Stoned on heroin in his smelly Lahore apartment, Daru treats moths like badminton birds, swatting them into light bulbs where they’re carbonized. Heroin’s “great womb” is Daru’s best friend. He feels ludicrously powerful. The ampler womb contains Daru’s upper class best friend Ozi, Ozi’s wife Mumtaz and an underworld caricature named Murad Badshah.
Hamid’s debut novel is a scathing satire about stalled-out twenty-somethings in Pakistan of the late 1990s, when both India and Pakistan became “atomized, atomic lands.” With Manhattan verve, Hamid covers lust, corruption, adultery and dead-end materialism.
Laid-off Daru turns to drugs to control his rage against Pakistan’s class system. The trouble begins when jet-setter Ozi returns from a long U.S. stint, emancipated wife Mumtaz in tow. Bored with her “increasingly emasculated, amoral husband” and unhappy with recent motherhood, she veers toward damaged Daru, becoming a moth for two men.
Hamid’s characters exude ego and self-destructive verve. Daru is paranoid about social status. Entitled Ozi considers privilege as a birthright. Mumtaz prowls brothels to escape parties. Status is freedom from power outages, working AC and ownership of a Mitsubishi Pajero. Numbness is the rule, bad endings inevitable.
Enter soul music-loving Murad, a stuttering drug dealer and rickshaw “entrepreneur” who enlists Daru to rob high-end boutiques. He gets some of the narrative’s best lines. “In the past, when people said America has never given us anything, I used to agree. Now I say, ‘Yes, but America has given us Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.'”
Hamid’s pre-“Reluctant Fundamentalist” effort is a funny and pitiless satire intended to prove urban dysfunction isn’t limited to Manhattan or London. Daru calls himself “a sob on fire.” Well done. So is the book.