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Moth Smoke: A Novel

Moth Smoke: A Novel

4.5 17
by Hamid

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When Daru Shezad is fired from his banking job in Lahore, he begins a decline that plummets the length of this sharply drawn, subversive tale. Before long, he can't pay his bills, and he loses his toehold among Pakistan's cell-phone-toting elite. Daru descends into drugs and dissolution, and, for good measure, he falls in love with the wife of his childhood friend and


When Daru Shezad is fired from his banking job in Lahore, he begins a decline that plummets the length of this sharply drawn, subversive tale. Before long, he can't pay his bills, and he loses his toehold among Pakistan's cell-phone-toting elite. Daru descends into drugs and dissolution, and, for good measure, he falls in love with the wife of his childhood friend and rival, Ozi—the beautiful, restless Mumtaz.

Desperate to reverse his fortunes, Daru embarks on a career in crime, taking as his partner Murad Badshah, the notorious rickshaw driver, populist, and pirate. When a long-planned heist goes awry, Daru finds himself on trial for a murder he may or may not have committed. The uncertainty of his fate mirrors that of Pakistan itself, hyped on the prospect of becoming a nuclear player even as corruption drains its political will.

Fast-paced and unexpected, Moth Smoke portrays a contemporary Pakistan as far more vivid and disturbing than the exoticized images of South Asia familiar to most of the West. This debut novel establishes Mohsin Hamid as a writer of substance and imagination.

Editorial Reviews

Sudip Bose

Indian writers of English prose are hot commodities these days, having plunged onto the Western literary scene like elephants into a placid pond. In India, the frenzy has caused a writing boom, inspired, perhaps, by the financial success of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. But what about literary Pakistan? Fewer writers have emerged from there, and those who have are often overshadowed by, or lumped together with, their Indian counterparts. Though their voices are distinct, many Pakistani and Indian writers do share a concern for the defining moment in their nations' histories: the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Mohsin Hamid's bold and ironic first novel is set long after that seminal event, but in its evocation of the anxieties of modern Pakistani life, the legacies of Partition are everywhere apparent.

Moth Smoke is set in the summer of 1998, when Pakistan detonated its first nuclear weapons in an escalating test-for-test with India. Like the atoms that must be split for a fission bomb to explode, modern-day Lahore is itself divided: between old and new, rich and poor, conservative and liberal. Lost amid this fractured society is Daru, a young man fired from his job as a banker, whose two great passions are hash and his best friend Ozi's wife, Mumtaz. Daru, an intellectual wastrel, has a kind of underworld existence; unable to afford electricity or air conditioning, he lives alone in sweltering darkness. Ozi and Mumtaz, in contrast, run with Lahore's urban hip, the sushi-and-mobile-phone crowd.

We are told early on that Daru has killed a boy. But did he really do it? The discovery of the truth leads us along Daru's downward flight from stability to desperation, from salaried banker to low-life addict. Daru is wracked by devastating hunger, for food and drugs as well as for the radiant Mumtaz. (Think Knut Hamsun writing Pakistani noir.) When Daru departs after a meal at his uncle's house, he is consumed by the aroma of leftovers: "The smell makes me hungry even though I've just filled my stomach with as much as I thought it could hold...I wonder why my body has chosen this moment to give me such an appetite, when I can least afford it." The food Daru has just consumed is a luxury beyond his means, as is Mumtaz, with her glamorous life of sleek cars and elite parties, though that doesn't prevent him from pursuing her.

The book's dominant image is of a moth circling a flame. In the darkness of evening, Daru watches the strange seduction played out: the moth "spinning around the candle in tighter revolutions," attracted to the fire. Ignited, the moth is consumed. The lingering moth smoke reminds Daru of burning flesh -- his own, for this Icarus ends up singed by his own irresistible attractions.

