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“A hazy world seen through smoke”: Threshold Effects in Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke

Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot


This article proposes to analyse Mohsin Hamid’s first novel Moth Smoke (2000) through the motif of the threshold. Moth Smoke tells the story of a crime and its judgment through a multiplicity of voices. The novel takes place in spring 1998, as Pakistan’s nuclear tests are about to be launched. In this novel, the notion of threshold unfolds thematically as an expression of Pakistani society’s inherent divisions. It can be both a hindrance and a starting point which echoes the representations of time and the rising tensions of the nuclear events. The anthropological notion of liminality (from limen, the threshold) accounts for the importance of initiation (Van Gennep 1909; Turner 1966) in representations of contemporary Pakistan. The novel resorts to a number of narrative thresholds, whether they stand between the novel and its reader (Genette 1997), or between different parts of the story, displaying Mohsin Hamid’s characteristic use of gaze-shifting and displacement.

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1In the introduction to his collection of essays, Mohsin Hamid describes himself as a “half-outsider,” having lived in Lahore, New York, and London, and “considered all three home” (Hamid 2015: xiii). Since he began writing, he has repeatedly voiced his commitment to the transnational. But this global perspective does not preclude national attachment, and the writer has also used his access to Western media outlets to draw attention to Pakistan’s struggles (Hamid 2018). Despite writing in English and being acclaimed in literary circles worldwide, he has also received praise in Pakistan, and was awarded the 2018 Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) by the President for his services to literature.

2Much criticism has been focused on the hit narratives that brought Hamid international fame, such as his post-9/11 novella The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), or Exit West (2017), his fable-like refugee narrative. But his debut novel Moth Smoke (2000) deserves renewed attention over 20 years after its publication, if only for its compelling portrayal of contemporary Pakistan.

3Moth Smoke is Mohsin Hamid’s most directly Pakistan-based narrative. In that novel, the writer chose to address drug dealing, corruption, and class warfare, casting a sharp gaze on 1998 Pakistan which was in the throes of its nuclear competition with India. Set entirely in Lahore, the novel intertwines the perspectives of Darashikoh Shezad, or Daru, a bank clerk who loses his job; his wealthy childhood friend Ozi, recently returned from the United States; Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, who begins an affair with Daru; and Daru’s dealer, Murad Badshah, a rickshaw driver. Other protagonists include Daru’s servant Manucci, and his former university professor Julius Superb. The main event of the novel is a car accident in which Ozi kills a young boy, and lets Daru take the blame. The narrative alternates between Daru’s perspective before, during and after the event, and that of other characters, who all speak to a second person we understand to be a court judge dealing with Daru’s crime. That “you” can also be interpreted as a mischievous address to the reader, particularly towards the end of the novel.

4Moth Smoke has been read as a “materialist analysis” of Pakistan’s entanglement with globalization (Jay 2010: 107), but also as “a novel of place” with a strong “investment in the specificity of Lahore” (Anjaria 2015). Michaela M. Henry analyses Hamid’s novel together with Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows as a “nuclear novel,” contending that it is “perhaps his most cynical” (Henry 2019: 69). Moth Smoke is indeed nurtured by the reality of contemporary Pakistan, but some poetic passages are also interspersed in that “cynical” and materialist outlook.

5Perhaps because of Hamid’s position as a “half-outsider,” the Pakistan portrayed in Moth Smoke is defined by ambiguity, alternating social commentary with beauty and mystery. Through the interplay between multiple voices, but also from a thematic and cultural standpoint, Moth Smoke is in fact fraught with representations of in-betweenness. The novel unfolds different types of border-crossing. But rather than borders or limits, the spatial dynamics that pervades Moth Smoke seems to be that of the threshold, “the place or point of entering or beginning” (Merriam-Webster 2022: 2b[2]). As philosopher Jeff Malpas points out, the term “threshold” stems from limen, which differs from the border or limit (limes): what is liminal, or relative to the threshold, “always carries a movement with it — a crossing, a movement towards or away from, a movement into or out of” (Malpas 2016: 162). Hamid’s first novel is peppered with figures of the threshold which unravel the writer’s positioning towards Pakistan and the relation to space that he developed in later works.

