Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London

by Mohsin Hamid


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From the bestselling author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Exit West, coming in March 2017, “a near-perfect essay collection, filled with insight, compassion, and intellect." (NPR)

In both his internationally bestselling fiction and his wide-ranging journalism, Mohsin Hamid has earned a reputation as a "master critic of the modern global condition" (Foreign Policy). A "water lily" who has called three countries on three continents his home (Pakistan, the birthplace to which he returned as a young father; the United States, where he spent his childhood and young adulthood; and Britain, where he married and became a citizen), he has achieved a truly panoramic perspective on the clash of forces - political, economic, religious, cultural - that have transfigured the face of contemporary life and shaken the old certainties about how to navigate it.
In Discontent and Its Civilizations, Hamid traces the fracture lines generated by a decade and a half of seismic change, from the "war on terror" to the struggles of individuals to maintain humanity in the rigid face of ideology, or the indifferent face of globalization. Whether he is discussing courtship rituals or pop culture, drones or the rhythms of daily life in an extended family compound, he transports us beyond the alarmist headlines of an anxious West and a volatile East and helps to bring a dazzling diverse world within emotional and intellectual reach.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594634031
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 562,656
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Mohsin Hamid is the author of the international bestsellers Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both finalists for the Man Booker Prize. His first novel, Moth Smoke, won the Betty Trask Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. His essays, a number of them collected as Discontent and Its Civilizations, have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.


London, U.K.

Date of Birth:


Place of Birth:

Lahore, Pakistan


A.B., Princeton University, 1993; J.D., Harvard Law School, 1997

Read an Excerpt

Art and the Other Pakistans
(The Ones That Don’t Make the Headlines)

Looking back, it’s obvious to me now that the Pakistan of my teens was bursting with art. I had a burly cousin who used to play (incongruously) with inks and watercolors in the afternoons when he got home from school. I had an aunt who was in the habit of telling over and over again the story of her random encounter with the famous artist Sadequain, an encounter that resulted in him executing what was surely his version of an autograph: a quick drawing depicting my aunt as a Nefertiti-necked goddess holding a flower above a line of calligraphy. I had seen the legendary painter Chughtai’s long-eyed ladies smiling out from drawing room walls, offering half-lidded innuendoes to easily flustered young men like me. And I had in the backdrop of my youth the Lahore Museum, the marvelous old city, the trucks and cinema billboards covered in bold, pelvis-thrusting iconography.

But at the time, art felt to me like something that belonged either to the past or to other places, because my teens were in the 1980s, and Pakistan in the 1980s had the misfortune of being governed by a mustachioed dictator with dark bags under his eyes and a fondness for dystopian social reengineering. General Zia-ul-Haq claimed to be acting in the name of Islam, and even though the history of Islam in our part of the world stretched back over a thousand years, we were told that our Islam wasn’t Islamic enough, indeed that we Muslims weren’t Muslim enough, and that he would make of our Pakistan the “land of the pure” that its name suggested—or ruin us all trying.

Under Zia, flogging, amputation, and stoning to death became statutory punishments. Acts disrespectful to symbols of Islam were criminalized. Public performances of dance by women were banned. News in Arabic, the language of the Koran but spoken by virtually no one in Pakistan, was given a prime-time slot on television. Thugs belonging to the student wings of religious parties seized control of many college campuses. Heroin and assault rifles flooded the streets, “blowback” from Pakistan’s alliance with the United States against the Soviets in Afghanistan. My parents reminisced about how much more liberal Lahore had been in their youth.

When General Zia was blown to bits shortly after my seventeenth birthday in 1988, he wasn’t mourned, at least not by anyone I knew. I left for college in the United States a year later. There I met people who were studying photography and sculpture, and I myself enrolled in classes on creative writing. Without thinking about it, I supposed an education in these “artistic” pursuits was something in which only affluent societies in the West could afford to invest, or, rather, that only the twin luxuries of material success and tolerance of free expression could provide the sort of soil in which an artistic education could thrive.

I was, of course, completely wrong. When I returned to Pakistan in 1993, I was working on what would become my first novel. I thought of writing as a transgressive act. I wrote at night, often from midnight to dawn, and in between writing sessions I would escape into the darkness with my friends. We drove around town in old Japanese cars, hung out on our rooftops, and searched for places beyond the reach of societal control or parental observation. Cheap local booze and even cheaper slabs of hash were the intoxicants of choice in that young urban scene, and avoiding the predations of the bribe-taking police was an alarming and amusing preoccupation.

