Getting rich in rising Asia at a cost (Book Review)

Book: ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’; Author: Mohsin Hamid; Publisher: Penguin Books India; Pages: 228; Price: Rs.499.

Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistan-based author of best-selling novels like the ‘Moth’s Smoke’ and ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, shows what it means to get rich in a rising Asia in a new novel at a time when the developing economies in the region are straining to push up their GDP figures that have been slumping all too often.

‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’, released last week, uses the format of the self-help and motivation book as a literary device to tell the story of the third son of a cook who leaves his village to move to a city, falls in love with a pretty girl and sets up an industry. He becomes a entrepreneur and ‘filthy rich’.

Hamid takes his hero through 12 steps in 12 chapters to become a moneybag in a nameless city in South Asia that sizzles with energy, opportunity and inequality.

The writer says that he had initially started out with the idea that he was not going to name things and people because they mean certain things.

The idea of taking the names of the narrative – reminiscent of many avant garde writers like Lawrence Sterne, James Baldwin and James Joyce – is ‘liberating’ for Hamid.

The ingrained view is that South Asia is an ‘exotic place, a peculiar place and a central place – it is a colonial mindset’. It could have been any place – why not Lahore or Lagos? The writer explains his narrative without specifics, comparing it to the Sufi ghazals that he grew up with.

The songs invoking the nameless divine speaks to the listener or the exponent like the book that addresses the reader in a second-person narrative.

This is his third book and one inspired by the writer’s personal fortunes. ‘I had just become a father and I wanted to write a novel about the tri-generational life,’ Hamid said in the capital.

Generations are a way of life in Pakistan, where young men often live with their parents and elders like Hamid, who shares his home with his parents.

The young and old play a cat-and-mouse waiting game.

This inter-generational divide is captured in a vivid clash of body language in a domestic confrontation between the ‘saas’ and the ‘bahu’.

‘Your mother cleans the courtyard under the gaze of her mother-in-law. The old woman sits in the shadow, the edge of her shawl held in her mouth to conceal not her attributes of temptation but rather the lack of her teeth and looks on in unquenchable disapproval. Your mother is regarded in the compound as vain, arrogant and headstrong, and these accusations have bite, for they are all true. Your grandmother tells your mother she has missed a spot. Besides, she is toothless and holds a cloth between her lips, her words sound like she is spitting… The older woman waits for the younger woman to age.’

Hamid spotlights on the society in Pakistan’s middle-class fringe with refreshing psychoanalysis of the characters. But he punctuates his narrative and observations with sage advise that tends to sound like homilies at places, flagging in their intelligence like the scores of droll motivation manuals crowding the book-shelves.

‘…As far as getting rich is concerned, love can be an impediment. Yes, the pursuit of love and pursuit of wealth have much in common,’ Hamid fritters in cliches, robbing pace off the narrative.

The book ends with death of the rags-to-riches hero – surrounded by his ex-wife, son and a pretty girl that the hero had been in love as a teen.

Hamid touches upon new South Asian realities – broken hearts, failed marriages, culture of corruption, politics, lifestyle pressures on fast street and the perennial near-war edge that Pakistan balances on.

The writer says his book tries to bring out a ‘narrative of loss’ in a market of growth-based’ language that does not equip us for loss. ‘Throughout history, human civilisations have been a series of narratives that talk of loss,’ the writer said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])

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