How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, By Mohsin Hamid, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£14.99, 240 pages
If a novelist in India is asked, “Are you writing a new novel?” and the answer is “Yes”, the next question inevitably is, “Is it fiction or non-fiction?” The interrogator is being polite, not provocative; “fiction”, like the “novel”, is a buzzword in the globalised world, and can be used in conversation without reference to its meaning, as part of a larger conversation about advancement.
The domain of the imagination – so important to modern literatures like Urdu and Bengali – is largely an embarrassment to the anglophone south Asian novel reader. I once asked a man who came to many of my readings what his favourite books were. His list included Andre Agassi’s autobiography and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. “I look for books that help me how to live,” he told me. In this context, whether a book is a novel or a self-help manual might be beside the point.
Mohsin Hamid, who is Pakistani, knows this. He realises that if – as the critic Walter Benjamin pointed out in an essay on Baudelaire – the 19th-century reader wanted to see themselves in the new novel of the day (and this was true for south Asian readers too), the 21st-century reader is less interested in studying themselves in a mirror than finding a way of prospering in the world. Hamid explores this change through narrative means but also – given such a development anyway transposes the “novel” and “fiction” to a new domain – plays around with genre: specifically, the self-help manual.
The parody begins, of course, with the title itself. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is Hamid’s third novel, and his second attempt, following The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), to arrive at a name that’s at once unsettling, forceful in its impact, and more complex than it first seems. Both titles also hint at the anger that simmers in these novels, a disgust with the contemporary free-market world that is shaped into a formal order by Hamid’s considerable instincts as a craftsman. In the earlier novel, the author had explored the life of one who rejected the tyranny of American banking, money, and political power through the story of a Pakistani prospering at a US financial valuation consultancy (Hamid was himself a management consultant) who became disillusioned and returned to his homeland after 9/11.
In the new book, the protagonist moves in the opposite direction, from a village (the country, like the novel’s characters, is unnamed), where he is born the son of a cook, to the big city, where, again, he migrates from a slum to a posh neighbourhood, having progressed from delivering DVDs to selling water, becoming a fairly major player in the bottled water industry. The sort of poverty the protagonist resolved to escape is captured perfectly in deadpan but exact language. “Each morning your brother walks over the train tracks, using the crossing if it is open, or if it is not and the train is moving slowly, making a dash for it with the urchins for whom this activity is a game.” The sentences in the early chapters are marked by this exactness and agility, and bring to life the paradox of optimism in a life of limited means, something the purported author of the self-help manual, who addresses and hectors the protagonist in the second person, surely cannot understand.
Early on, while working at the DVD shop, the protagonist is drawn to a young woman who is only ever called “the pretty girl”. However, her “looks would not traditionally have been considered beautiful. No milky complexion, raven tresses, bountiful bosom, or soft, moon-like face for her.” She’s drawn to him too, and they continue to meet each other after immense, decades-spanning intervals. That this unnamed country is changing in both obvious and subtle ways is evident from the fact that this woman without a “milky complexion” should go on to become a moderately well-known model and actress, retiring as a businesswoman.
Hamid’s story is at once fable-like and existential. On the one hand, against the grain of common knowledge, and certainly that of the advice offered by the self-help manual at the beginning of each chapter, this novel shows that it is possible to prosper in Asia with a modicum of integrity. For the protagonist does believe: in his capacity for advancement; in the “pretty girl”; and, unfortunately, in his business partner. And yet, unlike most Asian men, poor or filthy rich – and in spite of having been close to his siblings and parents – the protagonist is alone, connected, as he finds out on a hospital bed, to nothing but the globalised world. “To be a man whose life requires being plugged into machines, multiple machines … is to experience the shock of an unseen network suddenly made physical, as a fly experiences a cobweb.”
In this second sense, the novel is a parable about a new kind of loneliness, a homelessness quite different from the one characteristic of the protagonist’s impoverished and uncertain beginnings, and one that few self-help manuals can banish.
Amit Chaudhuri is author of ‘Calcutta: Two Years in the City’ (Union)