6I will first show how thresholds in Moth Smoke are a component of social satire. Through the outsider’s position of excluded characters who remain on the threshold to success and wealth, the novel displays the divisions inherent to 1998 Pakistan. The threshold dynamics in Moth Smoke also appears as a threshold in time, because of the tensions built up by the key moment of the nuclear tests, and the relation to history and to the future that unfolds. Thresholds finally operate from a structural standpoint: the novel constantly invites the reader to cross some thresholds to make sense of the text, revealing the central role of liminality in Mohsin Hamid’s poetics.

Pakistan’s Inner Thresholds

7The threshold motif makes regular appearances in the novel through the patterns of exclusion that pervade Pakistani society. The outcast characters often seem to be standing on thresholds leading to material comfort and connections, never quite crossing them. Yet other attempts at mobility might also be perceived among the wealthier classes depicted in the novel.

8Moth Smoke addresses the social organization of Pakistan 50 years after the country’s independence and inception, revealing the instability of its democratic principles and the reality of corruption among the ruling classes. The novel evokes issues such as tax evasion, the misuse of public infrastructure and electricity, and the various political alliances between landowners and military and judiciary powers, often left unpunished. What transpires most often is the key role played by the feudal system, or zamindari system, whereby the persisting influence of a few large landowning families remains unchallenged. Writer Daniyal Mueenuddin extensively described the zamindari system in his collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Mueenuddin 2009), representing its impact on villagers in rural Pakistan. While feudal authority is indeed more often represented in the context of rurality and the power landlords exert over village communities, Moth Smoke, an urban narrative, explicitly refers to feudal families on at least two occasions: when Daru is fired from his banking job after failing to satisfy Malik Jiwan, a powerful landlord (Hamid 2000: 20, hereafter MS); when he is almost beaten to death after providing drugs to Shuja, the son of another landlord (MS 226).

9As for him, Daru only has a frail connection to the ruling classes. After he lost his father in the 1971 war, he was helped financially by Ozi’s father (“Khurram uncle”), a friend of his own father from the military. The latter’s precise function is never explicitly mentioned, but we are told that Ozi came back from the United States to help his father “protect his assets” (MS 194), implying that he has now become part of the corrupt ruling class. This arrogant wealthy class remains unchallenged throughout the novel, and the goal for the characters seems to be entering the young clique and the parties that take place in secluded mansions. As Cara N. Cilano notes, “the zamindari system serves as the center that holds for the characters involved, even as that center alternately marginalizes and includes” (Cilano 2013: 170). Spatial imagery abounds in the novel to describe the powerful hold of this “centre.” For instance, as Ozi describes his version of the events that led to Daru’s trial, he also evokes the state of Pakistan in these terms:

People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left. That’s what I’m doing. And if anyone isn’t doing it, it’s because they’re locked out of the kitchen. (MS 231)

10Ozi’s self-serving advice is mocked through the running “p” sound and by the mundane kitchen metaphor he relies on. Through peremptory statements that often seem to be aimed at convincing himself, Ozi participates in maintaining the status quo of the ruling class.

11Daru, on the other hand, is often shown as the one “locked out of the kitchen.” The novel plays on the two characters’ rivalry, and on Daru’s archetypal position as the stepchild, the foundling, who is constantly reminded that he is not entitled to the same benefits as the blood offspring. Daru has a house, a car, and he employs a servant, Manucci; but each of these symbols of wealth is jeopardized as soon as he loses his job. The most blatant sign of comfort in the novel is the fact of owning air-conditioning, which, according to Professor Julius Superb, defines the main two groups of Pakistani society — its haves and its haves not (MS 124-26). While Daru’s foil, his friend and drug dealer Murad Badshah, “vowed to break the barriers that separated the cooled from the uncooled,” (MS 128), Daru thrives for this material comfort and constantly attempts to cross that barrier.

12Always standing on the threshold, looking in at Ozi’s success, Daru becomes increasingly bitter, and rather than entering the corrupt elite, he is progressively led into a life of petty crime. The class boundaries he faces are materialized from the start of the novel in the architecture of Lahore houses, such as Ozi’s house, protected by “a big gate in a high wall” (MS 9) and “security guards,” as well as the houses that surround his own, “hunched over shoulder-high boundary walls” (MS 19). The only form of threshold-crossing Daru achieves occurs whenever he drives to fancy parties, with the Suzuki he is ashamed to park next to his former classmates’ swanky Parejos and Land Rovers (MS 27; 98; 218; 231).

