“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
Somewhere amidst the clouds that spread like cotton in blue skies, un-bothered by the borders of different countries, and some 30, 000 ft above land, I started reading Exit West inside the uncomfortable metal box called an airplane.
I believe that books have a peculiar way of coming into our lives, call it their lovable quiddity, if you please. Some books we choose to read, and some books that choose us to be read by. Perhaps Exit West fell into the second category, because as I drudged through the most mind-numbing eight-hour layover at Newark airport three months ago, I stepped into the rather expensive outlet of Hudson Books to get myself a book to read.
Remember those days before college when you felt like the greatest champion for humanity after scoring a rather admirable score in your SATs or high school finals, and then the world thwarts you into the university, and you feel like you are just another brick in the wall? Well, that was me. Here in my country India, I am considered quiet the avid reader, or so I am often told. But there, standing among the rows of bookshelves at Hudson Books, and realizing that I knew exactly ten percent of the books there, a meager two percent of which I had personally read, I realized I am a miserable Alice lost in a Wonderland that she definitely did not anticipate.
So I found this book, this beautiful blue hardcover with the most seamless spine and I ran a finger across it. I turned to the cover, and sifting through the pages, I realized it was written by Mohsin Hamid, a writer I had serendipitously come across two years back, after reading Moth Smoke. Resigned, I took my exhausted self to the billing counter and paid a whopping $25 (believe me, that is a fortune in the Indian currency, especially for the forever penniless bibliophile that I am, as I shamelessly satiate my reading pangs with free PDFs and weathered old books found in quaint bookshops) and settled with it on one of the many seats at the bustling airport after my security check.
The whole imagery that I gave before I begin this review, it is relevant because after some 20 or 30 pages, the surrounding world squeezed itself into an atom, the white noise cut itself out, and all I could do was trace the footsteps of the star-crossed lovers in the book, the fiery Nadia and the restrained Saeed, as they trudged through their lives across an unnamed city.
In some 240 pages or so, Hamid spins a tale that encompasses journeys across the globe, only with the bittersweet craving for belonging. Artfully weaving in the most subtle imagery of magical realism, with mysterious dark portals and the act of reaching foreign lands in only a moment’s notice, Hamid persuades you to feel, rather than “think”, the latter of which is often associated to most Man Booker nominees.
He tears apart convoluted subjects such as illegal migration, refugee crisis, the sense of loss and disconnect that hits the victims in full force post-migration, and explains them in the voice of two opposing yet simple voices, one of the fiercely independent Nadia and the other with the controlled and more and more religious Saeed. He quantifies the bigger images on a screen through a lens, distilling the excess out of his narrative and singularly concentrates on a plot motif that is driven by emotions alone.
The book takes you from families, from friends, from conditioned identities, and throws you into the foray of unknown countries and strangers, only to incite the longing that sensitizes you to the acute melancholy of unfamiliarity. Smoothing the edges with beautiful descriptions of Mykonos and London, Hamid enraptures you with the visuals of countries that you often visit in your dreams, countries which are far off in reality with their invisible borders.
But the uniqueness in Hamid’s voice lies in the fact that he successfully draws a caricature of the characters as they grow, metamorphose, and embrace their new identities wholly, instead of only concentrating on the lingering love in between. Nadia and Saeed are two complete beings, real and tangible, in spite of their torrid love affair and their bittersweet connection, and as you sift through the pages of the book, they familiarize with you, as if breaking a fourth wall in between the reader and the character, and somehow become your friends, instead of the strangers they begun as.
Exit West, in spite of its rather enormous grand narrative, is a singular ballad of melancholia, something that seduces you with its undulating rhythm, leaving only the softest hums of nostalgia behind. And flying some thousand feet above man-made borders, the world appearing only as a speck of brown and green in a heart of ocean blue below, I realized that perhaps belonging is not the end of a story, but only the beginning of embracing something far greater instead. Maybe that is what the author wants you to know, even if you are too scared to believe just yet. And perhaps time will show you that secret, someday, underneath the stars in Chile.