To tell Daru's story, Hamid employs multiple narrators, each with a distinct voice, none entirely reliable. This variety is, to my taste, a flaw, since none of the others is as finely pitched as Daru's tragic, ironic voice. When Daru isn't speaking, the prose tends to the flamboyant, with overworked metaphors and relentless punning, adding up to a bad Salman Rushdie impersonation. All in all, though, Hamid has turned a beautiful trick: He has made an old formula -- man, woman and cuckolded husband -- into something fresh and luminous. Rather like a moth turned into a butterfly.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hamid subjects contemporary Pakistan to fierce scrutiny in his first novel, tracing the downward spiral of Darashikoh "Daru" Shezad, a young man whose uneasy status on the fringes of the Lahore elite is imperiled when he is fired from his job at a bank. Daru owes both the job and his education to his best friend Ozi's father, Khurram, a corrupt former official of one of the Pakistan regimes who has looked out for Daru ever since Daru's father, an old army buddy of Khurram's, died in the early '70s. As the story begins, Ozi has just returned from America, where he earned a college degree, with his wife, Mumtaz, and child. From the moment they meet, Daru and Mumtaz are drawn to each other. Mumtaz is fascinated by Daru's air of suppressed violence, and Daru is intrigued by Mumtaz's secret career as an investigative journalist; the two share a taste for recreational drugs, sex and sports. But their affair really begins after Daru witnesses Ozi, driving recklessly, mow down a teenage boy and flee the scene. Daru decides then that Ozi is morally bankrupt. But as Daru becomes more dependent on drugs, the arrogance he himself has absorbed from his upper-class upbringing stands out in stark contrast to his circumstances. Daru's noirish, first-person account of his moral descent, culminating with murder, interweaves with chapters written in the distinctive voices of the other characters. One in particular comes vividly to life: Murad Badshah, a sort of Pakastani Falstaff, officially the head of a rickshaw company, but kept afloat by drug dealing and robbery. Hamid's tale, played out against the background of Pakistan's recent testing of a nuclear device, creates a powerful image of an insecure society toying with its own dissolution. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in Hamid's native Lahore, Pakistan, this first novel provides a pitch-perfect tale of the destruction of a young man. Socialy unconnected, Daru loses his precarious footing among the respectably employed and falls into an abyss of emotional depression, moral turpitude, and criminal activity. He goes from bank employee to drug dealer to holdup man, while falling in love with Mumtaz, the journalist wife of Ozi, Daru's boyhood best friend and rival. Ozi strips daru of his self-respect, and Mumtaz can never merely be Daru's lover, for she is both liberated and besieged by her own moral ambiguity. With a sure hand, hamid paints Daru, Lahore, the weight of Western materialist values, and evolving and devolving friendships, giving us near-photographic realism softened by the shading influences of well-turned phrases. Moving quickly but inviting prolonged retrospection, this first novel lays bare a human core that festers in its own unremitting heat. Hamid is a writer to watch. For all public libraries.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley P.L., CA
The New Yorker
It's Hamid's achievement that we remained charmed by Daru throughout; the fast paced, intelligent narration pulls us, despite ourselves, into his spiralling wake.
Jhumpa Lahiri
[A] brisk, absorbing novel...Hamid steers us from start to finish with assurance and care.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My cell is full of shadows. Hanging naked from a wire in the hall outside, a bulb casts light cut by rusted bars into thin strips that snake along the concrete floor and up the back wall. People like stains dissolve into the grayness.

    I sit alone, the drying smell of a man's insides burning in my nostrils. Out of my imagination the footsteps of a guard approach, become real when a darkness silhouettes itself behind the bars and a shadow falls like blindness over the shadows in the cell. I hear the man who had been heaving scuttle into a corner, and then there is quiet.

    The guard calls my name.

    I hesitate before I rise to my feet and walk toward the bars, my back straight and chin up but my elbows tucked in close about the soft lower part of my rib cage. A hand slides out of the guard's silhouette, offering me something, and I reach for it slowly, expecting it to be pulled back, surprised when it is not. I take hold of it, feeling the envelope smooth and sharp against my fingers. The guard walks away, pausing only to raise his hand and pluck delicately at the wire of the bulb, sending the light into an uneasy shivering. Someone curses, and I shut my eyes against the dizziness. When I open them again, the shadows are almost still and I can make out the grime on my fingers against the white of the envelope.

