everybody is a migrant, and the identity of nationality and home is well challenged.
As the two grow apart, it becomes harder for them to even share the same space. What was once beautiful, haunts them now. It, they, their small world- all begin to wither away. And yet, in all this, they find a closeness, of understanding, that comes with the powerful legs of time.
‘for the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us the value of things‘
Exit West is a timely novel throwing light on the global migrant crisis, terrorism, militant-ism, the cause of the need that nations inevitably feel to build walls, or send back refugees, and wisely remarks how the western, prosperous countries, in fact, no country for that matter, can escape the human turmoil, unscathed.
‘When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.‘
While I will definitely remember Hamid’s Exit West for its hauntingly beautiful prose, I would say, the long sentences, like some of the above, might not appeal to everybody’s intellect.
In the end, we are all migrants through time.