God Help You!

Rags to riches is fine,but all we need is love

Written by Nandini Nair | Published: April 27, 2013 12:59:59 am

Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Author: Mohsin Hamid

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 228

Two-book-old Mohsin Hamid had already impressed readers and critics. With Moth Smoke (2000) and Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) he had proved his mastery of style,content and setting — that of Pakistan and Pakistanis. Both books scaled the realm between those born into wealth and those coming into wealth,whether it was the Pajero owner vs Suzuki owner in Moth Smoke or the newly-arrived Pakistani student in US vs the Upper East Side Erica in Reluctant Fundamentalist. In his latest offering,How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia he schools “you” in how to negotiate an unfair and exploitative system and forge ahead. Self-help books must carry a message,and the takeaway lesson of this one can be crunched into — you die alone comforted only by the knowledge that “you have loved”. Clever and interesting as this might be,How to lacks the authenticity,one might even say,excellence,of Hamid’s previous works. This is a good read,but from an author as feted and acclaimed as Hamid,one doesn’t expect little.

The book plots the life arc of a yellow-eyeballed you,inflicted with Hepatitis E,and cowering under a cot to a bottled-water baron you riding in the back of a limo with an armed guard. To get from here to there you follow a 12-step (i.e. chapter) programme,which includes ‘Move to the City’,‘Get an Education’,‘Avoid Idealists’,‘Be Prepared to Use Violence’ etc. etc,you get the drift. In the process,you will,of course,fall in love — with “pretty girl”,get married — not to pretty girl,spawn a child,lose love and then reclaim it. The narrative leaps across decades in your life,in one chapter you find yourself on the pretty girl’s roof in the next you hunch on the lumpy bed of a college leader. You are close to 40 in one chapter and after a few you turn 80. These sprints across time and gaps in the story provide an essential element of suspense and mystery,which keeps the reader guessing and invested.

In Reluctant Fundamentalist while you was an American stranger sitting across a cafe table,the you here is a shifting entity. It could be you the reader,you the teeming impoverished millions or it could be the author. Hamid masterfully exploits the slipperiness that a second-person narrative allows. And the changing you provides a perfect foil to an otherwise predictable rags-to-riches trajectory. For self-help books to work one must know the self. Through an unstable you,Hamid shows that the you is unknowable and thus self-help in itself is an oxymoron.

If the you can’t be easily identified neither can the location. “Rising Asia” the book jacket tells us,is a “place sizzling with energy,opportunity and inequality”. As a reader,one will gleefully troll for clues to identify the location. Does the “great city by the sea” where the pretty girl moves to refer to Karachi? Is an exclusive hotel,damaged and scaffolded because of a massive truck bomb,imply a hotel in Islamabad? At times one wishes Hamid had provided more than oblique clues for the location. An Everyman’s tale can work because of certain “universal” human characteristics but a place must be located in specifics. Everyplace exists only for a visitor and not a resident. ‘Africa is not a country’ just as Rising Asia is not a city.

The book sets itself up to be a self-help book in how to get filthy rich. But by the end it proves the impossibility of both ventures — it shows it is not the best of guides and even if one were to become filthy rich one cannot remain so in rising Asia. You must finally surrender to state and fate. A self-help book tries to exploit the unlimited capacity of the individual,it cheerleads you into believing (rightfully or not) that you can be what you set out to be. But here despite all resilience,ingenuity and some chicanery,an aspirant in rising Asia remains a pawn in a heedless social and political system. “States tug at us. States bend us. And tirelessly,states seek to determine our orbits,” our self-help guru warns,only to add,“There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort,forks that have to do with chance,and in your case,the order of your birth is one of these.” Is that what rising Asia wants to hear? That the attempts at self-improvement and self-scripting are futile? Is happiness to be found only in returning to ones roots and spurning wealth? Aren’t we stepping into maudlin and touchy-feely ground by presuming that only the posterity of love and literature matter,for everything else is too ephemeral?

The phrase “filthy rich” appears close to a dozen times in the book,providing its leitmotif. But the repetition hints more at a moral stance than an artistic device. The echo of “filthy rich” seems to chastise the aspiration and endeavour for money. And only those with wealth can afford the luxury of looking down and moralising to those who don’t have it.

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