13Even then, the narrative never fails to highlight Daru’s precarious in-between position, as when he arrives at Ozi’s during “a full-fledged invitational dinner only semi-invited” (MS 92). Such thresholds situations also occur when he goes to the “Punjab club,” to a posh reunion of school friends (MS 218). The selective “club” imagery is also extended when Daru learns about a party after Pakistan’s nuclear test has been launched:

‘Armageddon parties?’ I ask, trying to sound superior, mainly because I haven’t been invited to any.

‘Initiation parties. Welcome to the nuclear club, partner.’ (MS 151)

14Daru’s former colleague Raider operates an interesting blend between the class-based entrance to parties and Pakistan’s nuclear escalation with India. Nuclear power, it seems, reinforces the national pride of the higher strata of society. As opposed to Daru’s interpretation of the nuclear test as an apocalyptic event, his friend sees it as a threshold into a selective club. The term “initiation” bears particular interest here, as it echoes the anthropological concept of liminality. The term, coined by Arnold Van Gennep in his 1909 work Rites de Passage, was later taken up by fellow anthropologist Victor Turner, to analyse a variety of rites such as puberty rites and circumcision in different parts of the world. Turner explains:

Van Gennep has shown that all rites of passage or “transition” are marked by three phases: separation, margin (or limen, signifying “threshold” in Latin), and aggregation. (Turner 1966: 94)

15Being on the threshold, being “initiated,” is thus a transitory phase, leading to “a relatively stable state” (Turner 1966: 95) for the community and the individual. Yet in the case of Daru, this social stability never seems to be reached in the novel — neither does it happen for Pakistan after it has accomplished its “rite of passage” by entering the nuclear club. Rather than “aggregation,” Moth Smoke seems to display the further “atomization” of Pakistan, which an external narrator ultimately refers to as “the atomized, atomic lands once Aurangzeb’s empire” (MS 309).

16A symbol of this “atomization” is the diasporic movement hinted at in the novel. Moth Smoke reveals a threshold to which even the wealthiest are confronted: the strong yearning for migration to the United States or the United Kingdom among the youth in Lahore. Even for them, it seems, the grass is greener on the other side of the world. In this case, crossing the threshold to these countries is represented as a rite of passage, an experience that all the wealthy must go through. When Daru delivers some drugs to Shuja, the spoilt son of a landowner, Daru presumes that he and his friends are “worried about the O levels and APs and SCs and SATs that stand between them and the States and Merry Old England, the only places they’d ever dream of going for an education” (MS 198). Daru’s observations on the crowd that rejects him even lead him to taking mental notes as an anthropologist would do, analysing the behaviour of rich girls who call out Ozi at his party:

‘Forget that you’re Over Here! Pretend that you’re Over There!’

(The utopian vision of Over There or Amreeka promises escape from the almost unbearable drudgery of the tribe’s struggle to subsist.) (MS 95)

17The capitalization and phonemic spelling of the dreamed place point to the artificiality of this dream, presented as a promised land. It also reveals the persistence of these made-up terms, and therefore the persistence of a need to escape Pakistan. Daru’s perspective thus deconstructs the paradoxes of these wealthy youths who strive to prevent others from joining their ranks, yet are eager to cross a threshold themselves. Of course, further irony — or self-derision — can be read in the fact that Hamid himself was Princeton-educated, and only came back to Lahore to live there a few years ago.

Too Soon, Too Late: In Between the Times

18Through its sociological observations, Moth Smoke is firmly anchored in contemporary times and offers a close look at 1998 Pakistan. In this novel, Hamid casts a “contemporary” gaze in the sense developed by Giorgio Agamben: “a singular relationship with one’s own time, one which adheres to it, and at the same time, keeps a distance from it” (Agamben 2009: 41). Agamben contends that the contemporary can see the darkness in their own time because of a distance set between themselves and the era, and because of an ability to recognize the untimeliness of the era which is always already “too soon” or “too late” (Agamben 2009: 47). Moth Smoke captures a Pakistan that is precisely on the threshold between “too soon” and “too late.” This tension materializes as the characters expect the consequences of nuclear build-up, but also because Pakistan stands on the threshold of a new century after fifty years spent defining itself. The threshold effects at work in Moth Smoke rely on these tensions.

