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
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders