Mohsin Hamid has spent years in the United States, holds a British passport and lives in his native Lahore, Pakistan – and all of the above are reflected in this moving and thought provoking page turner of a self help book turned novel – and vice versa.
It is, as the title reveals, a book about making it big in a changing world. It’s the story of an upward mobile “you” (it is a self help book after all) who rises from an impoverished childhood in a rural village in an unnamed country to becoming a successful city businessman and the high price this trajectory extolls along the way.
“You” have the good fortune of being the youngest of three and therefore able to finish school (your older brother is sent out to work and your sister married off).
“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 for your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to your village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means that you are not, like the fourth of you three surviving siblings, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree”.
Making the best of your able mind “you” quickly get a job selling expired goods to small vendors and soon after enter the business that will ultimately bring you fame and fortune – bottling boiled water and selling it on as mineral water. A lucrative business in a city – and country – where clean water is a precious commodity. Along the way you meet “the pretty girl” and while you believe that she is “the one”, she clearly has plans of her own and not afraid to do whatever it takes to eject her way out of her unhappy life. As a parallel story we get to follow “the pretty girl’s” rise to fame as a model and later successful business woman in her own right. Hamid offers – in a refreshingly matter of fact, yet very moving style, the two characters’ love story as it ebbs and flows throughout their lives.
How to get filthy rich in Rising Asia is a remarkable account of what it takes to make it in a world of rampant nepotism, corruption and poverty where only the most able – physically and emotionally – make it to the top. A story of what really matters in life (again, it is a self help book after all), a novel that describes “normal” life in many different variations, in a world we feel so familiar with from the news, yet it is vastly different from what we imagine.
Getting filthy rich in rising Asia is no easy feat – there are hardships to endure, many of which stem from living in a society that is not yet able to care for its people, in a country in constant political turmoil. Yet, Mohsin Hamid succeeds in infusing this elegant book with warmth and wit creating an understanding of and empathy with our main protagonists, even when the choices they make are far removed from those we could imagine ourselves making.
Towards the end of the book Hamid shares his thoughts on writing, on telling a life story, on how we search to explain through writing. I leave you with a passage from the book which so beautifully sums up the sense of the book, the elegance and the reality of it.
“Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone, and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.”