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"A True Lahori"

Mohsin Hamid and the Problem of Place in Pakistani Fiction

Together, all his works show the novelist Mohsin Hamid trying to engage the uneasy dialectic between Pakistan as a place, as a lived experience, and Pakistan as a node in a larger global discourse. Mira Nair, who adapts Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist into film, reaches an aesthetic limitation in her representation of Lahore and replaces the possibilities in that urban space with an intense regionalism that revives culture outside of either colonialism, securitarianism, or the nation-state.

At the close of the final scene of Mira Nair’s 2012 film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a dedication appears on a black background to the director’s father: “A True Lahori.” Beyond serving as a reminder of the legacy of Partition, the phrasing of the dedication suggests that Nair was interested not only in adapting Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel by the same name, but in illuminating Lahore as a specific place with which she has a personal connection. What kind of para-text is this dedication, and how might we use it to understand the film as a whole? This paper argues that Nair’s invocation of a “true Lahori” at the end of her film pushes us to consider the complex role of place in her film and its relation to Hamid’s novel. Following the thread of place beyond these two texts, we start to see its relevance to Hamid’s oeuvre more generally, as it emerges to shape the new body of transnational literature emerging from postcolonial nations such as those of South Asia – a literature with a complex relation to specificity and place. Nair’s dedication and Hamid’s works illuminate the importance of considering how geographical specificity and aesthetics of locality function in contemporary transnational literature, when many of the regions formerly considered “postcolonial” are increasingly cast as sites in the unfolding of global capitalism and the global “war on terror.”

Jis Ne Lahore Nahin Dekha…

Mohsin Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke, is a novel of place. Set in 1998, the novel tells the story of Daru Shezad, an orphaned, middle-class youth who when fired from his bank job, gradually descends into drug addiction, listlessness, and crime. The novel is set in the period of the testing of nuclear weapons by India and subsequently by Pakistan – a setting that fuels the nihilism of its protagonist. But these events remain largely in the background. The novel’s entire idiom, instead, is specific to the experience of a generation of young elite and not-quite-elite Pakistanis, struggling to navigate life in Lahore: the influx of heroin into the city, the lure of emigration abroad, the symbolic battles between Pajeros and Suzukis on potholed streets, the cultural politics of air conditioning, and the impunity of the very wealthy. The novel locates these stories in specific places often mentioned by name, such as the Pak Tea House, a hub of leftist intellectual and artistic life, the elite Punjab Club, and Government College. These very local settings give a clue as to the novel’s intended audience: English-speaking Pakistanis at home and abroad. For this audience, these spaces are read with familiarity, and the novel makes little attempt to translate them for a non-Pakistani readership.

This investment in the specificity of Lahore is epitomised in a scene when Mumtaz, Daru’s love interest, picks him up late at night because she has an appointment in the old city, and she does not know her way around. The scene becomes an extended narration of the map of the city as Daru leads her into the center of town: “That’s Town Hall. Take a right here, on Lower Mall Road. That’s Government College to your right. Take a left. That’s Data Darbar. You should check it out sometime. This is Circular Road. See Badshahi Mosque? Minar-i-Pakistan’s behind it” (Hamid 2000:47). This passage revels in its description of the city – synthesising the outsider’s gaze with that of one who feels Lahore to be his home; as Daru later describes, “I lose my way, but this is Lahore, and by dawn I’m in my bed, the growing heat welcome as pure, reliable sensation” (ibid: 87). For an otherwise alienated character, the specificity of Lahore is one of his few consolations.

In contrast to this intense locality, Hamid takes an entirely different approach in his second novel, A Reluctant Fundamentalist. He began writing the book before September 11, 2001, but the events of that day and their impact on Pakistan compelled him to rethink the relationship between Pakistan and the world, and thus to re-conceive the localness of Moth Smoke.[1] Now, Pakistan is never just Pakistan, but is also a key node in the global “war on terror.”

