There are books that make your heart ache as you flip through the final pages and put the book down. You always want to pick it up again, mindlessly flip through it, read some of your favorite paragraphs, and take some time to say goodbye to your favorite characters. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is one such. Sayanti Mukherjee ruminates…
EXIT WEST maps the journey of two young lovers Saeed and Nadia, who meet at a night class and are immediately attracted to each other. They are two normal people like you and me, humane and relatable. Saeed lives with his parents and is close to them while Nadia is estranged from her family and lives alone. Nadia wears a black robe, rides a motorcycle, yet she never prays. Later we learn why: “So that men don’t fuck with me.” Together, she and Saeed smoke hash, listen to music, and explore the world on social media. Aside from the occasional sparks of gunfire, their city feels familiar. However, while Saeed and Nadia’s relationship starts to strengthen, the city crumbles and falls to fundamentalist insurgents, with a sudden acceleration of violence, with gunshots raging at every nook and corner, and death reigning the horizons.
At a time when the city is almost torn apart, rumors start doing the rounds that these mysterious, hidden black doors have started emerging in the city. With some contacts and enough money these doors can take you out of the country, but never bring you back. No one really knew where these doors led to, but people were ready to take a chance. With little deliberation, the couple decides to leave. As Saeed’s father refuses to join them, Saeed in a moment of epiphany realizes, “but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
As a reader, for such a realistic environment, the inclusion of the concept of these ‘doors’ felt a little odd to begin with. However, Hamid beautifully explores the metaphorical door as a magical escape from a burdensome society into a world that promises better. Soon enough the ‘doors’ come to shape the narrative of the book. While staying close to Nadia and Saeed’s experience, it is through these ‘doors’ that Hamid casts a dim shadow of the experience of all refugees, of forced migration, and of people in transit.
While on one hand, Hamid explores the metaphorical concept of the ‘door’, on the other he charts the course of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship, in its highs and lows, outside the purview of an accepted sense of comfort. As the first flush of their infatuation gradually grows into a dependence, followed by the obvious ebbs of disenchantment, the couple keeps migrating from one country to another, searching for a place where they can feel a sense of belonging, where they can build a home.
It’s intriguing how Hamid’s narrative changes as the couple keeps exploring newer places. As their daily struggle to find a foothold wears them down, Hamid’s prose becomes heavy with insights from the internal feud of his characters and minimal dialogue. The narrative focusses on their ever-changing emotions and worldviews as they fight to find stability in their lives. However, not once does the narrative allow the reader’s attention to flicker, keeping them engaged the entire time despite the lack of direct conversations.
The novel captures the plight of refugees as they tread into the unknown, into an urgent account of war, love, and uncertainty. As Saaed and Nadia keep migrating from one place to another in search of a better world, the narrator reveals how “the whole planet was on the move, much of the global South headed to the global North, but also Southerners moving to other Southern places and Northerners moving to other Northern places.” Exit West might not be a novel that leads its characters into the promised land of beauty and glory, yet Hamid weaves his magic to keep their world from slipping into the dark pits of an imminent dystopia. Hamid exploits the power of fiction to elicit empathy from his readers as they join his chord to imagine a better world for them. While the changes were jarring they were not the end,” we’re told. “Life went on, and people found things to do.”
What is most interesting is how Hamid intertwines the experience of Saeed and Nadia with brief tales of different people across the globe, each a refugee, each searching for a home. An old man from Brazil crosses to Amsterdam, meets another old man, and helplessly falls in love. While contemplating suicide, a man in England comes across a portal to Namibia, where he remakes his life. An old woman from Sao Alto who had lived in the same house forever, suddenly finds herself in a markedly transformed neighborhood as it seemed to her that “she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.” Each of these short tales are used as potent tropes to reflect migration as a universal experience and as a story that never ends.
I had once read a travel blog where the traveller confesses that travelling is only a lure when there is a home to come back to. Without a home, you are a migrant, a tired traveller, travelling great expanses in search of your home. The struggle of a migrant to find a home is one that can take a life time to achieve. Yet Saeed and Nadia’s experience is not alien to us as Hamid goes about to show that “We are all migrants through time.”