ILLUSIONS MAKING SENSE OF ILLUSIONS An essay by Mohsin Hamid
In 2009, after two decades spent mostly in London and on the Atlantic coast of the United States, I moved back to Pakistan to write my third novel. I'd often visited my birth city of Lahore in the interim, sometimes for six months or even a year, but always with a fixed departure date in mind. This return, though, was different. I came with no plans to leave.
Pakistan is frequently thought of as a place apart: unique, violent, troubled. And it is. But it also a piece of a whole: a world knitting itself together, an Asia being transformed. I re-entered life in Lahore to find pits being dug for office towers, a surfeit of cell-phone masts and shopping malls, proliferating traffic jams and commuter-hour radio shows. I visited Delhi, Bombay, Dubai, Bangkok and observed the same. I saw an East becoming more like the West, or rather a planet where such sweeping distinctions were dissolving.
And much else seemed to be dissolving. Old ways of doing things. Neighborhoods. A stampede for wealth was underway, pulled along by televised lives of previously unimagined opulence, beaten from behind by the switch of crushing poverty. Money was becoming religion; religion was becoming politics. Spirituality, it seemed, could wait.
But death does not wait. To be human is to know ever-present mortality. And so we ache. Our selves ache. Dashing forward together, we recognize we will be plucked away, alone. In the face of this, as Asia rises, as the pursuit of money becomes paramount, as past repositories of solace are drained of meaning, what, if anything, can a novel do?
Modern science increasingly suggests that what we think of as the self is an illusion. "You" are in actuality a bundle of neural processes, most of them unconscious. Yet you need the illusion of a self. And you create it with stories. With stories about who you are, and stories about your surroundings.
Some of these stories may be novels. And some of these novels may play, as the novel I was writing began to do, with notions of self-help, with notions of self-transcendence, which is to say with love and with death. For novels are illusions trying to make sense of illusions, stories trying to make sense of stories. Novels, in other words, are ourselves.
Copyright © 2013 by Mohsin Hamid. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.