A Reluctant Fundamentalist represents this duality through a disjuncture between its plot and its frame. The frame, in which the narrator is telling his life story to an unnamed American in a Lahore tea stall, is local, with an investment in the situatedness of Lahore that seems carried over from Moth Smoke. Here we see locations such as Old Anarkali, the Punjab Club, the National College of Arts and Mall Road. This locality, however, is a conceit that gestures towards the novel’s content, which is a story set in the diverse cities – Princeton, New Jersey; New York; Manila; Valparaiso – that comprise the global financial universe. The narrator suggests that his experiences in those places affect not only his return to Pakistan, but the very city of Lahore – how Lahore is itself shaped by global processes. In this sense, the Lahore of Moth Smoke is no longer a fixed location, but a place in progress, whose content is increasingly determined by outside forces.

The transition from Moth Smoke to The Reluctant Fundamentalist is thus a movement from the subjective experience of Lahore – its landmarks and its lived hardships – to an “objective” (in a Hegelian sense) understanding of the city, as a place to be acted upon rather than an actor in its own right. The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s Lahore becomes a place of ambiguity, calling into question global knowledge of Pakistan. By refusing to represent the narrator and his interlocutor in a conventional sense, and by emptying out the Lahore novel and filling in its center with the story of global finance and the war on terror, Hamid suggests that Pakistan as a place is under threat of being reduced to its representation in the language of security. The mystery and the ultimately indeterminate ending – by which it is never resolved whether the narrator is a terrorist and whether his interlocutor is a paid assassin – become the nodes on which this critique hinges. But the cost of this structure is the loss of Lahore itself, where the richly lived city of Moth Smoke becomes a bare, almost anonymous backdrop.

A True Lahore

Mira Nair’s film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist reinterprets the novel’s examination of place. Several critics have focused on the generic transformations Nair makes in her film, in which an ambivalent novelistic plot becomes a classic Hollywood spy thriller.[2] Indeed, by representing Changez’s interlocutor as a Central Investigative Agency (CIA) operative, Nair eliminates the essential ambiguity of the novel, transforming the sense of mystery into an all-too-recognisable standoff between trigger-happy CIA agents and potential terrorists thirsting for American blood. This has significant consequences for the film’s Lahore, which becomes a place of rampant violence, with protests, kidnappings and gun battles raging on the streets. The city is framed through classic Orientalist imagery, with swarthy, inscrutable men with kohl-rimmed eyes and scarves concealing all manner of weapons. Moreover, the film’s “Lahore” is actually Delhi – where Nair shot the film after failing to get insurance coverage for shooting in Pakistan.[3] On top of this, the specificity of place evident in the novel has been all but eliminated. The Pak Tea House where the conversation between Changez and Bobby takes place is a dark, dusty, maze-like lair with threatening figures hiding in the shadows: completely unlike the real location, which as represented in Moth Smoke was in fact a center of Lahore’s intellectual and cultural life.[4] Likewise, Nair represents Lahore’s university campuses – which only exist in a few brief pages of the novel – as places of further violence, where around every corner is a potential fundamentalist waiting to recruit new activists to the jihadi cause. In these powerful visuals, the film actively invents a Lahore where the novel deliberately leaves it ambiguous – but it is a Lahore not of reality, but of the Hollywood imagination.

Clearly, Nair was ambivalent about the role of place in the novel. As she said in an interview, “‘The bolt of inspiration [for the film] came from visiting Lahore for the first time in 2004…. It was a dazzling encounter. I was moved by the extraordinary creative expression there in poetry, film and theater. It was so different than the Pakistan one read about in the newspapers.’”[5] This comment seems to show a desire to engage with the specificity of Pakistan, to represent it outside of the global discourses of terror and security. Yet in the film, Nair replicates those very discourses, by representing Lahore as something other than the “true Lahore” of her father’s birth – as, first of all, Delhi; as devoid of a cultural history (where the historic Pak Tea House becomes a terrorist cell); and as overrun by the kind of random violence that effectively represents it as unlivable. Despite centering on a middle-class family, there are few representations of everyday life in Lahore – the kind that her father must have lived.

