Migration and the Struggle with Choices in an Increasingly Unstable World: A Reading of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island



Rimi Nath

Dr. Rimi Nath is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, Meghalaya, India. Her research interests include Indian Writing in English, South Asian Literature, Partition Studies and Diaspora/ Migration Studies.


Mohsin Hamid and Amitav Ghosh’s concern with climate crisis, political instability or migration issue warnings regarding the exercise of choices in an increasingly unstable world. The novels of Hamid and Ghosh posit mass migration as a means of survival. In Exit West, Hamid portrays forced migration from an unnamed Islamic Republic, which itself is “swollen with refugees” (1). Hamid’s world is the twenty-first century, which sees mass migration from many underdeveloped countries to the West (or any place more stable). In Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, people migrate from the Sundarbans to Malayasia or Indonesia or other far-off places. Towards the end of the novel, a Blue Boat carrying refugees/ migrants to Italy becomes a focal point of concern. The paper examines the duality and contestation between the claims of the nativists, the migrants and the support groups as the migration scenario makes everyone foreign or that no one is foreign anymore. The paper questions how long can people remain migrants, and attempts to examine the struggle with choices as the characters are pushed to the edge where they are left with no choices or where choices are not always based on individual will. The paper also attempts to show how a constant sense of dislocation suspends identity formation and challenges the notion of ‘purity’ of race, nation or culture.

Keywords: Migration, climate crisis, political instability, identity, South Asia



     Today climate crisis looms large and overshadows other socio-political concerns. It would be imprudent to deny climate change and the ensuing global crisis (in terms of health, politics etc.) in order to maintain hierarchies of power, wealth or national status-quo. Migration trend from South Asia is predicted to escalate in the years to come. Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement (2016) holds that “the lack of a transitive connection between political mobilization, on the one hand, and global warming, on the other, is nowhere more evident than in the countries of South Asia, all of which are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change” (168). In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) and Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019), mass migration becomes a means of survival amidst the fears of crippling security arrangements and the sanctity of nations which in turn trigger riots, food crisis, vandalism and anti-immigrant policing. Taking into consideration the scenario of mass migration, the paper examines the position of the nativists, the migrants and the support groups. The paper questions the binary between a migrant and a native, in context, and examines the characters’ struggle with choices in an increasingly unstable world. The paper also engages with the question of identity and the notion of ‘purity’ that is attached to a nation, race or culture. The worldwide Coronavirus pandemic also brings in fresh perspectives on these subjects, and the paper attempts to engage with them.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: Doing Away with Choices

     In Hamid’s Exit West, the host societies view the Muslim migrants with increasing suspicion because of many factors, one of them being “with the War on Terror and the global migration crisis, Islam has become the recipient of a cruel apocalyptic affiliation in imperialist or post-imperialist countries such as England, France, and the U.S....” (Hurley & Sinykin 462). In her essay “The Migrant as Colonist: Dystopia and Apocalypse in the Literature of Mass Migration”, Nasia Anam notes how the anxiety about the resurgence of Islam goes back to centuries even prior to colonisation (653-677). Anam cites novels from Anglophone literary sphere which deal with the migrant crisis and where mass migration is seen as colonization in reverse. Hamid novel, Exit West, in depicting a world belonging to the twenty-first century, on the other hand, refutes this idea.

Told from the perspective of the migrants, Exit West chronicles the story of the lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who are escaping a conflict-ridden Muslim nation (an unnamed Islamic nation, which itself is struggling with refugees). Hamid paints a dystopia in his portrayal of an abyss just as Romesh Gunesekera paints a veiled Sri Lankan dystopia in his novel, Heaven’s Edge. The militants have increasingly taken to assault, shooting, planting bombs and capturing territories. Curfews are common. Many conspiracy theories are formed as people devise ways and means of moving out of the country. In Hamid’s Exit West militants have also formed rules on conduct and appearance and although Saeed exercises the choice of “a studiously maintained stubble” (1), and Nadia chooses a “flowing black robe” (1), their choice no longer remains a choice as they need to dress “in accordance with the rules on dress and he was bearded in accordance with the rules on beards and her hair was hidden in accordance with the rules on hair” (83). The militants also spread hatred and violence in the host countries to provoke reaction against migrants from other parts of the world. The migrants, in a way, are pushed to the edge.