19The political context of the plot is that of the spring of 1998, when increasingly strained relationships between India and Pakistan led to nuclear escalation and a fierce politics of deterrence fuelled by the territorial conflict over Kashmir. On May 28 and 30, Pakistan reacted to India’s nuclear essays by launching six of their own in the province of Baluchistan. In Moth Smoke, the possibility of the nuclear tests constitutes a form of narrative tension, echoed by the terrible heat which, like the tests, only breaks out in the second part of the novel. In the first half of the novel, the writing evokes a sense of paralysis, waiting for an event that never quite seems to happen.

20In the context of the rising provocation between India and Pakistan, the word ‘threshold’ can also refer to a tolerance level, “a level or point at which something starts or ceases to happen or come into effect” (OED). In fact, the phrase “nuclear threshold state” is often used in the context of nuclear power to characterize states without nuclear capability but which have the potential to create a nuclear weapon.

21The tension of this moment surfaces on several occasions in the novel, notably through Daru’s friend, Murad Badshah, a rickshaw driver and part-time drug dealer. Murad, a malicious and cynical character, has planned to rob a luxury boutique in Lahore and to convince Daru to be his accomplice. As he is about to reveal his intentions to the reader, Murad explains that the rising tension around the bomb makes this an ideal time to commit a crime:

It was a summer of great rumblings in the belly of the earth, of atomic flatulence and geopolitical indigestion, consequences of the consumption of sectarian chickpeas by our famished and increasingly incontinent subcontinent.

Clenched beneath the tightened sphincters of test sites and silos, the pressure of superheated gases was registering in spasms on the Richter scale.

Lahore was uneasy, and Imodium in short supply.

The perfect time, I thought, for my plan. (MS 75-6)

22The solemn narrative voice initially taken by Murad is soon debunked by the running imagery of digestion, which ridicules the geopolitical importance of the nuclear tension. Pakistan and India, set together as the “incontinent subcontinent,” are pictured as an eating body struggling to digest correctly but also rejecting “gases.” These images make it a grotesque body as defined by Bakhtin, one in which bodily orifices and the depths of the body are emphasized (Bakhtin 1984: 318). Here, the indigestion metaphor points to the sense of a work in progress in Pakistan, as the nuclear event never seems to occur, and the country remains stuck in a permanent state of tenseness. As Ganguly and Hagerty note, the use of language played a key role in the nuclear escalation of spring 1998:

What made the period from early May until the beginning of June a crisis was that the two sides’ nuclear tests were accompanied by exceedingly bellicose rhetoric (Ganguly & Hagerty 2012: 117)

23Hamid turns this rhetoric on its head through the character of Murad Badshah, who debunks and defuses the evocative power of the bomb. Further in the novel, Murad, discussing with his employees at the rickshaw depot, refers again to the bomb as “our bloody nuclear fart” (MS 166). If the nuclear tests foster popular support and national pride among his employees, Murad himself is not convinced by their benefits and fears foreign sanctions. As one of his drivers expresses his fascination, Murad again challenges the perception of the bomb:

‘The blast was fantastic,’ he says to the mechanic.

‘How fantastic could it be?’ Murad Badshah asks. ‘It was underground.’

‘The shaking, the dust. It was too good.’ (MS 165)

24The event of the nuclear explosion is here reduced to a non-event, something invisible to the naked eye and almost non-existent as its only material manifestation is the “dust” that remains. This exchange emphasizes the sense of deflation after the event has happened: the threshold has been crossed, yet the event of crossing it has unexpectedly fallen flat, revealing only disintegration and loss that hardly deserve celebration. As Michaela M. Henry notes, the bomb carries strong potential for metaphor, but at the same time it “challenges textual representations because it pushes at the boundaries of human ability to know” (Henry 2019: 69). Murad’s remarks about the “underground” explosion attempt to emphasize these boundaries.

25The sense of standing between a time that is “too late” and another one that is “too soon” is repeated in the references to the past. Later in the novel, Daru is given over to nostalgia as he watches a film at Lahore’s Regal Cinema and imagines his father’s dignified friends and himself watching a film in that same room, decades earlier, while in the present some young men are fighting and shouting in front of the kung-fu film projected on the screen (MS 281-2). Yet this nostalgia finds an unsettling echo after the film, as Daru is approached by a former classmate, Mujahid, who also condemns the spectators’ “disorderliness” (MS 283). In the exchange that ensues, Daru soon dismisses Mujahid as a bearded “fundo” trying to recruit him.