Representations of everyday spaces have the power to contest the geopolitical objectification of a city. One exceptional scene in the film is when Changez is driving with his sister through a set of army roadblocks in Lahore, days after the 2001 Parliament bombings in Delhi. The shot is mostly of the siblings’ conversation from inside the car, a perspective which empties the Army checkpoint of its geopolitical significance – i.e. imminent war with India. The car slows down, and then they are waved through; his sister comments on the fact that it is easier to get through these checkpoints as a woman, and Changez’s narration references the flexibility of Lahoris to moments of crisis. In its intimacy and its refusal to be over-determined by the specter or threat of war, the scene is reminiscent of Rhea and Aditi’s drives through Delhi in Nair’s earlier film Monsoon Wedding (2001), which also remarked upon the interactions between the inside and the outside of cars as central to the everyday life of the South Asian megacity. Here, we get a glimpse – albeit brief – of a Lahore not recycled through Hollywood stereotypes, but a real, lived, city.


It is not Lahore, but Nair does succeed in creating a new “place” in her film that is absent in the novel – that of Punjab. In Hamid’s novel, Punjab is only mentioned when Changez is on a business trip in Valparaiso, Chile, where he is to value a dying publishing house. By telling the publisher that “‘My father’s uncle was a poet… He was well-known in the Punjab’” (Hamid 2007:142), he seems to catch his attention; subsequently, the publisher analyses him in a way that changes his life forever.[6] Nair expands this moment significantly in the film by making Changez’s father, rather than a distant relative, the poet, and by situating this scene not in Chile, but in Turkey. In the film, Nair has the Turkish publisher actually find a copy of Changez’s father’s book: a collection of poets of the Punjab.[7] This phrase, “poets of the Punjab,” is striking, as presumably the poetry itself is written in Urdu and not Punjabi, thus raising the question of Punjabi identity as something that transcends language. This assertion of Punjabiyat – or Punjabiness – in Turkish translation proves a counter-formation to modernity as it is narrowly defined by the west, from its colonial forms to its new, neo-colonial expression in firms like Samson Underwood, which, as we see most clearly in this very scene, enacts brutal violence on alternative and pluralistic cultural milieux. Likewise, Punjabiyat contests the crystallised division between India and Pakistan by representing a region that crosses the national border. This interaction with the Turkish publisher is the moment of Changez’s self-realisation, which takes him to a mosque, where he goes not to pray but to literally see for himself the possibilities for art, culture and Islam to constitute a modern alternative to the hyper-capitalism of New York City. In all these ways, Punjabiyat contributes to a suggestive theory of place that incorporates the local, the regional, and the transnational.

Nair then links this Punjabiyat – a combination of Punjab as a regional space, as well as a national and Muslim-cosmopolitan space – to its counterpart in India through music and culture. In Monsoon Wedding, set among a Punjabi family in New Delhi, Punjabiyat is captured in the clothing, the language, the ethos of exuberance, and especially in the music. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair animates the distinctiveness of Punjabi regionalism with echoes of the cultural Punjabiness developed in the earlier film, both in the wedding scene (albeit much truncated from its Monsoon Wedding equivalent), and in the music, including the striking Punjabi song “Kaindey Ney.” This ethos is absent from the novel, which represents Lahore as synecdochal for Pakistan as a whole.

Where is Rising Asia?