 Nasia Anam in her essay imagines the Muslim nation in the novel to be “post-2011 Syria” (672). However, many instances in the novel also echo the images of war-torn Afghanistan as a probable location such as the description of militants arriving “from their bastions in the hills” (Hamid EW 48), ban on music echoing the Taliban regime, public/private executions and killing of “people of a particular sect” (79), echoing the persecution of the Hazaras]. It appears that Saeed and Nadia are left with no choices but to leave. Saeed and Nadia are a part of the globalised world. They (before leaving the country), apart from their respective jobs, attend evening classes “on corporate identity and product branding” (1). Social media and phone/ internet connections build another level of dependency in this technology-driven globalised society, where choices (physical/emotional) get curtailed in a nation when the government disrupts mobile signals as a “temporary anti-terrorism” (55) measure. People are left with no choices and they “felt marooned and alone and much more afraid” (55). Saeed and Nadia move from their homeland to Mykonos, to London and then to a new city of Marin. They experience difficulty in locating home away from ‘home’ as they keep moving from one country to another and hence identity formation (relating to nation and belonging) is suspended.

Migration trend from South Asia is predicted to escalate in the years to come owing to the socio-economic and political distress and distress due to climate crises, rapid growth in population (working-age) and remittance driven government policies (Nath 378). Exit West showcases the migration of a Tamil family (probably from Sri Lanka) to Dubai. Hamid in Exit West also describes most of the refugees as people of “many colours and hues but mostly falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea” (100). The migration scenario makes everyone foreign and the boundary between a native and a migrant gets blurred. The characters in the novel belonging to different nations seek asylum and appear in safer locations through magic portals. As Saeed and Nadia reach a building in London, they are amazed to see people from different parts of the world crowding the building – there are Nigerians, Somalis, people from Guatemala, Indonesia, Thailand, among other places.

That people are “migrants through time” (Hamid DC xvii) also gives a broader perspective on race, borders or nations – a perspective that we get from Saeed’s family’s occasional sky-gazing with the telescope, where they “take turns to look up at objects whose light, often, had been emitted before any of these three viewers had been born – light from other centuries, only now reaching Earth. Saeed’s father called this time-travel” (Hamid EW 14). Saeed gets gripped by a sense of loss as he prepares to depart. He mourns the scattering of his extended family and his friends which amounts to “the loss of a home, no less, of his home” (90). Nadia, on the other hand, seems ever ready to move (having moved out of her parents’ home long ago), to embark on an adventure, where nothing can tie her down. For Saeed’s father, home remains fixed in the past, in the memories of his dead wife (who has died an accidental death), as he refuses to accompany Saeed and Nadia. Migration “was both like dying and like being born” (98) and as Hamid puts it “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” (94), so when Saeed and Nadia leave their country, they leave with this sense of loss.

Saeed, in London, considers moving in with the people of his own country, whereas Nadia rejects any such nostalgia and feels comfortable attending the council meetings of the Nigerians in the building where they have put up. Saeed is moved by the words of his fellow countrymen who advocate unity along religious principles in a world where race, language and nation have lost all meanings. Saeed sees that those are not the words of the militants of his homeland and yet the gathering reminds him of the militants and “when he thought this he felt something rancid in himself, like he was rotting from within” (152-53). He constantly feels that he is left with no choice.

