‘If people are not allowed to move, our countries will turn into prisons’

Across the globe, stories of exile, displacement, loss and fear surround us like a menacing background score. And yet, human beings continue to live and love and strive for some semblance of a decent world. It is this striving that runs through Mohsin Hamid ‘s new novel, Exit West. The Lahore-based writer spoke to Namita Devidayal about how we are living in an apartheid planet where passports have become the new markers of caste. But he is optimistic that this dangerous trend cannot be sustained

This is an important book for our times. Do you think a writer has an obligation to document such moments in history?

I don’t necessarily believe writers have an obligation. But this particular writer feels very engaged with the world around and with these issues. Someone like me who has migrated so many times in life — to California as a child and back to Pakistan, then America to study and Britain and back to Pakistan — shouldn’t exist if migration is prohibited. In terms of wanting to address this, I think one of the powers that storytelling has is to expand our sense of empathy towards people who are different from us, and to explore futures.

You have talked in the past about the difference between migration and immigration, where one is a natural flow and the other involves border controls and force. You seem to long for a world without borders. Please elaborate.

I think that in a couple of centuries people will look back at this moment in history and think that it is strange and primitive to discriminate against people on the basis of the country they happen to be born in, just as we think it is strange to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, colour and ethnicity, how they express themselves or whom they love. How can we say that everyone is equal but they have fundamentally different rights to move and travel? To me, that’s unsustainable. It will take time to get there, but eventually the movement towards human beings being equal is going to triumph. Of course, the fear of migrants is natural, we shouldn’t diminish it, but these are fears we have to combat.

What can we do to reverse this dangerous new trend?

We have to remember that this obsession with controlling borders is a very temporary moment in human history. Until the First World War, people used to travel all over the place without passports and visas. People move. They always have, and they are likely to continue. If we pretend that human beings are not going to move, we are going to turn our countries into prisons and police states that will eventually collapse. So my suggestion is that we create an environment of openness, even if very slowly.

You could have lived anywhere in the world, but you chose to come back to Lahore. Given how dangerous it has been, do you still feel you made the right decision?

When people read about Lahore they think it’s dangerous but actually Lahore is quite a bit safer than, say, Delhi. My friends in Delhi are much more afraid about crime than my friends in Lahore. In Lahore, dozens of people are killed due to terrorists every year. But in big cities in South Asia, hundreds or even thousands are murdered due to violent crimes. So Lahore might be dangerous compared to Geneva, but we don’t live in Geneva, we live in South Asia. A life that attempts to minimise all risk is a meaningless life. It’s a life without any interaction, without any engagement, and a repression of the human instinct. The people I love are in Lahore and I accept a certain amount of risk to be around them.

How do you feel being a Muslim in the world today?

I can’t answer that question. For me it’s an impossible request because it involves separating out different parts of one’s identity. How do you feel being a man in the world today? How do you feel having brown skin? How do you feel writing fiction today? How do you feel being a father? Or someone who loves sushi? Or someone who eats mostly vegetables? One’s identity is a very complex and multi-faceted thing and I feel differently in different places and different contexts. So I am very resistant to privileging one aspect of my identity. I am also very resistant to representing. I am just an observer and a storyteller and a human being and in that respect I feel anxious in the world today, but I also recognise that one has to resist that anxiety and articulate a kind of radical optimism. In my own way I am trying to begin to do that.

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