By Mohsin Hamid
I am not a fan of Mohsin Hamid. I didn’t quite get the character of the Reluctant Fundamentalist and so couldn’t quite believe in its plot (Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier was a more credible and affecting exposition of a liberal Muslim turning fundamentalist, even though it wasn’t Nagarkar’s best work). And I could not get past the first fifty pages of Moth Smoke.
The title of Hamid’s latest though, was intriguing. And it does turn out to be the best of his three books, in my opinion. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not a story that’s not been told before. In fact, it so totally recalls Adiga’s White Tiger that you can’t but help compare the two. Both have protagonists that feed off South Asia’s liberalized economies and climb out of debilitating poverty to a measure of wealth unbelievable a generation ago. Both use forms of storytelling a tad too clever, but which make an already engaging story even more so. But it’s been a few years since we read Adiga. And so it comes to pass that Hamid’s latest has a certain freshness that takes you by surprise and a momentum that has you racing to the finish of its relatively short length.
The protagonist is unnamed. As is the country. It could as easily be India as Pakistan, New Delhi as Islamabad, Mumbai as Karachi. The story is told in the form of a self-help book, a parody of the innumerable ‘How to’ books that are so ubiquitous in bookshops today. And amazingly, Hamid manages to sustain a second person narrative through the entire book, without disconcerting the reader even a little bit. But what made the book for me, were nuggets of real insights into what makes for success or failure in our nations today. “There are forks on the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and in your case, the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like the fourth of you three surviving siblings, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree,” or “Meeting the gaze of a landlord has been a risky business in these parts for centuries, perhaps since the beginning of history. Recently some men have begun to do it. But they have beards and earn their keep in the seminaries.”
The story moves on predictably but interestingly. The protagonist joins the buzzing beehive that the country is now, becomes an entrepreneur, falls in love, keeps the love in abeyance, marries, befriends bureaucrats and politicians, uses a little help from the local mafia along the way, reaches the zenith and then slowly, inevitably begins the slide back down again. Yet however much he falls, Rising Asia ensures he never falls back into that penury from which he began. It is a narrative that despite the cruelty and occasional crudity of poverty, struggle and strife, has a certain gentleness to it. There is real love and tenderness, between parents and children, brother and sister, boy and girl, even between estranged husband and wife.
And that is where this book irrevocably diverges from Adiga’s White Tiger. The brutality and abiding anger of Balram Halwai is absent and so is the discomfort an average middle class Indian felt while reading White Tiger. This is a gentler book. And that perhaps is also the reason ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ won’t stay with me as long as White Tiger did. It still is, however, a very good read.