The nativist anxiety and backlash as depicted in the novel arise out of fear of colonisation, losing nationalist privileges and depletion of resources; and, thus, the rich countries were “building walls and fences and strengthening their borders, but seemingly to unsatisfactory effect” (71). Nasia Anam analyses, “at a more fundamental level than ideology, economics, or politics, it is the encroachment into European space – the inversion of European imperial expansion – that appears to prompt the violence of an epochal, apocalyptic reaction” (673). Exit West also shows how support groups and aid agencies are formed as volunteers come forward to deliver food and medicine. The novel showcases hope as does Amitav Ghosh’s recent novel, Gun Island. The world appears to fracture and come together at the same time – “Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory” (Hamid EW 155). Exit West also poses an important question – how long can a person be a migrant? The distinction between a native and a migrant dissolves and the futility of the nativist backlash also gets highlighted. Although it is not possible for conflicts to dissolve overnight, but people manage to survive; and as for the nativists, they too have considered facing the crisis with a lot of bravery, “for courage is demanded not to attack when afraid” (164).

Hamid notes the effects of climate change in this manner – “All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from other people too, people they had in some cases loved, as Nadia was slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia” (Hamid EW 211). The characters portrayed in Hamid’s Exit West are pushed to the edge where they are left with no choices or will. But as they begin to settle in, they start exercising their choices. Saeed carries the tendency of being increasingly drawn to people belonging to his homeland both in the labour camps and online. The further he moves away from home, the pull of home becomes even stronger for Saeed. He falls in love with the preacher’s daughter (in the city of Marin), whose mother is from Saeed’s country. For Nadia, her homeland is relegated to a dream of the past, “an era that for her was unambiguously gone” (187) and she exercises her choices in entering into a same sex relationship which is impossible from where she comes from. Through the novel, Hamid shows how human beings are bound by sorrows, by the transient nature of existence, which appeals for an inclusive society.

In Hamid’s Exit West, the closing and opening of doors can symbolically signify the “shadow lines” where borders are defied as well as enforced. The doors can stand as symbols of escape, of movement from the known to the unknown, a portal of imagination and of mockery that mocks the desires of individuals seeking escape. The scope of speculation and magic in doors is similar to invading the domain of social media. The undefined location in the novel from where Saeed and Nadia escape can also symbolically stand for irrelevance of nations, where the place can be any place. Windows are also symbolic, in the novel, of exposure, of fear, of death – “A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come” (68). The migrants jostle with the perception of being colonizers as they struggle to survive in their unstable world. The prolonged state of being a migrant in this scenario of conflict hardly allows them to exercise their choices, which in turn suspends identity formation. The ‘natives’ too jostle with their sense of identity as the distinction between a native and a migrant gradually diminishes.

Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island: Migration in an Unstable World

     Stories have a powerful role in shaping our understanding of the world, as Cinta in Gun Island puts it, “...only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence where nothing that is really important can be proven to exist – like love, or loyalty, or even the faculty that makes us turn around when we feel the gaze of a stranger or an animal. Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent beings speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us...” (127). Identities, like stories, are also fictional. Kwame Anthony Appiah, for instance, in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity emphasises on the fictional nature of identity. He considers how maps are drawn and redrawn and how nationalist claims that a people are a people because they share a common ancestry is imaginary. He questions, “But so does a family, to take the idea at its narrowest; and the whole species, at its widest, share its ancestry, too. In seeking nations, where should we draw the line?” (73-74). Amitav Ghosh grapples with these questions in The Shadow Lines and Gun Island. Piya says, “We’re in a new world now. No one knows where they belong any more, neither humans nor animals” (97). With irreversible climate change and large-scale international migration, one’s world and world view is bound to transform. It also needs to be accepted that migrants change the landscape of a place and the migrants’ presence means that “...its people and manners and ways and habits were undergoing considerable change” (Hamid EW 178).

