Back in college, I took a class called “Legacy of Asia” as part of my required “Upper General Education” classes. On the first day of class before the professor got there, students were milling around, some wondering if they should take it or get in at all. I happened to be sitting behind two girls who were talking about the class:
“So what countries is this class going to be about?” asked one.
“China, Japan, India..”
“India? India isn’t in Asia!”
Ah yes, India is in Asia, my friend! No, I didn’t actually say that. It was the first day of class and I didn’t want to come off as a smarmy know-it-all, losing any hope of fitting in right at the beginning of the semester.
A whole host of countries are considered in “Asian” even though most of us stateside don’t consider them as such. It is one of these countries that is represented in Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s new book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, just published through Penguin Books.
Although it only officially came out recently, this book has already garnered a lot of praise about the way Hamid wrote it- as a self-help book addressed to “you”, detailing all that the reader should do in order to become “filthy rich”, with chapters such as “Avoid Idealists”, “Work for Yourself”, and “Befriend a Bureaucrat”. The “You” as described in the book is the main character though, who starts off as a sickly kid in a village and who soon finds himself in the city. With each chapter comes a new stage in the main character’s life. Besides him, the only other character that is charted throughout the book is one called “pretty girl”, someone who the “you” becomes infatuated with as a teenager.
I admit, I was initially a bit wary of reading this book because I thought Mohsin Hamid’s last book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was only okay. That book featured a distinct narrative style as well, with the narrator talking in the first person to a random American (or was he random??) in Pakistan.
However, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia pulls off its narrative style and the reader will get drawn into the journey of the main character and his quest of becoming rich in rising Asia … after taking a chapter or two to get used to the book’s structure, that is.
Although never named, the city in Asia that the main character is in is thought to be Hamid’s hometown, Lahore, Pakistan. Yet, by not officially binding the setting to one setting, the book could easily take place anywhere in Asia. The main character’s profession is one that proves valuable as he provides clean water to city dwellers in a place where water-borne diseases run rampant. This “self-help” book is meant to help the main character become “filthy rich” as his clean water empire becomes grander.
Mohsin Hamid was on Fresh Air on NPR the past week, promoting his book in an interview and in it, Terry Gross had called the main character “unscrupulous” because of all that he does on his journey to become rich. I doubt she is the only one who thought so and Hamid probably meant for his to come across in that manner as well, but I couldn’t help but look at the main character differently, not as an immoral businessman, but as someone who gets caught up in the trajectory that seemed to be lit before him. Here was a person who had played with his sister as a child, who had cared for his parents, and who later exhibits a lot of love for his son. He wasn’t inherently a bad person. Some of the acts he committed, like skimming off of the top of the profits as a salesman when he was young, embracing violence, bribing bureaucrats, were almost expected as they were not practices he invoked but actual rules to get ahead. It’s sad, but he’s merely following the guide of how to properly compete in his city.
As I came to the end of the book (don’t worry, no spoilers), I felt a moment of regret as I looked upon the main the character with sympathy. Too often, we get caught up in what we all think we’re supposed to be doing, to try to make a lot of money for example, that we don’t get a chance to pause, look around, and to not just be appreciative of what we have, but to be content with it. This isn’t a new idea but with his pseudo self help book How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid helped out this Asian to think about, yet again, living in the present and what should be important in life.