26Critics have commented on the representation of Muslim identity in Hamid’s novels, from Moth Smoke to his most recent Exit West, including his short story “A Beheading.” Zain R. Mian regrets the progressive reduction of Muslims to fundamentalists in Hamid’s fiction, and his failure to address comprehensively a religion that is no less than the founding identity of Pakistan. According to Mian, “‘[f]undos’ litter Hamid’s fiction: there are few, if any, religious characters that are not either ‘dangerous’, or at least thought to be so” (Mian 2019). Yet one might argue that in Moth Smoke, Hamid counterbalanced these caricatures with the use of Muslim folklore and myth, hinting that a foundational ground for Pakistani identity could be found in ancient stories rather than in the politicization of Islam. The image of the moth approaching the flame and burning itself runs through the book and is eventually likened to the popular myth of Majnoon and Laila, a widely known story of unrequited love (MS 286). The text also furtively describes a peacock approaching Daru and Mumtaz in Lahore (MS 161). Both the moth and the flame and the peacock refer to ghazals, a popular literary genre in Muslim-majority countries. Like fellow writer Nadeem Aslam, who regularly draws on Muslim lore in his works, Hamid uses myth in Moth Smoke as a doorway into Pakistani identity. To Claire Chambers, the use of these tropes is a creative opportunity that “refigures the category ‘Muslim’ as a springboard rather than a constricting box” (Chambers 2011: 131). Rather than the time of political dissent and conflict, Moth Smoke proposes to enter the time of myth and offers it as a threshold — a springboard of sorts — both into the past and into the future of Pakistan.

27The story of the phoenix, which appears early in the novel in the form of an article written by Professor Julius Superb, contributes to this proposition. In the article, the professor recalls his father’s interrogations about the meaning of the phoenix’s re-birth, wondering whether it led to transformation, whether positive or negative, or to an amplification of its previous characteristics. Through a thinly veiled metaphor, the professor’s father finally wonders whether human struggles, like the phoenix’s death and re-birth, “simply amplified what we already were, in the end making the strong stronger, the weak weaker, and the dangerous deadly?” (MS 36). One can easily read these questions as referring to corruption and class divisions in Pakistan, and as an interrogation on the possible “re-birth” of a country on the threshold of a new century.

Narrative Thresholds

28From a narrative standpoint, the structure of Moth Smoke is built around a number of thresholds. The image of the threshold has been a key feature of literary criticism since the analyses of Gérard Genette in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997). For Genette, every material, textual or not, that stands between the text and the reader — what he calls the paratext — constitutes “a threshold, or […] a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping in or turning back.” (Genette 1997: 1-2) In Moth Smoke, this idea of a choice given to the reader is both structural and stylistic, through a number of devices that include elements of Genette’s typology but also some playful patterns inscribed in the writing.

29The main plot of the novel is preceded and followed by the story of Shah Jahān, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, and his sons, Dārā Shikōh, Murād Bakhsh, Shah Shujāʿ, and Aurangzeb. The story is told in italics. Before the plot begins, it tells the prophecy given to the emperor about his sons and the succession war; at the end, the external narrator takes up the story again to reflect on Aurangzeb, the chosen successor, who wishes his own sons not repeat the tragedy of succession wars. This didactic threshold into the main plot serves as a prologue meant to give clues on the fate of the characters who bear the same name as the historical figures. This prologue acts as a threshold in the sense that it “is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it” (Genette 1997: 2). However, one cannot but notice — as Anita Desai did in her book review (Desai 2000) — that the characters’ names are slightly confusing. Mumtaz, who was Shah Jahān’s beloved, is the name given in the novel to Ozi (Aurangzeb)’s wife, with whom Daru starts an affair. The roles of Mumtaz, but also of Shuja, a young man to whom Daru sells some drugs, thus remain unexplained regarding their namesakes in the original story, and this proleptic prologue might be seen to be failing its function if taken literally.

30One can also notice the dynamics of a threshold structure in the use of a multiple-voice narration. Each character provides their own version of Daru’s story, in between the chapters told by Daru himself, so that the perspective keeps shifting; the reader struggles to find a reliable narrator and, therefore, never fully enters one version or another. The characters even offer some metafictional comments on this difficulty, like Daru’s professor, Julius Superb, who tells Mumtaz in an interview about Daru: “Actually, don’t quote me on that. […] As a professor I have a tendency to slip into omniscient narrative” (MS 42). Such a dangerous “slip” is kept in check throughout, leaving the reader on the threshold of different subjectivities. Hamid repeated this pattern and the use of unreliable narrative voices in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a novel where the main protagonist tells his own story to an unnamed American in a Lahore café, repeatedly — and suspiciously — asserting his good faith. The idea of letting the reader decide whether to trust the narrator is part of Hamid’s aesthetics; he wants readers to experience “co-creation” with the author (Hamid 2015: xviii). Going in and out of these different versions, Moth Smoke never proposes a resolution or an authoritative version of what happened to Daru. The protagonist himself, at the end, reads the written version of his story, sent by Mumtaz under her pen name, Zulfikar Manto:

It is the story of my innocence.

A half-story.

I read it over and over again, until I notice the paper getting wet, the ink blurring into little flowers. (MS 307)

31The passage points to the utter impossibility of articulating the story fully, even after many different versions have been given to us, as reader and jury judging Daru’s crime. Even after the events have been examined through many different perspectives, we remain on the threshold between lies and truth, and are left with a mere “half-story.” The story itself disappears from the page, as if to hint at the aporia that prevents language from accessing the truth. Upon opening the envelope, Daru is reminded of “a smell like burning flesh, a hazy world seen through smoke” (MS 307). This smoke has multiple resonances in the novel: the moths which Daru and Manucci observe, burning their wings on the candles; the smoke of the atomic cloud, about to be unleashed; and Daru’s smoking habit, which worsens as the novel unfolds, also entails that his own perspective is blurry and unreliable. Smoke also resonates with the other accounts of Daru’s experience. Each character, according to their own motives, might have blurred the story to their advantage, creating a smokescreen that the reader and judge must attempt to cross.

32The narrative thresholds at work in Moth Smoke also entail questions of representation. Mohsin Hamid’s commitment to his position of “half-outsider” has led to ascribing him a problematic position of translator of Pakistan to the English-speaking world. Admittedly, Hamid himself had an outsider’s position upon writing Moth Smoke: to him, the novel was “a look at Pakistan with a gaze altered by the many years I had spent in America” (Hamid 2015: 76). As Anita Desai noted in her review of the novel, Moth Smoke is undoubtedly filled with American-sounding idiosyncrasies (Desai 2000). Interestingly, the 2002 television adaptation of Moth Smoke, entitled Daira (The Circle), directed by Azfar Ali took an opposite direction and features half of the dialogues in Urdu. Despite being the most Pakistani of Hamid’s novels, Moth Smoke raises the question of the place held by Pakistani literature in English, both abroad and in Pakistan. Among Hamid’s generation of writers, one might perceive an attempt to “brand” Pakistan, as Barirah, Holm and Worthington (2019) termed it. To them, writers like Mohsin Hamid “live in ‘in-between’ spaces, occupying a liminal status due to privileged international mobility while staying connected to their country of birth” (Barirah et al. 2019: 336). They observe that this liminal status can resonate positively but also be perceived as a betrayal by their Pakistani readership.

33One interesting and contentious threshold effect of Moth Smoke is the literary marketing it was subject to in the Penguin paperback edition of the book: it represented Daru and Mumtaz smoking — perhaps as a hint to the title —, framed by a Mughal arch with a background of minarets (Figure 1). This type of visual marketing was later debunked by a collective of writers — including Mohsin Hamid — in the Granta issue dedicated to Pakistan (Granta 2010), yet it was continued over his following two novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2011). The framing device on the covers is what Genette called the “publisher’s peritext,” a subcategory of the thresholds that surround a text (Genette 1997: 23). Although perhaps not the writer’s choice, these architectural details on the cover of Hamid’s first published novel undoubtedly raise questions of representation and the limits of entering Pakistani writing through the threshold of English and American publishing policies.

Fig. 1. Cover of Mohsin Hamid’s Penguin paperback edition of Moth Smoke (2000)

Fig. 1. Cover of Mohsin Hamid’s Penguin paperback edition of Moth Smoke (2000)


34While the marketing of Moth Smoke might prove a problematic threshold into Pakistan, the descriptions of modern Lahore found in the novel constitute an aesthetic form of resistance to simplification and escape the pitfall of stereotypes sometimes to be found in novels set in South Asia. Hamid’s first novel does contain several references to mangoes (MS 66; 89; 107), a frequent feature in descriptions of Pakistan which was also mocked in the collective Granta contribution “How to Write about Pakistan” (Granta 2010). But the urban setting and criminal events in Moth Smoke provide a threshold into a nation that is far from romanticised. As Desai observed in her review of Moth Smoke, the novel constituted a change from previous postcolonial literature about the subcontinent:

