Hold the Door: Exit West.

Mohsin Hamid’s new novel about two refugees in particular, and refugees in general, comes at a very interesting point, because while the city of the refugees remains unnamed in the book, it could be Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or any country in the world today, where it’s citizens are struggling with the consequences of war and militancy. Nadia and Saeed, the two protagonists of the novel, meet in an evening class on Corporate Identity, a usual setting for two unusual people. Saeed works in an ad agency, lives with his parents, prays regularly, while Nadia sells insurance, lives alone, rides a bike, enjoys psychedelic mushrooms, doesn’t pray, yet wears black robes so, “men don’t fuck with me”, she tells Saeed. They live in a city bursting with refugees, but still not openly at war, but as things worsen, Saeed and Nadia desperately find a way to escape, which leads us to a journey through Mykonos, London, Marin, and back to their home city through doors that open up to other places.

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The doors add a touch of magic realism to the book, and also avoid the course that most books about refugees follow, Hamid avoids the journey that they undertake to get from one place to another, instead focuses on what happens, when Saeed and Nadia try to find home in strange new places, which are often better than what they have left behind, but sometimes are not. The doors as a device remind us of CS Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, where the passage to Narnia is through a wardrobe. Exit West focuses on how daily life finds a way in the transient life of a refugee, amidst changing circumstances, check points, and snipers. The cost of physical loss through migration isn’t at the core here, but the cost of leaving behind roots, yet always seeking the same in every new place is intrinsic to the plot. Beautifully written, and very different from Hamid’s previous novels, Exit West doesn’t look at refugees alone, but their impact on human kind in general, and how the west will also be impacted by migration, concluding that in the end we are all migrants, whether we stay in the same house forever, or if we move from country to country (“We are all migrants through time”).

 

The novel may look like a struggling love story on the outside, but on closer inspection is almost a mirror for society today, but in all of that, Hamid manages to find some hope, there is a kiss between two old men, one Brazilian, and one Dutch, there is an English man who finds happiness in Namibia, which he reaches through a door in his bedroom. Exit West is terrifying, magical, heartbreaking, and hopeful, all at the same time, and will have you reaching out for your pen to underline all the lines in the book.

Where did the devout meet the backpacker?

It was a very cold January morning, when a friend and I, well fed on kachoris, boarded a bus to Pushkar. Between many previously unheard Hindi songs, the North Indian winter wind hitting us in full blast, thanks to open windows, and a brief yet terrible tea stop enroute, the bus reached Pushkar in about 3 hours. By now we had seen the fog lifting off the lake in Ajmer, a lot of peacocks, and a lot of signboards for finding Cafe Nirvana and Cafe Pink Floyd in Pushkar, and we still weren’t certain about what to expect.

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                                                    One out of the 52 ghats in Pushkar.

The bus dropped us off near the desert ground where the annual camel fair takes place, but right now only offered camel rides to enthusiastic tourists (Little extra information-the writer of this post is terrified of camel rides and hence they were avoided). We were hounded by multiple auto drivers offering to drop us to our hotel, but Google Maps told us that it was a 5 minute walk from where we were (As is everything in Pushkar), so we skipped the auto and walked through lanes, filled with water, mud, dung, and a lot of cows. Very like Patna, if I say so myself. The hotel like most hotels in Pushkar was a home, whose upper floors had been converted to accommodate basic rooms, seating areas (which used old saris as a cover), and a rooftop cafe, with adequate charging points, reading material, and music systems. As the temple was to open at 4 in the evening, we decided to go out for lunch, and to begin shopping. Most cafes that we came across followed the same pattern of establishment as our hotel, and served standard backpacker fare, pizzas, pastas, pancakes, and coffee, but all vegetarian, because of the holy significance of the place, which is also a little strange because maximum tourists in Pushkar, are non Indians (Seriously, there are white people everywhere!). After lunch, we headed to the temple, which wasn’t a  time consuming visit, since we aren’t particularly religious, but we did buy small but overpriced Brahma idols from the market outside for all the religious relatives. Speaking of markets, just outside the temple, is my favourite thing about Pushkar, the leather market. From wallets to shoes to hats to laptop sleeves, you get all of this in great quality leather and at a great (GREAT!) price. But as is the case across the country, bargaining is of essence, and you, like us, could walk away with a (very stylish) sling bag for 400 bucks.

After the leather market, we roamed around the rest of the market, because Pushkar offers great shopping, especially rose products, ittar (scents), handicrafts (our houses are proof now), and jewellery. There were also kulhad chai, and lassi stops to make in between, but all in all we didn’t realise how it was already 1o pm and we hadn’t even been to the lake yet.

