Desire, decadence and death in Lahore

The legendary feuds of the Mughal Empire underlie this teasing novel of love and corruption.

Moth Smoke begins with a parable from Mughal India, evoking the encounter of the Emperor Shah Jehan with a Sufi saint who predicts the war of succession that will make a ruler of one of his sons and an apostate corpse of another. Lahore-born, New York-based Mohsin Hamid's ambitious and unusual first novel names its multiple narrators after the main players in the Mughal family drama. Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb (otherwise Ro and Lain, for Hero and Villain) are the friends separated by capital and class in contemporary Pakistan. Mumtaz, lover of one and wife of the other, is the novel's catalyst and, as we later discover, its orchestrator.

That Mumtaz is named after the mother of the warring siblings seems, at first, a case of oblique Oedipal symbolism that doesn't quite come off. It probably indicates that Hamid is not attempting a strict reworking of the historical melodrama. The main thrust of the novel, for all its social satire, is towards timeless tragedy: a drama of crime, punishment and redemption. Dara, the little man, Aurangzeb's childhood friend and first (platonic) love, drifts into a life of sleazy hash-peddling and has a passionate affair with Mumtaz. He is undone when society, through the machinations of the corrupt plutocrat Aurangzeb, accuses him of the hit-and-run killing of a child for which, so he insists, Aurangzeb himself is responsible. Mumtaz, at the gripping climax, steps in with a new literary strategy of revenge - and yet another narrative twist.

Mumtaz, wife of one of Lahore's ultra-rich, is also a journalist. She deploys the pseudonym of Zulfikar Manto: a reminder of the radical, alcoholic storyteller Saadai Hasan, who, under that name, portrayed the urban low-life of early Pakistan. Hamid has Aurangzeb giving his wife a collection of Manto's stories - in translation. This is probably an intended irony, since Pakistan's Anglophone elite prides itself on its ignorance of Urdu.

That a woman journalist should take a male nom de plume in a country whose pioneering newswomen have become legendary remains baffling, but this is a novel full of narrative teases: at least two false starts, intricate timing, an array of perspectives, occasionally overblown language. There is also a virtuoso chapter on the joys of air-conditioning, a denunciation of Pakistan's lop-sided class system, and Aurangzeb's semi-serious indictment of the Nobel Prize, the Rhodes Scholarship and global banking.

But, in spite of its careful chronology (the nuclear tests of 1998 take place in the background), this is not a novel of realistic motivation, nor a photograph of Pakistan's decadent society. Its central metaphor, borrowed from Urdu poetry, is of the moth's love for the flame which will consume it. Towards the end, Hamid deftly replaces this moribund image with a gruesome depiction of a lizard dining on a moth the candle has spared. It's a terse summary of his concern with the workings of obsession, and the lust for power.

Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' is published by Saqi

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us