One could not really continue to write, or read about, the slow seasonal changes, the rural backwaters, gossipy courtyards, and traditional families in a world taken over by gun-running, drug-trafficking, large-scale industrialism, commercial entrepreneurship, tourism, new money, nightclubs, boutiques, politicians and civil servants noted for greed and corruption, and the constant threat of an explosion of population, of crime, of the nuclear bomb, some kind of terrible explosion. (Desai 2000)

35In fact, the spatial descriptions in Moth Smoke echo this concern for danger and crime. The scorching weather and the impending monsoon, repeatedly evoked in the novel (MS 7-8; 19-20; 48; 87; 115-6; 120-1), are always intertwined with the crime plot and the ongoing political events, as if human actions were derived from environmental events. Whenever the narrative voice verges on evoking exotic landmarks familiar to the reader, the tone swiftly changes and leads us into the realistic account of poverty and criminality in Lahore. One such passage is found after the monsoon breaks, as the main protagonist Daru describes its consequences:

Along with parrots, the rains have brought flooding to the Punjab and a crime wave to Lahore. Heists and holdups and the odd bombing compete with aerial food drops and humanitarian heroics for headline space on the front pages of the newspapers. (MS 258)

36By ascribing the verb to both the flooding and the crime wave, one cannot but read that “wave” as another of Pakistan’s endemic phenomena. The enumeration of events that follows is characterized by a hushed “h” sound (heists, holdups, humanitarian heroics, headline), echoing the rains that have started pouring over the city. In Daru’s perspective, these events are frequent and seem as barely noticeable as the rain; his careless mention of “the odd bombing” contributes to equating it with the weather. By playing on scale — the Punjab and then Lahore –, the narrative voice provides several doorways into Pakistan. Although the place names could be seen as unspecific here, the technique is reminiscent of what Hamid later attempted with Exit West, where the migrant characters reach large world cities through black doors. Rather than the specificity of place names, Hamid’s writing often gives precedence to the specificity of lived experience and attempts to make it accessible and recognizable by any audience worldwide.


37Twenty years ago, long before Prime Minister Imran Khan resorted to the phrase “Naya Pakistan” for his campaign, Moth Smoke unveiled the constant threshold between past and future on which the nation stands. As Anam Hussain commented about the semantic scope of the adjective ‘naya,’ “the atmosphere of Naya Pakistan can be seen as something almost tangible, evoking a potential event of touching” (Hussain 2019). The “almost tangible,” “potential” actualization of a Pakistani ideal already transpired through the threshold effects found in Moth Smoke. The image of a critical threshold appears as a key feature of Hamid’s imaginary of Pakistan and finds its echo in the nuclear plot as well as in the constant gaze-shifting devices that he continued developing in his three other novels.

38Through this commitment to maintaining forms of ambiguity, Moth Smoke also contributed to drawing attention to the internal complexity of a nation often reduced to its position in global geopolitics. Hamid’s other three novels might have been thought to stray away from the specificity of Pakistan (Mian 2019), yet this progressive loss of reference stems more from the development of the writer’s allegorical style than from a wilful rejection of Pakistan in favour of the West. Indeed, there has certainly been a “deterritorialization” of Hamid’s works (Veyret 2018), but this evolution seems to be a continuation of the threshold effects initiated in Moth Smoke. As Jeff Malpas explains, “the very nature of the threshold is to allow entrance and departure, but for it to do this, it must also withdraw in that allowance” (Malpas 2016: 163). In a similar pattern, Mohsin Hamid’s writing thus constantly toys with the codes of referentiality, only to better allow the reader’s movements in and out of his fictional worlds.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Cover of Mohsin Hamid’s Penguin paperback edition of Moth Smoke (2000)
Credits Source:​2019/​03/​14/​review-moth-smoke-by-mohsin-hamid/​
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Electronic reference

Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot, “A hazy world seen through smoke”: Threshold Effects in Mohsin Hamid’s Moth SmokeAngles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 25 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Maëlle Jeanniard du Dot

Postgraduate researcher, Université Grenoble-Alpes (ILCEA4) and Lecturer, Université Rennes 2. Contact : maelle.jeanniard-du-dot [at]

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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