As a reader, I am not particularly fond of the term ‘coming of age’. As a writer, I try not to use it at all because what can be more clichéd than using the phrase ‘coming of age’, but if one reads Mohsin Hamid’s latest book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” one is forced to use a term as corny as this.
Let me start by saying that there is no love lost between the author and I. I found his first book rather ordinary. Hamid was descriptive in Moth Smoke and his protagonist was odious, obsessive and had no redeeming qualities. He became introspective in The Reluctant Fundamentalist; the tone was improved greatly and the monologue in which the novella was written dominated the reader in such a way that it required great effort to see beyond the protagonist’s point of view. With ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ Hamid presented his readers with a prose that is beautiful, lyrical and profound.
Guardian called him Pakistani Fitzgerald – I would not call him that because the respect I have for Fitzgerald is the kind that is reserved for dead people who are way out of your league. Mohsin Hamid is not that – for starter, he is alive, a fellow countryman and much closer to me in age. But he sure is in a league of his own – heads and shoulders above most other sub continental writers who put far too much emphasis on the story and a lot less on nuance, tone and style.
The book is about an unnamed character that moves from an unnamed village to an unnamed city, attends an unnamed university and falls in love with another unnamed character in Rising Asia. The defining feature of this book perhaps is the fact that it is written in second person. The writer talks to ‘You’ in the book and you are not really sure if he is talking to ‘You’ the protagonist or ‘You’ – the reader. It engages the reader in a way that they feel like a part of the narration – at times even a character.
The appeal of the book lies in its style for its story is fairly common – there is rural urban migration, boy meets girls, boy falls for girl and of course there is that rags to riches element as well. The style transcends the story, its characters, its period and its location. The characters did not have names or addresses which gave the text a whimsical feel and brought the reader – no matter what their age, location or the reality is – closer to the protagonist.
The characters are believable, relatable and it was perhaps the only book I have read where I – the reader – had empathy for each and every character of the book for there were no heroes or villains. The woman who wanted to be with her husband in the city, the boy who was sent to work as an apprentice at a spray paint shop to supplement the family income, the girl who escaped her family, the boy who understood the loneliness of his widowed father, the widowed father who did not know what to do with all the spare time he had and the woman who wanted to win the affection of her husband and then completely lost interest in him are all real people – even the minor characters are dynamic and have many sides to them.
There are three main female characters in the book and though they all belonged to different generations and approached life differently, the common factor was that they were braver and ballsier than a lot of men around them. Women in Hamid’s book are such amazingly fierce and independent characters that you cant help but root for them – even when you do not agree with their course of action.
The book is more enjoyable because of its contradictions. This is a novel but it is written like a self-help book with appropriately titled chapters such as “Move to the City”, “Don’t fall in Love” and “Have an exit strategy” and it does not let go of any opportunity to mock the self help genre. It praises the vitality of youth but has just as tenderly dealt with old age, frailty and mortality. There is a subdued longing for a love that got away and admiration for a spouse in a marriage of convenience. There are dreams tinged with pragmatism and practicality laced with romance. It values the connection that a person has with his clansmen and with his land but it also appreciates the anonymity that comes with abandoning the roots and relocation to a bigger city.
Some books start well but loose the plot later, some peak in the middle and some have great ending. This one starts with a promise, maintains the momentum throughout and ends just as well as it started. Last paragraph of the last chapter has dealt with death not as something morose or romantic but as a transition that is keenly anticipated because the life before that death was well lived.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia satisfies a reader like very few books do. It is a love story; it has action, drama and elements of political thriller. Most refreshing is its moral ambiguity, everything that is produced in Pakistan is sermonized to the extent that all joy flies out of it, Hamid’s characters are as free of such restraints as they can be in Rising Asia.
The first lecture of Creative Writing 101 would tell you to write about what you know best. Most writers do that and excel, they deviate from what they know and do not do too well. For instance, Afghan American writer Khaled Hosseini was in great form in The Kite Runner because the book had traces of a life he has lived but he fell flat in A Thousand Splendid Suns and his characters became a sad combination of cliché and caricature – if that is even possible. Hamid is amazing because he is at his best when he writes about something that is quite far removed from his own life experiences. His background is urban and cosmopolitan – unlike his nameless protagonist – and he probably has never set a foot inside a public university in Pakistan where getting a room in the boys hostel means bowing down to the student wings of the political parties yet he nailed the details, the aspirations, the fears and the emotions perfectly.
Though a novel, ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ did become a self help book for me for it tells me how to write a poignant story and how to be ruthless with one’s own work because it is fairly obvious that the writer has written a lot more but chose to present his readers with this edited version. Such restraint is admirable in anyone but more so in a writer. I was a reluctant reader and read Mohsin Hamid’s first book three years after it came. He got me interested in his work with the second one and completely won me over with the latest offering. Needless to say, this one comes highly recommended.
Originally written for The Friday Times, this is the unedited version