By Amrita Bhatia
Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West’ had been sitting on my shelf since 2018, a gift from two friends on my birthday that year. In March 2020, exactly two years later, I finally picked it up, thanks to the lockdown. I was instantly hooked and finished reading it in two days — and I’m a sloooow reader. Weaving the increasingly-visible phenomenon of migration with magical realism, Hamid created doors — stepping through these doors would take one anywhere across the globe. In some ways, reading this idea play out in the novel seemed like a decent way to deal with the constant (ironic?) anxiety of being “stuck” at home (away from my university in another continent, where I was supposed to be). But with or without the pandemic-induced lockdowns, Hamid’s idea that “we are all migrants through time” even without physically migrating is a nuance of the book that set into motion far too many thoughts and reflections.
‘Exit West’ is the story of two people, Nadia and Saeed, sort of in love, who are confined to their places of work and their homes because of the violence in their city. We do not know which city this is set in, what caused the conflict, or for how long it has been going on. While Saeed lived with his father, is religious and more family-oriented, Nadia has left her familial home in another city and moved for work. She wears the “veil” to protect herself from men’s stares but does not care much for religion or religious practices. They are worlds apart but find solace in each other’s company. Everything and everyone in the story is nameless, except Nadia and Saeed. All we are told is that the conflict in their home is pushing people to take these magical doors to migrate to other “safer” cities, usually in the “West”. The discomfort of reading a story which shows the most comfortable way of travelling during global lockdowns and amidst a national humanitarian crisis is obvious — if we had these doors, things would be so much easier. This, of course, is a whole other discussion.
In an interview from 2017, Hamid mentioned that these doors could be metaphors not just for airplanes and trains, but also screens — the ease and quickness with which we video call each other could have been magical realism for our preceding generations. So, essentially, we are living in what would be a world with magical realism for our ancestors, with technological advancement and, as they call it, the world becoming smaller. What does this seemingly magical technology do for us today? We scroll through social media accounts far into the past, of ourselves, and of others, we dig out things from the “archives” and “re-post” with the likes of “on this day in 2014”. We remember, we reminisce, we notice the changes, we compare to our present self. In the book, technology is only touched upon as antennas on the phone, connecting people near and far. The story refrains from describing details of the time period it is set in, perhaps to expand its relatability, or in other words, so that the story may migrate across time and regions.
In this sense, Hamid’s doors are not limited only to transporting people physically, across space and geography. There are other nuances in the story. The destination is not only the other city but also the state of mind Nadia and Saeed hope to be in. They’re (un)blissfully unaware of what this entails and what the future will look like. They know they want to be free, be away from violence, feel safer — the uncertainty is less scary than their inevitable doom in their status quo. They have to leave their home and loved ones behind, but the benefit appears to outweigh the cost. Not a fair comparison, but this was something like my state of mind when I was at home, because my flight back to Geneva was cancelled. When I was reading their story, I was grateful for being with my family – safe, comfortable, and in my own home; however, even though the world seemed apocalyptic, all I wanted was to be where I was supposed to be. This was slightly unsettling — how do you deal with the desire to travel closer to uncertainty? What is it that pulls you away from home, even though it might throw you into adversity? The answers are probably within us.
(SPOILER ALERT!) We don’t need to wait for the end to realise that Nadia and Saeed have also changed through the course of ‘Exit West’, we see the micro-phases of their journey, and like our lives, slowly changing characters. Saeed’s behaviour begins to change somewhere in the middle of their journey; he becomes more obsessed with the culture he was born into, more religious, and refuses to change or adapt. He isn’t wrong in his ways, he’s just not like Nadia. Nadia begins to think and see the world differently, she wants to explore more, she embraces the multiculturalism of their constant movement, and even begins to find others attractive (including a woman). When they decide to separate, they’re entering into yet another phase of precariousness – but this risk does not hold them back. They go their separate ways. Nadia describes feeling more “alive” when she is alone in California. Their fundamental characteristics remain constant, Saeed chooses his home and its values, while Nadia flows where life takes her. But they think differently and take decisions they would not have taken earlier. Fear of the unknown was what kept them together for a few years, but as the fear faded, the courage to be independent enabled them to make these new decisions.
I realised it took me two years to get to reading this book. My friends had written a note to me on the first page, and as I read that note from 2018 in 2020, I realised I was no longer that same person. Perhaps specific fundamental characteristics remain the same, but I am no longer a carefree college student. That person was me, but today I am different, more responsible, more thoughtful, slightly more outgoing, perhaps a bit more cynical, and more “realistic”. In this sense, we are all constantly walking through doors. It is our experiences, circumstances and our intra and interpersonal relationships, that perhaps become doors through which we migrate, with or without a shift in spatiality or geography.
Nadia and Saeed’s journey begins in Mykonos, then London, and then to California. A few years later, at the end of the book, we find them back in their hometown (which, according to me, appears to be a close representation of one of Hamid’s homes, Lahore), supposedly after the fires of the conflict have burnt out. Nadia and Saeed travel to lands across the globe, together and separately, and finally, come back home but not as the same people.
This article was first released in the the Fall 2020 print issue of The Graduate Press, titled the “SURREAL / SURRÉALISTE” issue. Download the Fall 2020 print edition here.
Amrita is a former member of the Graduate Press Editorial Board. This article was originally published on her Medium.