Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reviewing Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

You are already a Mohsin Hamid fan, a fan of his threadbare, no frills, no scented language style of writing. You have, for the first time ever, pre-ordered a book, his How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. You have read about it elsewhere, on foreign newspaper sites and know that it uses the second person ‘you’ throughout the story. You remember that this style isn’t new, your other favoured author Chimananda Ngozi Adichie has used it in a short story. You think of Hamid’s cult second book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, that you read first in a hotel room in the foothills of the Himalayas and marveled at the style until you were told by a friend that another author’s lesser known book predated that one in that style. You then read that another author, Omair Ahmed, and fall in love with his writing. You realize that Hamid’s prose isn’t always new inventions in the fiction world. But it is his minimalistic style that still envelops poetic notes if you happen to read a sentence aloud. That is what never fails to hold your attention.

By now you develop a little fatigue for writing as you. I go back to being me to tell you what happens to the unnamed ‘you’, the hero of Hamid’s brilliant new How to Get Filthy Rich…It is interestingly placed in terms of its classification of genre. It is a fiction narrated like a self help book. In what by now is Hamid’s much quoted quote, the book begins with how self help books are something of an oxymoron; “you read a self help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.” For the rest of the pages, he goes on meticulously detailing everything that ‘you’ does to get rich, going back at the beginning of every chapter to talking about self help books, listing their qualities, calling them co-creative projects.

How to Get Filthy Rich…follows the life of ‘you’, a nameless, faceless person in a nameless village in a nameless country in Asia. You is sick when you first meet him in the book and is “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.” A series of chance events, in Asia you would blame fate for it, takes ‘you’ to the city, into a school, into college, into love. While there are no names for anybody, anything, you cannot help but place the story in rural Pakistan. Perhaps it is the author’s nationality that doesn’t let you imagine, co-create like Hamid calls it, any other country. Not even Bangladesh would fit the descriptions.

I find the chapter headings especially charming. In keeping with the tone of a self help book, Hamid calls attention to seemingly prosaic things like moving to the city, falling in love, rather advising not to, how to deal with idealists, politicians, bureaucrats and such like. Some are chillingly practical, you are told not to be an idealist yourself but lend support the ‘artists of war’, that’s the only direction to go up.

Our hero gets by selling expired goods with a non-expired sticker slapped on them. He gets by delivering pirated CDs. He briefly subscribes to fundamentalism because that funds his college education. His wealth comes from running a water packaging business. Along the way he finds himself the love of his life, marries someone else, has a son, loses everything and lives a full life by the time Hamid is done with him. The drama that follows his life is like a Bollywood theatrical that Asians could well relate to, it is a family saga, a story of grand love, sacrifice, revenge. But in Hamid’s language, there is masterful restraint that belies the theatrical to give you a story that seems completely new. He strips the novel of everything but the bare essentials, leaving you to fill in the details, letting you imagine and create your own book in the process.

In each of his three books, Hamid creates more a conceptual piece of art than just stopping at a good story. The story may not be unusual, any different from the dozens you have read, told or lived in, but in the manner of a Marquez book, it is for his brilliant reining in of language without succumbing to grand flourishes that make you want to return to his books again and again.

On Pakistani literature

Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, the fantastic Moth Smoke, was my first introduction to Pakistani literature. From that discovery onward, I almost blindly pick up every book by every other author from that country. There must be something about the conflict and turmoil there that makes the country produce such brilliant literature. Most contemporary writers seem to follow a self help book of sorts. They are upper middle class, they have studied abroad for many years, worked other jobs, then returned to settle down in Lahore and write columns for Dawn or Friday Times or comment on Pakistani society for the world media.

Here is a list of personal favourites. By no means is this a comprehensive list. I do not include Saadat Hasan Manto for the sole reason that his stories are possibly too much of a work of genius to be anything but a standalone recommendation.

* The Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif: Dry humour, satire, oodles of sarcasm and fantastic storytelling. It would be very hard not to love this book. The book leads up to the plane crash that killed the former president of Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq. A box of mangoes plays a very important role in the story. His second book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is another favourite. A third book called The Baloch Who is Not Missing and Others Who Are launched recently at the neighbour’s. Needless to say, I will be reading it when it launches here.

* The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: A nameless Pakistani launches on a monologue with an American in a café and there emerges his reactions to 9/11, a slow building up of rage and aggression that completes a story that is sad, yet almost frightening. A short story called A Beheading, published in Granta, is another must read.

* In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Muenuddin: The handsome farmer who returned to live and farm in rural Pakistan after many years of being a lawyer abroad writes his novel in a sweeping, intricate manner. These are short stories, seemingly different. But there is one character who makes an appearance in each story and once you finish the book and sit back, you wonder if it was one large story after all.

* Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi: Though a British citizen, Kureishi has a Pakistani father and hence gets to be on this list. The short novel is said to be semi-autobiographical and talks of one man’s dilemma as he prepares to leave his wife and two sons.

* Faiz Ahmad Faiz: Just for the sheer wonder that is his poetry.

A version of this story appeared in Talk magazine here.

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