 

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            Psychedelia is the black in Pushkar.

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The verandah in our hotel.

The next morning, the first thing that we did (after taking pictures of our morning tea obviously) was head to the lake. The lake while in itself was beautiful, the way to get there was as dirty as the streets the day before, and after taking a dip (we washed our faces basically) in the very cold water, and warding off priests who wanted us to do a few pujas, and after being amazed that there were more than 50 ghats in this tiny town which we had walked from end to end, we decided to find a new cafe for breakfast. The first thing that we noticed in every hotel or a restaurant in Pushkar that we went to was that that as Indians, we were not taken seriously as tourists. Our hotel wasn’t ready to reserve a room for us because they believed that, “Indians either cancel at the last minute or don’t show up at all.” As Indian tourists, the first thing that you see waiters tell each other in a restaurant is the fact that there is a special circumstance today, they have Indian customers, and obviously service is much slower , but only to your table. We were surrounded by white people, the most popular tourists in Pushkar, at our hotel, in cafes, on the streets, and at the market, where again shopkeepers would address them first, before addressing you. A little more investigation into this, and we met people who had moved to Pushkar to pursue jewellery designing in India, or it was one of their major pitstops on their India tour, or they were here to do business, buy leather products, and jewellery from here, and sell it outside. But service and treatment was particularly bad at the Lake View Cafe that morning, but the view more than made up for it.

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The coffee at the Lake View Cafe, when it finally arrives, arrives in style.

Breakfast was followed by another stroll around the market, where we picked up even more stuff before we ran (literally) to catch a bus to Ajmer, where the lone white man was being offered a seat by everyone. Pushkar was a very short stop in our itinerary but as the bus was pulling away, the desire to get off the bus was very strong. It’s easy to fall in love with Pushkar, for me the love affair began last evening itself when we were in the middle of the market,and there was music blaring from a rooftop cafe, and all we could see was silver jewellery and artefacts all around us, tired but happy devotees were returning from the temple, and foreigners were bargaining for terrible clothes, it was an interesting mix to be in between of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom.

Of all the joys that life gives you, none will be greater than going to the ‘mithai wala’ every evening with your grandmother to try whatever new sweet the ‘mithai wala’ created that day with milk, sugar and khoya. A Bihari childhood is primarily about food and more specifically about the mithai. A sweet shop was and is your escape from all that is wrong in this world. Once you enter a sweet shop, the garbage dumps outside, the ‘quite capable of killing’ mosquitoes, the paan stains on all the walls in Patna, all cease to exist. Now there is you, the shopkeeper and the beautiful sweets in between the two of you. Of course, your grandmother is in a hurry to get back home before its dark, because it gets unsafe at night, so you have whatever new delicacy that was prepared and leave, excited to come back again tomorrow. You go home to fish curry that has been prepared for dinner, it is ‘fresh fish from the Ganges’ as she is intent on reminding you. But you are more excited about the fried fish that your brother and you will fight over, as to who will get more, till your father will sweep in and give both of you two pieces each and have the fifth himself, putting his Math degree to good use. Dinner is always followed by mangoes (also fresh, since they are from your tree), here even your father joins you and your brother in the fighting as to who will have more. By the time you are five, you can identify the different types of fish with ease, with Rohu being the family favorite. By the time you are ten, you can ascertain the size of the fish, by the number of bones that you get in your fish for dinner (the size of the fish and the number of bones are both serious business in a Bihari household.). But no treat is greater than your grandmother’s special mutton, saved for special occasions like festivals and birthdays. However old you grow, you will never associate a smell with home, unless it is the smell of mutton curry, almost like your grandmother’s, because no one in the family has been able to replicate her style completely. That saddens you because you know you’ll never eat mutton cooked like that again. Of course that curry was solely responsible for ruining your rebellious, vegetarian teenage days, one whiff of that curry and you were saying a silent prayer for the lamb that was killed so you could have a delicious dinner.

Weekend mornings were spent at the Patna Zoo and if you behaved well (Didn’t stick your hand inside the cages, didn’t try to feed the animals or try and touch the snakes.); you were rewarded with ice cream at the Sudha dairy inside the zoo complex. Mornings were another special occasion. If you woke up early enough, you were privy to the most beautiful sunrise from your terrace, you could also meet the milkman, his cow, its calf and see the milkman milch his cow, but only if you woke up early enough. You could trouble your grandmother as she performed her morning prayer, complete with aggarbattis (incense sticks), bells, bhajans and many a mantras.  Evenings were spent with your grandfather as he tried and failed to teach you Sanskrit, the harmonium and the tabla. He finally settled on basic ‘Sa re ga ma pa’, where you showed some prowess, only to give up when you realized that ‘Do Re Mi’ was fancier (which your mother introduced you to, much to your grandfather’s chagrin).  

