A spare, taut tale of migrants in Asia’s exploding cities.
Mohsin Hamid’s new book pinpoints what most self-help books desperately lack: a sense of humour. Though, of course, you understand that How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not really a self-help book. “The idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one,” he warns us, before he proceeds to give us a cautionary tale, a disturbing narrative, of how many people get filthy rich in the subcontinent. Indeed it is an indictment of that much-touted entrepreneurship that often sits on a toxic bed of bribery, unethical practices and sometimes, guilt-free violence.
“Entrepreneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavour, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success,” he notes.
So where does the self-help bit come in? In a cunning literary device that Hamid uses to tell his tale, only to mock that perennially popular genre of literature. So you have chapters titled Get an Education, Don’t Fall in Love and Avoid Idealists, and you get a quick introduction to the subject at hand before the author goes his inventive way.
In another clever bit of craft, Hamid tells his story entirely in the second person. The protagonist is You, the reader is also You and sometimes the lines blur, but intriguingly and pleasurably.
Further, Hamid submerges his narrative in non-specificity. He names no one and no place. You have a father, brother and sister, his story moves from a village to a city to a megalopolis on the coast, he falls in love with ‘the pretty girl’ but marries a wife, has a son and works his way through an eventful life without dropping any names. His descriptions point to Lahore and Karachi, but there’s little that wouldn’t apply to Delhi and Mumbai, Bangkok or Djakarta.
Sounds confusing? Complicated? Not really. Gimmicky? Yes, but wonderfully original. Hamid makes it all work effortlessly with a narrative style that is spare, taut and goes close, very close to the bone. This is a triumph of craft — but not in that antiseptic technical sense — because it is coupled with powerful storytelling that is compressed to dazzlingly dramatic effect. A marriage leaps, unforeseen, in a single line. A brother dies quickly and quietly, a loved one leaves with little notice. A life is examined, a life story told, in depth and passion, in a mere 228 pages.
But there are times when Hamid lingers: often on the squalor of the unthinking urbanisation that seems endemic to the subcontinent. “Your city’s neglected pipes are cracking, the contents of underground water mains and sewers mingling, with the result that taps ... disgorge liquids that … reliably contain trace levels of feces and microorganisms capable of causing diarrhea, hepatitis, dysentery and typhoid.”
It is that poisonous mingling of liquids that facilitates the protagonist’s climb to prosperity. So You, after migrating to the city and delivering pirated DVDs and expired foodstuffs there, become a bottled water magnate.
But the village never really leaves You. “There is a whiff of home about you, emotionally, but also physically, for example, in your lack of deodorant, and for her [the pretty girl] home carries with it connotations of sorrow and brutality…”
It is the tale of millions of migrants who seek their fortunes in Asia’s exploding cities and yearn for happier symbols of what they’ve left behind. In our protagonist’s case, it is the pretty girl who haunts him through most of his life, slipping in and out of it tantalisingly. They accomplish a happy ending of sorts, but not one that they might have wished for themselves at the outset perhaps. Nor is it the kind of ending that a self-respecting self-help book would approve of. But then, the concept of self-help devolves around your individual definition of self. Like all good books, this one takes you deep inside yourself and if that is not help, what is?
This is a book that radiates an eerie beauty, that is much like and very different from the author’s earlier, much-acclaimed novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Can’t wait for the next.