5 December, 2022

Listack Rec: An Unnecessary Woman & How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

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, something it matter-of-factly states at the onset. 

“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.”

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, then quickly moves to advance of the storyline. By addressing the unnamed main character as “you”, the reader is immediately placed directly into the story while establishing the fundamental assumption that you as of yet know nothing, because you will be enlightened in the pages to come.

Yet the reader’s participation is one of the few givens in the book; other factors are intentionally left vague. 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. Cities, buildings, airports, other locations, go nameless; proper names are likewise non-existent:  the “you” in the story is accompanied by “the pretty girl”, “your father”, “the brigadier”, etc. Nor are they necessary.

This technique allows to story to be 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; seminal moments in “your” life are related 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, as with most endeavors, the journey towards success is far more compelling than the destination. Starting out, 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 with a simple change of scene, 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 devastating, 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” do experience struggle and gain and loss, albeit discussed in a subjunctive tense, a third person singular. This makes the actions no less true but joins the “you” with distance, allowing the reader to assume the leading role despite never having lived in a mud-walled house that consists of a single room, or having to watch your mother die from a lack of adequate care, nor having to hire a bodyguard when you decide to start pushing your enterprise into another businessman’s territory. And yet we can all relate to the insight into the human desire to be happy that forms the very basis of self-help the reader is supposedly seeking.

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.

— Sharon Browning