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In a Bihari household, you learn a few things very early- One, that books are a medium to reach a magical place that only books are capable of taking you to. You grow up only when you have finished reading every book that Enid Blyton had written by the time you are ten and move on to ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ when you are 11. Two, there is no job in the world like being a government job like your father and his father before him and even his father before him. Your grandmother never misses a chance to ridicule the new ‘management’ phenomena which has taken over the world as private jobs offer no certainty.

You are often told that books and stories bring the magic into life, which many seek but never find. So your Nani tells you fairytales every night to put you to sleep. You dream of Rumpelstillskin and his foolishness and Snow White and her seven dwarf friends (which you envy very much.), you also plan to carry bread crumbs with you from now on, in case you are ever lost, you can always find your way back like Hansel and Gretel but your greatest fear is being attacked by a wolf on your way to your grandmother’s house. Your dadi tells you stories of Gods and wars making you an expert on mythology which makes it very difficult to digest Mani Ratnam’s version of the Ramayana some ten years down the line.

But the best part of a Bihari childhood are the festivals. It is the only time of the year when your mother doesn’t object to your blatant consumption of sweets. It is that time when she brings out all her beautiful saris and jewellery and you realize that you’ll never be as beautiful as her or as elegant, since you keep falling in your lehenga every time you decide to join your cousins in running around the garden. While you love all festivals uniformly, there is a special place in your heart for Durga Puja. You love going from pandal to pandal, stopping for puchka on the way, but it is the evening mela where you come into your own. You beat your cousins in all the games you play, and the piece de resistance is when you get to play the game where you get to shoot at balloons and you manage to shoot the most. That night when you go home, you know you would never want to be anyplace else. A Bihari childhood, this, where you know that this is the magic that your mother finds in her books, your father in his work, your grandmother in her prayer and your grandfather in his music and you find it inside you. You wonder, sometimes, if Hogwarts would feel half as good as this.

When in Bombay: The one year later version.

When I was 12, I remember reading a blog post, a lot better than this one, about someone moving to New York and living in an apartment above a French restaurant where the music was always too loud and leftovers always ready to be picked up at throwaway prices. In that ode to the greatest city in the world, this is the only bit that has stayed with me over the years. I wondered if I could ever write about a city like that. I wondered if I would ever want to write about a city like that. I moved to Bombay last year, right after graduation, and I didn’t like the city. It was too crowded, too crouched, too expensive, too fast. It rained too much. One could never find a house here. There was so much that I didn’t like then.

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It has been more than a year now, enough time to sit and think about whether I like this city now. I think about the things that I learnt, the people that I met, the experiences that I had, and I am almost impressed with myself. One year back me would have been awe of this person who has successfully (almost) survived one year of adulting (Yes, ma, that’s an acceptable word now).

Most of it has to do with Bombay being the city that it is. I have come to realize that the things that I never understood about Bombay initially are the ones that impress me the most now. How does this city continue to function with heavy rains and bad infrastructure? Why does it function? Now, I am just in amazement of how the city does it. When I moved to Bombay, a friend said something which makes so much sense now, “If you can live in Bombay, you can live anywhere in the world.” Bombay makes you tough, it makes you a survivor, like the city itself.

It’s true that a city is made by the people, and I have met the strangest, nicest people here. Like the woman  with the smart card who I approached to buy me a train ticket so I wouldn’t have to stand in line, who didn’t take money from me, and wished me a very Merry Christmas. Morning made. Or the many cool, creative people who are all trying to make a difference because Bombay lets them. Or the 50+ banker couple I shared a table at a bar with once, and we all did a crossword together. Or my favourite book club members (BombayBYOB, join the group, guys!) who meet every fortnight without fail to discuss their favourite reads over cold coffee.

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You can watch a play, attend a stand up comedy gig/open mic poetry, or attend a book club meet in the same evening.

I remember how much I would crib about how dirty Bombay is, but now if I scroll down the gallery on my phone, all I have are pictures of sunsets, the sea during all times of the day, even the view from my cubicle (it’s a good view). Bombay is picturesque and dreamy, like everyone who lives here, maybe the city rubs off on the people, or maybe it’s the other way around.

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 It’s a good view.

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Christamas in Bandra is a photo series in itself.

Can I write an ode to this city? No. But can I search for a house in this city? Yes. It still rains too much though, but my office has an umbrella cover dispensing machine (it’s a real thing) and it makes for the most amusing start to the morning.

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Bombay from June-September.