Migrants in Italy, as mentioned in Gun Island, are mainly from Middle East, Africa, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (146). Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement writes:

Can anyone write about Venice any more without mentioning the aqua alta, when the waters of the lagoon swamp the city’s streets and courtyards? Nor can they ignore the relationship that this has with the fact that one of the languages most frequently heard in Venice is Bengali: the men who run the quaint little vegetable stalls and bake the pizzas and even play the accordion are largely Bangladeshi, many of them displaced by the same phenomenon that now threatens their adopted city – sea-level rise. (84)

    Human history has been a history of migration both in time and in space. The Bhola Cyclone (Nov 12, 1970) and the creation of Bangladesh (in 1971) have resulted in a steady stream of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to India. In Gun Island, Ghosh writes, “for several months people had been coming across the border, into India, in order to escape the political turmoil on the other side; now the flow turned into flood, bringing many more hungry mouths into a region that was already desperately short of food” (14). A book review on Gun Island states: 

Amitav Ghosh in the novel depicts how the hardships of living in the Sundarbans (lack of means of sustenance, natural disasters, impacts of climate change, etc.) are so grave that people pay traffickers to smuggle them to Malayasia or Indonesia or to far-off places. The people from these places are left with no choices. Even the animals are moving, as the marine biologist, Piya’s research shows. Her research involves tracking river dolphins that are facing strange fate and are fleeing the waters of Sundarbans. (Nath 141)

Deen, the protagonist of the novel, who is from Kolkata, settles in Brooklyn because of a personal tragedy (the death of the woman he has been in love with). His origin lies in Bangladesh as his parents and grandparents have moved to India in 1947. As Deen visits Kolkata one winter his life gets linked to the legend of the Gun Merchant and the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. The Gun Merchant, the protagonist of a folk legend, struggles with choices. He is pursued by the goddess as he has refused to become her devotee. “Plagued by snakes and pursued by droughts, famines, storms, and other calamities, he had fled overseas to escape the goddess’s wrath, finally taking refuge in a land where there were no serpents, a place called ‘Gun Island’ – Bonduk dwip” (Ghosh GI 16), but he has not been able to hide. He finally becomes a devotee and constructs a shrine for the goddess. Deen realises that the Gun Merchant’s misfortunes “were due to his own arrogance, and his conviction that he was rich enough and clever enough, to avoid paying deference to the forces represented by the goddess of snakes” (55-56). The natural world is being depleted because of man’s greed. The animal world too is left with no choice and is increasingly facing displacement.

In Gun Island, as Tipu (whom Deen meets in the Sundarbans, who gets bitten by a cobra and who is visited by unsettling premonitions) and Deen talk online, they converse about the notion of greed and the apocalypse. Tipu says, “...it’s not parasites we got inside of us, it’s greed! If that’s what a demon is, there’s no way it’s imaginary. Shit no! We’re all demons” (111). Deen responds, “You may be right, Tipu, but you know what? That’s really bad news, because according to Hindu mythology, when demons take over is when the world ends. There’s something called pralaya that happens – everything dissolves, even time. But it could happen in other ways too. The Zoroastrians say rivers of molten metal will flow over the earth. The Christians say death, disease, famine and war will bring the Apocalypse. The Incas thought it would start with earthquakes; Muslims say the oceans will burst forth and the dead will turn in their graves...” (111). Deen, Tipu, Piya, Cinta and everyone else in the novel have witnessed this unfolding of the catastrophic processes.

Deen finds out that the shrine of the goddess has been built around 1605 to 1690 (22) and with the help of Cinta he links the story of the Gun Merchant to the climate calamity of the seventeenth century (the Little Ice Age). The Gun Merchant has also been to Venice, fleeing the wrath of the Goddess. Cinta highlights that Venice “...was then the most cosmopolitan place in the world” (142). She insists that Deen must visit the getto of Venice – “Well, then you must come back to Venice – to Banadiq” (143). Cinta suspects that Bonduki Sadagar (Gun Merchant) is called Bonduki because of that; he must have stayed in the getto of Venice. Venice also happens to be the place where Deen encounters new possibilities. A refugee boat is finally rescued in Italy amidst the hostile response of the natives. Deen also finds a companion for himself, in Piya. Tipu’s reunion with Rafi is also a remarkable tale of bonding and the inexplicable forces of nature.

