How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
First Edition: March 5, 2013
Mohsin Hamid, bestselling author of Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has recently released a marvelous third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Using a clever technique to express the narrator’s voice, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is patterned as a self-help book. Every chapter begins by establishing a platform for instruction – “Move to the City”, “Get an Education”, “Learn From a Master”, etc. – which begins with generalized advice given very conversationally, and then quickly moves into the advancement of the storyline. By addressing the unnamed main character as “you”, the reader is immediately placed in the story while establishing the acceptability that you as of yet know nothing, because you will be enlightened in the pages to come.
This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.
From the onset, the reader’s participation in the tale is a given – and that is really the only specific that is given. The country where the story is set never overtly revealed, other than it being in “rising Asia”. It could be India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, elsewhere. The cities mentioned go nameless; the names of buildings, airports, markets, are never revealed. Nor are they necessary. Proper names are likewise non-existent: the “you” in the story is accompanied by “the pretty girl”, “your father”, “your master”, “the brigadier”. Again, these are not necessary.
The story itself is crisp yet effective, jumping forward in time with each chapter as new subjects for self-help are introduced and the progression of the main character advances. This allows Mr. Hamid to relate seminal moments in “your” life, with no need for superfluous transitions or inactive prose. What is left, while not sparse, is succinct and engaging.
Although How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia uses the self-help genre as the hook, there is a pretty quick realization that, as with most endeavors, the journey is far more compelling than the destination. At the onset, there is little to suggest that the poverty, ill health and lack of opportunity in the modest rural community wherein the book opens will allow the boy (you) at the center of the tale to survive, let alone thrive. But within a few pages, a mother’s entreaties are heeded and the young family packs up and moves to the city. From there, a disposition to listen and learn, a fair amount of hustle, and a willingness to work within the system puts a young man (you) in positions where he can forward himself, occupationally and personally. At times the journey is hard, even horrifying, but it is constantly moving forward.
And it is a captivating journey, not just because of what it is, but also because of what it is not. It is not pretty or easy or graceful. It is not full of beauty or insight (other than what the self-help jargon dispenses at the start of each chapter). Sometimes the shrugged off images are horrific and the cast of supporting characters is petty and insubstantial. There is virtually no heroism here – but neither is there abject depravity. Instead, everyone is trying to survive, to make a living, to perhaps be better off than their parents and pass a better life on to their children, even if that means turning a blind eye to those struggling alongside them.
And yes, “you” experience struggle and gain and loss, but these are all handled somewhat dispassionately, discussed in a subjunctive tense, a third person singular, making the actions no less true but joining the “you” with distance. In this way the reader can actually take part in assuming the leading role, even if they have never lived in a mud-walled house that consists of a single room, or have not watched their mother die from a lack of adequate care, nor have ever had to hire a bodyguard when they decide to start pushing their enterprise into another businessman’s territory. Yet in this journey there is an undeniable sense of personal dignity and insight into the human desire to be happy, with which we can all relate.
While it would be easy to read this beautifully written book with a cynical mind, that would be a shame. Mr. Hamid astutely realizes that not every human endeavor is noble and not every injustice can be corrected or even challenged; sometimes the goal is to figure out how to use the system that is in place rather than trying to change the system. And that’s a story, whether triumphant or merely settled, whether indelibly Asian or resonating across cultures, that is still eminently worth telling, regardless of whether – or how – you become filthy rich in its wake.