Hamid’s most recent novel How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) takes his interest in Pakistan as a potentially empty signifier even further. The novel, although announcing from its title that it is set “in Rising Asia,” in fact has no discernible setting at all. It is structured as a faux self-help book and written in the second person, with each chapter title another step in the process of self-improvement: one: “Move to the City”; two: “Get an Education”; three: “Don’t Fall In Love” and so on. The narrator addresses the reader as if the latter is reading the book for the purposes of self help; but in fact the “you” is the novel’s unnamed protagonist, whose rise from rags to riches the novel traces. None of the characters are named; nor are the places. In interviews, Hamid has explained this decision by saying that “[t]he ingrained view is that South Asia is an ‘exotic place, a peculiar place and a central place - it is a colonial mindset.’” As his interviewer explains, “It could have been any place - why not Lahore or Lagos? The writer explains his narrative without specifics, comparing it to the Sufi ghazals that he grew up with. The songs invoking the nameless divine speaks to the listener or the exponent like the book that addresses the reader in a second-person narrative.”[8] Here, Hamid seems to put even further pressure on the idea of place, suggesting that specificity itself is a colonial construct and a postcolonial pathology, and that a deliberate placelessness might be its antidote.

Placeless-ness is something Hamid has experimented with elsewhere, most notably his 2011 short story, “Terminator: Attack of the Drones,” in which he describes the devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Pakistani frontier provinces using a Faulknerian language of the US South. Besides for the unconventional language, Pakistan itself is never mentioned; the only clues that the story takes place in Pakistan is the fact that the landscape is ravaged by predatory drones. The drones become the index of locality here, but in doing so demarcate locality as a function of a larger geopolitical project, in which Pakistan is the unwitting participant. Thus in Hamid’s story, placeless-ness is not a nod towards universality, or what one reviewer mistakenly calls “archetypal resonance,”[9] but a powerful statement on the diminishing significance of specificity in contexts such as the drone war.

We see a similar gesture in the new novel. For while it is set in “rising Asia,” that term is never given a more specific referent. It seems to refer to what a New York Times reviewer called “the mind-boggling social and economic changes sweeping” the continent.[10] During a recent trip to Japan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the term in a speech to the Japan-India Association, when he said that “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia.”[11] In these examples, “rising Asia” is not a place, but a discursive construction, a figment of the global imagination, and a space of desire for those who triumphantly inhabit it. This setting is reminiscent of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger, whose protagonist is writing a series of letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier. Although asserting that “the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man” (Adiga 2008:3-4), Adiga’s protagonist quickly admits to the Premier that “Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English” (page Adiga 2008:1). The satire here suggests that “rising Asia” is not a fact but a concept with no legible content; it literally cannot be expressed. In Hamid’s novel as well, the juxtaposition of his fictional geography with the refusal to name any specific national settings produces a unique meditation on the problematic of place not only in South Asia, but in the contemporary transnational novel at large.           


Hamid is part of a trend in postcolonial writing toward the reconsideration of place in the context of new transnational paradigms, emerging from the globalization of capital, and the new experiences for the postcolonial elite that have accompanied it. If, as Nirvana Tanoukhi (2008:600)  argues, “[t]he postcolonial novel… [is] perhaps one of the most geographically constituted objects of literary history”, then the post-postcolonial novel is one where cultural or geographical specificity is no longer as important; it is one whose place has been almost entirely constituted by global logics which overwrite the aesthetics of locality that Tanoukhi identifies as the postcolonial novel’s defining feature.

South Asia has an important place in these new transnational paradigms. But unlike in traditional postcolonial studies, in which India was largely metonymic for South Asia at large, the various nations of today’s South Asia have distinct roles within this new “translit” episteme. India is still important, central to discourses of economic super-powerdom (as satirised in The White Tiger) and the war on terror, and increasingly visible in global banking scandals (Prashad 2012:100). The death of more than 1000 garment factory workers in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building on April 24, 2013 in greater Dhaka brought to the world’s attention the importance of Bangladesh as the site where the human cost of global outsourcing is brutally exposed, and where the effects of the shutting down of unions and the lack of corporate accountability that are inevitable results of global capitalism can no longer be rendered invisible.