    My name in the handwriting of a woman I know well.

    I don't read it, not even when I notice the damp imprints my fingers begin to leave in the paper.

Chapter Two

(before intermission)

You sit behind a high desk, wearing a black robe and a white wig, tastefully powdered.

    The cast begins to enter, filing into this chamber of dim tube lights and slow-turning ceiling fans. Murad Badshah, the partner in crime: remorselessly large, staggeringly, stutteringly eloquent. Aurangzeb, the best friend: righteously treacherous, impeccably dressed, unfairly sexy. And radiant, moth-burning Mumtaz: wife, mother, and lover. Three players in this trial of intimates, witnesses and liars all.

    They are pursued by a pair of hawk-faced men dressed in black and white: both forbidding, both hungry, but one tall and slender, the other short and fat. Two reflections of the same soul in the cosmic house of mirrors, or uncanny coincidence? It is impossible to say. Their eyes flick about them, their lips silently voice oratories of power and emotion. To be human is to know them, to know what such beings are and must be: these two are lawyers.

    A steady stream of commoners and nobles follows, their diversity the work of a skilled casting director. They take their places with a silent murmur, moving slowly, every hesitation well rehearsed. A brief but stylish crowd scene, and above it all you preside like the marble rider of some great equestrian statue.

    Then a pause, a silence. All eyes turn to the door.

    He enters. The accused: Darashikoh Shezad.

    A hard man with shadowed eyes, manacled, cuffed, disheveled, proud, erect. A man capable of anything and afraid of nothing. Two guards accompany him, and yes, they are brutes, but they would offer scant reassurance if this man were not chained. He is the terrible almost-hero of a great story: powerful, tragic, and dangerous. He alone meets your eyes.

    And then he is seated and it begins.

    Your gavel falls like the hammer of God.

    Perhaps a query (Where did I get this thing?) flashes through your mind before vanishing forever, like a firefly in the belly of a frog. But the die has been cast. There is no going back.

    The case is announced.

    The prosecutor rises to his feet, and his opening remarks reek of closure.

    "Milord," he says (and he means you), "the court has before it today a case no less clear than the task of the executioner. The accused has stretched out his neck beneath the heavy blade of justice, and there is no question but that this blade must fall. For he has blood on his hands, Milord. Young blood. The blood of a child. He killed not out of anger, not out of scheme or plan or design. He killed as a serpent kills that which it does not intend to eat: he killed out of indifference. He killed because his nature is to kill, because the death of a child has no meaning for him.

    "There can be no doubt here, Milord; no more facts exist to be found. The balancing of scales awaits, Milord; redress for wrong is come. Tender humanity screams in fear, confronted by such a monster, and conscience weeps with rage. The law licks its lips at the prospect of punishing such a one, and justice can shut its eyes today, so easy is its task."

    The prosecutor pauses, his words leaping about the courtroom like shadows cast by unsheathed knives in the flickering light of some dying candle.

    "For this, Milord, is his crime ..."

Meet the Author

Mohsin Hamid grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. His work has appeared in The New York Times. He currently lives in New York City.