In Gun Island, a Blue Boat carrying refugees/ migrants becomes the core of media attention and the Blue Boat becomes symbolic of “everything that’s going wrong with the world – inequality, climate change, capitalism, corruption, the arms trade, the oil industry...” (199). It is remarkable that this group of migrants finds protection and support amidst increasing nativist backlash.


Pluralism seems fragile, as “a spumy wave of right-wing nationalism surges across Europe once more” (Appiah 104). Minority nationalism too shows no sign of losing steam. Will Kymlicka in Politics in the Vernacular analyses minority nationalisms and shows how it is not always illiberal, pre-modern or xenophobic (277). The question of a migrant has and will always remain in contestation with such nationalisms (both right wing nationalism and minority nationalism). On the other hand, culture cannot be conceived as a whole. It is hard to find a monolingual or monoreligious nation-state as all cultural practices are mobile. Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement puts it, “Where it concerns human beings, it is almost always true that the more anxiously we look for purity the more likely we are to come upon admixture and interbreeding” (145).

Freedom of choice is questioned in times of crisis and the Coronavirus pandemic that has spread across the globe by the beginning of 2020 gives a new perspective on these ideas. The limitlessness of choices is put into doubt and is resisted. Climate change also resists such notions of choices or freedom. In the world stage, it asks if it is possible to hold on to nativism and isolationism. The crisis, here, is also the crisis of possibilities and imagination. However, the world has also come together in this as Ghosh in The Great Derangement puts it: “The trouble, however, is that the contagion has already occurred, everywhere: the ongoing changes in the climate, and the perturbations that they will cause within nations, cannot be held at bay by reinforcing man-made boundaries. We are in an era when the body of the nation can no longer be conceived of as consisting only of a territorialized human population: its very sinews are now revealed to be intertwined with forces that cannot be confined by boundaries” (193). Yuval Noah Harari, in his article, “The World after Coronavirus” writes, “We can hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity” (Harari). Judith Butler in the article “Capitalism Has its Limits” discusses how Covid-19 pandemic isolates as well as calls for interdependence. The virus is not aware of boundaries or territories as national policies are. Butler discusses the myriad forms of inequality, capitalist exploitation, etc and writes – “The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia and capitalism” (Butler).

Mohsin Hamid and Amitav Ghosh portray migration as a means of survival, where the migrants are left with no choice. The pandemic too has left migrants with no choice, be it labour migrants or jobless migrants from overseas. Such dislocation suspends identity formation in terms of one’s sense of belongingness; and the distinctions between a native and migrant, national and global considerations stand contested.




Works Cited

Anam, Nasia. “The Migrant as Colonist: Dystopia and Apocalypse in the Literature of Mass Migration”. ASAP/ Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Sept. 2018), Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 653-677.  http://doi.org/10.1353/asa.2018.0043. Accessed 31 May 2019.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books, 2018.

Butler, Judith. “Capitalism Has its Limits”. Verso, March 30 2020. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits. Accessed 2 April, 2020.

Ghosh, Amitav. Gun Island. Penguin, 2019.

---. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Penguin, 2016.

Hamid, Mohsin. Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London. Penguin, 2014.

---. Exit West. Penguin, 2017.

Harari, Yuval Noah. “The World after Coronavirus”. Financial Times, March 20 2020.

https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75. Accessed 22 March 2020.

Hurley, Jessica & Dan Sinykin. “Apocalypse: Introduction”. ASAP/ Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Sept. 2018), Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 451-466. https://doi.org/10.1353/asa.2018.0034. Accessed 31 May 2019.

Kymlicka, Will. Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Nath, Rimi. “Introduction: South Asian Migration Updates”. The Age of Asian Migration: Continuity, Diversity and Susceptibility (Vol 1), edited by Yuk Wah Chan, David Haines and Jonathan H. X. Lee, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, pp. 374-381.

Nath, Rimi. “Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island: ‘A Mystery Beyond Memory’” (Book Review). English Forum: Journal of the Department of English, Vol. 7 (2019), Gauhati University Press, pp. 140-143.