Pakistan too has its own unique experience, as both an ally of the United States in the war on terror but also a site of increasing civil strife because of that alliance. As Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and “Terminator” show, global discourse around Pakistan has become so powerful that it has all but taken over representations of that nation, making it almost impossible to represent Pakistan outside of it. Novels such as Mohammad Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or ethnography such as Naveeda Khan’s Muslim Becoming are the rare recent texts that take pains to refuse incorporation into a larger narrative of geopolitics and security, but these are, for the most part, exceptions.[13] Such texts give space to fleeting moments such as the siblings’ car ride in Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which refuse to be fitted into the geopolitical narrative in which Pakistan is nothing more than a haven for “fundamentalism.” They carve out a space for the experiences of everydayness in Pakistan, which gain an enlarged significance in today’s post-2001 global landscape.

Hamid’s post-Moth Smoke works, by contrast, do not seek to evade this global discourse but to probe and explore its contours, by experimenting with intelligibility, translation, and a lack of specificity as an aesthetics that might enable a dismantling of the epistemic boundaries established by the events of the 2001, the United States’ response, and the perceived cultural clash that followed. In his novels of placeless-ness, Hamid suggests that the very possibility of cultural distinctiveness or locality has been disabled in advance, so that not only is Pakistan not collapsible with “terrorism,” but Pakistan might not be completely “Pakistan” to begin with. While his non-fictional writings – his editorials in The Guardian, his Twitter feed and his speeches at talks and book signings – take on the task of translating Pakistan to the west,[14] his novels suggest that at times, the liberal task of translation might not be enough. Together, all his works show Hamid trying to engage the uneasy dialectic between Pakistan as a place, as a lived experience, and Pakistan as a node in a larger global discourse. Nair, reaching an aesthetic limitation in her representation of Lahore, replaces the possibilities in that urban space with an intense regionalism that revives culture outside of either colonialism, securitarianism, or the nation-state; that is her contribution to this question. Insofar as all of Hamid’s works engage in a reflection on precisely the problem of place in representing Pakistan, Nair’s film is entirely continuous with his works, even as most of her Pakistan looks very different from anything experienced on the ground.


Adiga, Aravind (2008), The White Tiger. New York: Free Press,.

Hamid, Mohsin. How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. New York: Riverhead.

Hamid, Mohsin (2000), Moth Smoke. London: Granta.

Hamid, Mohsin (2007), The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Orlando: Harcourt.

Prashad, Vijay (2012), Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today. New York: New Press.

Reluctant Fundamentalist. Dir. Mira Nair. 2012. Cine Mosaic.

Tanoukhi, Nirvana (2008), “The Scale of World Literature.” New Literary History 39: 599-617.

[1] Hamid discusses the relationship of The Reluctant Fundamentalist to the events of September 11, 2001 in the piece “My Reluctant Fundamentalist.”, accessed May 30, 2013.

[6] The Chilean publisher compares Changez to the janissaries, “‘Christian boys,’ he explained, ‘captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to… The janissaries were always taken in childhood. It would have been far more difficult to devote themselves to their adopted empire, you see, if they had memories they could not forget’” (Hamid 2007:151).

[7] This scene exists in the novel too (Hamid 2007:145-6), but it is much less drawn out and seems to have less significance than it does in the film.

[12] The term comes from a New York Times review of Hari Kunzru’s 2013 novel Gods Without Men., accessed May 20, 2013. Thank you to Michaela Henry for alerting me to this review.

[13] As Mohammad Hanif has said, “‘If you’ve grown up in Pakistan, to sit down and write something that’s not political is almost impossible… I’m sure that the headlines make people curious about Pakistan but when they read these stories, I hope it’s done on their own merit.’”, accessed May 22, 2013.

[14] For instance in his recent article for The Guardian: “Islam is not a monolith.”, accessed May 31, 2013.

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