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Moth Smoke: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've ever read. This is coming from someone who is not much of a reader, but I could not put this book down. The way in which  the author describes the interactions between the individuals is so true to life, and he does so in such a subtle, yet powerful manner. He also captures a variety of emotions such as jealousy, envy, anger, and fear in a way that I could feel as the reader. I actually read this book twice and I would highly recommed it!  
Guest More than 1 year ago
i think it is a very good novel.But it is also true that it could be misleading to the westrn world. it portrays the elite of pakistan and we who live in pakistan know that most of the pakistan is not how it is shown in this novel. i think these conditions can be true in many developing countries, with corruption & so much hipocracy. But no doubt Mohsin hamid is winner. the novel is fast and sharp. and i also like the style of the novel. All the charectors are fabulous. Daru, Mumtaz, Murad Badsha... A hard to put down story. The relation between mumtaz and daru is also described very nicely, with great lines and the tension present in such sitiuations shown nicely. Also the fact that Mumtaz doesnt likes her son, moasam, is very imteresting and i like because i hardly find this fact 'mothers not loving their children' mentioned in books but it is very true. Also the fact that lack of communication was the big reason of decline of Mumtaz' marriage is enlightening.
Guest More than 1 year ago
when i first read this book it haunted me. It is very true abt the present pakistan and its high society. The middle class is much different but these social evils are in the society and i'm glad somebody named them out!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Moshin Hamid has taken a bold step in writing this novel. The storyline, fairly sassy and cliche, is twisted with the bitter sweet irony which fills Pakistani society today. This was a giant step for Pakistani writers, and Hamid's style and eloquence shines through in Moth Smoke. I can't wait to read his next book and highly recommend this one.
Reads-by-Night More than 1 year ago
Now I have read three books by Mohsin Hamid. I started with The Reluctant Fundamentalist and enjoyed it so much, I went on to Getting Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Now Moth Smoke. He is a master of weaving tales with characters so developed that you become emotionally involved with them, and can't stop turning the pages. After finishing the books, you continue to think about the characters, and the meaning of the stories. Each one opens up a new world for you, a slice into a different place and culture. I definitely recommend all three books. They are keepers in my library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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nycdadDL More than 1 year ago
I read his later books first and then went back to Moth Smoke. He really is excellent at creating a mood and building upon it. All three are excellent,entertaining reads that provide an introduction to an increasingly important area of the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
can't wait to read the other books written by Hamid.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
A page turner. Thrilling, realistic and captivating. A daring attempt. Shows the true picture of Pakistani society. A breeze of fresh air in Pakistani literature.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a well written book, but at times I felt that the figurative language and imagery was over used or over emphasized. However, it is a page-turner. Some of the characters were quite realistic whereas some were exaggerated. All in all I was quite disturbed and felt sick from inside (to tell you the truth) after finishing this novel. It leaves one thinking about it continuously, pondering over the details and problems, especially if you are Pakistani, but please remember this is NOT all of modern day Pakistan. Hamid's style reminded me a lot of V.S. Naipaul... which I didn't appreciate because I don't like Naipaul.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While it is refreshing to see a novelist of Pakistani origin publish a novel with a major publisher, I must say that this book is over-rated. Though the nuanced allegories in the book will undoubtedly strike chords with many Pakistani elite (often the ones who are web-savvy), Western readers must not take this to be a representation of 'Pakistani society' as some of the reviewers seem to be stating. Hamid is describing the top 0.01 % of Pakistan's pretentious elite -- which is fine, but unfortunately the book is being marketed as if it were about Pakistani culture -- which it is not. In fact much of the 'wannabe' cultural attributes that Hamid highlights among Pakistani elite can be found in most developing country elite from Argentina to Zimbabwe (I can speak from personal experience of interacting with elite from both those counties as well). The imagery is lyrical and at times compelling, but the language does not reflect the stylistic maturity of other South Asian writers such as Sara Suleri or Anita Desai. Nevertheless, a good start. I hope that Hamid's next novel will also try and cover some of the more exemplary attributes of Pakistani society, particularly among the majority of the populace who do NOT drive Pajeros or drink Scotch!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'd never really pondered what one might encounter living in Pakistan. Fortunately, I stumbled upon Hamid's beautifully detailed story of Daru's downward spiral. The story is both poetic and haunting. India and Pakistan's entry into the nuclear arms race defines the mood as much as the oppressive heat of the Lahore summer. Each character is honestly stuck with numerous flaws, but I know exactly why they are who they are. I accept them wholly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just loved it. This book takes you on journey to Lahore in time machine. I would say that this book definitely deserves to get short-listed for Bookers Award. Coming from the heartland of America (Minneapolis), it was very hard to picture Lahore but writer made it simple and beautiful trip to mysterious and thrilling city. I would recommend this book to every one, who is looking for an excellent read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a beautifully-written, witty and bittersweet book that I could just not put down. The characters were flawed and real and perfectly realized. I highly recommend this book.