Increasingly I found my wanderings taking me into the world of the National College of Arts. A couple of my friends were enrolled there, one studying architecture, another graphic design. Others were dating students: painters, printmakers. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Students of all social classes, and from all parts of Pakistan, attended NCA. The place was a microcosm of Pakistan, but of a creative Pakistan, an alternative to the desiccated Pakistan General Zia had tried to ram down our throats. Here people who prayed five times a day and people who escaped from their hostels late at night to disappear on sexual adventures in the city could coexist. In the studios I saw calligraphy and nudes, work by students with purely formal concerns, and by others for whom art overlapped with politics. I was inspired. I wrote like crazy. I made friends I have kept for life.

Love comes to mind when I think of that time. There was a lot of it going on among the people I hung out with. But I was also falling in love with Pakistan. I have always had a stubborn affection for the land of my birth. When I went abroad for college, I thought I knew it pretty well. But it was my encounters with the denizens of the NCA universe after my return that reminded me that Pakistan is too vast a country to be known, that it is full of surprises, of kinks and twists, of unexpected titillations and empathic connections, of a diversity that can only be described as human. It was exciting and vital and real.

Or rather, they were exciting and vital and real—for my Pakistan had become plural. The art, and artists, I found at NCA ushered me into many more Pakistans: the nascent underground music scenes, the emerging film and television scenes, the scenes of writers like myself, and of course the scenes of other art and other artists, not just in Lahore but in Karachi and Islamabad and elsewhere, and not just in 1993 but in the rest of the nineties, the noughties, and now.

Just a few months ago I was in Amsterdam with two old friends from the Lahore art world. On a warm summer night we checked out some galleries and walked along the canals, whirring bicycles and shrooming teenagers passing us in the darkness. Nothing could have been more different from where we had all been fifteen years earlier. And nothing could have been more similar, either.


Table of Contents

Introduction: My Foreign Correspondence 1

Life 13

1 Once Upon a Life 17

Art and the Other Pakistans 22

When Updike Saved Me from Morrison (and Myself) 27

In Concert, No Touching 30

2 International Relations 35

The Countdown 39

A Home for Water Lilies 41

3 Down the Tube 51

On Fatherhood 55

It Had to Be a Sign 58

4 Avatar in Lahore 65

Don't Angry Me 69

Personal and Political Intertwined 77

Art 81

5 Pereira Transforms 85

My Reluctant Fundamentalist 90

6 Rereading 97

Get Fit with Haruki Murakami 98

Enduring Love of the Second Person 102

7 Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be "Likable"? 109

Where Is the Great American Novel by a Woman? 112

How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience? 115

Are the New "Golden Age" TV Shows the New Novels? 118

Politics 121

8 The Usual Ally 125

Divided We Fall 127

After Sixty Years, Will Pakistan Be Reborn? 131

9 A Beginning 139

Fear and Silence 143

Feverish and Flooded, Pakistan Can Yet Thrive 146

10 Discontent and Its Civilizations 153

Uniting Pakistan's Minority and Majority 157

Osama bin Laden's Death 162

11 Why They Get Pakistan Wrong 169

12 Nationalism Should Retire at Sixty-Five 189

To Fight India, We Fought Ourselves 193

13 Why Drones Don't Help 201

14 Islam Is Not a Monolith 219

Acknowledgments 225

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Discontent and its Civilizations

"Smart doesn’t begin to describe Hamid; he is the sort of thinker that could change hearts and minds."—Booklist

“Honest and candid…Passion and hope infuse Hamid's most incisive dispatches.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[Discontent] give[s] a vivid sense of life lived close to the headlines…the recurring theme — that individuals matter more than the groups we try to assign them to — is as relevant as ever. And…the writing… is as simple, immediate and moving as any of Hamid’s fiction.” —Financial Times

"Electric."—The Guardian
“In contrast with the debased language of extremism, militarism and nationalism, [Hamid’s] is a humane and rational voice demanding a better future.” —Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Vivid touches…elevate Hamid’s intelligent… commentaries above the commonplace…Discontent suggests Mohsin Hamid is reasonable, intelligent….and humble. In short, just the sort of commentator the world could do with right now.” —The Independent (UK)

“Lucid, informative and drily funny, these essays show that Hamid is one of the most perceptive commentators on contemporary global politics”  The Sunday Times (UK)

“Elegantly crafted essays confront everything from the future of Pakistan and the death of Osama bin Laden to fatherhood and falling in love. The insights into Hamid’s literary style and influence will delight devotees of his work and intrigue newcomers…Hamid makes a compelling case for pushing back against the mono-identities of religion, nationality and race and for embracing the things that all human beings share” —The Prospect (UK)

“Accessible, wise and beautifully clear.”  —Metro (UK)

Praise for How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
“A showcase for its author’s audacious talents…both an affecting and highly specific tale of love and ambition, and a larger metaphorical look at the startling social and economic changes that are…changing the lives of millions.”
—Michiko Kakutani, “10 Favorite Books of 2013,” The New York Times
“Extraordinarily clever.” —The Washington Post
“Marvelous and moving.” —Time

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