A fictional account of the refugee crisis paints a better future (Book review)

Title: Exit West; Author Mohsin Hamid; Publisher: Penguin India; Pages: 228; Price: Rs 599

Migration has emerged as one of the most challenging of contemporary issues but this fictional tale — steeped in the past, present and the future — presents a different perspective to the much-contested subject that has come to rule international relations in the recent past.

Imagine a world where migration is the norm, a routine affair. With so many people migrating from one part to another, will it still be as disturbing an issue as it is today’ Perhaps no — both the locals of any given area and the immigrants may well come to terms with the fact that they share more in common with each other than the sum total of the differences that they fear.

The overwhelming novel opens “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war” and the readers are soon introduced to Saeed and Nadia, the two protagonists who rule these pages. Their courtship begins in a moment of impending threat, the readers have already been warned by the disturbing setting of migrations.

They meet in “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding”, and their first date is at a Chinese restaurant, all little elements signifying the larger goals of the world where migration is a norm. The scenes from Mosul or Aleppo come to haunt the readers as militants commit innumerable atrocities on a daily basis in their unnamed city.

Nadia is “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe” but her dress is not directly representative of her daring nature. It turns out she is more evocative and impulsive than Saeed. It is Nadia who initiates sex, offers marijuana and appears more forthright than her male counterpart. Mohsin Hamid has elegantly used the impulsive character of Nadia to fight, in his own way, what many in today’s times call Islamophobia. Her thoughts and character, the readers find out, are more important than the black robe that she adorns.

The immediate background of “Exit West” is the terrible refugee crisis in Syria as well as the horrors that terrorists have wrought in the name of Islam. The author takes full advantage of our familiarity with these elements and flaunts his literary devices — imageries, similes and hyperbole — to create the setting of his novel.

One astonishingly significant aspect of this novel is the level of detailing that the author dwells on. He creates powerful and often disturbing images of horror and trauma. In one instance, he mentions Nadia’s cousin, who is “blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm”. But he does not allow his readers to pity these deaths, for they are so many in number. The focus is always on the two central characters.

Straight out of C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the two flee from the disturbed city through unexplained magical doors. There may be many ways of looking at it, magic realism or fantasy, the most common ones, but at the core of it lies the very fact that those caught in a crisis like this will not leave any door unopened to escape!

The second half of the novel deals with the life of Saeed and Nadia in a new land after their escape. This is where Hamid reveals the final theme of his masterly novel. This promising land that Saeed and Nadia have escaped to is so accustomed to migration that “the whole planet was on the move, much of the global South headed to the global North, but also Southerners moving to other Southern places and Northerners moving to other Northern places”.

The new land may be a reference to a new future as such magical doors from fantasy novels often transport the readers to the future or to past. Hamid poignantly transports his readers to a world or time in the future where migration is peaceful and where people are open to accepting others. Between the lines, he reminds us that ultimately we have more in common with “others” than the sum total of our differences.

A wonderful future, isn’t it’

(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

By Saket Suman


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