TABLE FOR TWO Mohsin Hamid talks about the craft of his new novel “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” over a “Japanese thali”
Mohsin Hamid finished his third and most recent novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia in a record time of six years. The first two, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist , took seven years each.
The process is metallurgical. “What usually happens is I write a draft in the first year or two and throw it away. I write another one, and then another, and throw it away. Three or four years into it, I eventually write something that’s half-decent and I don’t throw it away, and I work at it,” he says.
After the hundred indecisions and revisions, it is finally time for the taking of the proverbial toast and tea. We are at Pan Asian, Sheraton New Delhi Hotel’s Oriental specialty restaurant, in Saket, for a late lunch. Hamid is offered a fresh lime soda, but turns it down self-effacingly for a glass of water. “I’ll deliver when it comes to food,” he promises.
To the uninitiated, the elaborate menu can seem like code. Orders are deliberated with the help of the brief descriptions appended to each dish. Hamid opts for the sushi bento, comprising kobachi, the appetiser; chawan mushi, steamed egg custard; nigiri, six pieces of fish; yasai nimono, vegetables in a stew; and tempura moriwase, an assortment of seafood and vegetables.
“It is basically a Japanese thali ,” Hamid says, and the attendants seem to enjoy the joke. As we wait for the orders to arrive, he tells us that his new book began as a joke too. Confronted by the ubiquity of the self-help book, Hamid chose to caricature it by telling the story of the unnamed protagonist, addressed solely as ‘you’ by the narrator, and his journey from poverty to prosperity. In emotional terms, however, this journey is reversed; with each new acquisition adding a layer of loss to the fabric of the self. “I wanted to write a novel that builds a super structure of growth and casts a shadow of loss,” Hamid says.
While he doesn’t consider all self-help literature to be bogus, he observes that the help that they offer is often superficial, and incapable of transcending the self. For that, you have to look to the “older self-help forms that poets and mystics of all religions have explored since the beginning of time.” The commandment-like names of the chapters (“Move to the city”, “Get an education”) and the sermonic second person narrative allow the writer to consciously echo the method of religious instruction.
It also allows him to conflate the reader with the character, facilitating a greater degree of participation. “I like the idea that novels aren’t things you observe. You don’t watch a novel, you play a novel.”
Hamid calls himself an “everything person”. “I read from Asterix to Tolkien and literary fiction. I like everything from a nice dosa to sushi, from Thai and Vietnamese food to pasta and burritos. I am not a big red meat eater, but I like to eat widely.” He is not much of a cook though, and concedes it’s best left to those who know better.
Although he has visited India before, this was the first time Hamid entered on foot, via the Wagah border. “I think everybody should walk across it once. Because when you do, you’re like ‘this is so arbitrary.’It’s just a line painted on a street. I could exhaust a multiple entry visa in a few hops… And the crazy thing is, if we got in our car now and started driving, we’d get to Lahore by 9 O’ clock and we’d be having dinner in my house.”