Sham­bolic re­al­ity of ris­ing Asia

How to Get Filthy Rich in Ris­ing Asia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Zubrzy­cki

By Mohsin Hamid Hamish Hamil­ton, 240pp, $29.99

THIS is not your aver­age self-help book. Nor, by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, is it your aver­age novel. Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Ris­ing Asia is a fierce, fast-paced in­tru­sion into the lives of the anony­mous mil­lions in the lands to our north: the throb­bing, trou­bling and of­ten ter­ri­fy­ing coun­tries of the so-called Asian Cen­tury.

As an in­sight into the grimy un­der­world that makes th­ese so­ci­eties tick, this is a bril­liant piece of au­thor­ship and in­ves­ti­ga­tion. As with his pre­vi­ous novel, The Re­luc­tant Fun­da­men­tal­ist (2007), which was based around a con­ver­sa­tion in a La­hore cafe be­tween a jour­nal­ist and a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist, Hamid shows he is un­afraid of break­ing with lit­er­ary con­ven­tions.

The book is writ­ten al­most en­tirely in the sec­ond per­son and none of the char­ac­ters is ever re­ferred to by name. We never learn of our pro­tag­o­nist’s re­li­gion and his po­lit­i­cal views are only hinted at. Nor are any of the lo­ca­tions iden­ti­fied — but the ooz­ing slums and fes­ter­ing cities with their crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture are un­mis­tak­ably Pak­istani.

It is tempt­ing to draw com­par­isons be­tween Hamid’s novel and Kather­ine Boo’s re­cent mas­ter­ful non­fic­tion nar­ra­tive Be­hind the Beau­ti­ful Fore­vers, which de­scribes life in a Mum­bai slum, and Aravind Adiga’s un­flat­ter­ing por­trait of In­dia, The White Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. Both books broke new ground by de­mol­ish­ing our ro­man­ti­cised no­tions of Asia, our fix­a­tion on its bur­geon­ing mid­dle classes and its po­ten­tial as an eco­nomic pow­er­house about to over­turn the global eco­nomic sta­tus quo.

There is noth­ing re­motely ro­man­tic about Hamid’s ris­ing Asia. The world in which our name­less pro­tag­o­nist wheels and deals is sham­bolic and dis­turb­ing, a ‘‘ quiv­er­ing torso’’ where vi­o­lence lurks at ev­ery turn. To move up the greasy lad­der from servi­tude to suc­cess re­quires get­ting one’s hands, wrists and el­bows dirty while fend­ing off nu­mer­ous oth­ers wait­ing on ev­ery rung.

This is a world of il­le­gal African mi­grants run­ning gam­bling dens, of pimps and pri­vate armies. Hos­pi­tals don’t work, the po­lice are in­com­pe­tent and pol­i­tics is about lin­ing one’s purse. This is no place for the faint-hearted. Only the fittest will sur­vive — un­til their greed be­comes their un­do­ing.

Against this bleak back­drop Hamid has writ­ten an ut­terly com­pelling and ul­ti­mately up­lift­ing novel. There is not a sin­gle su­per­flu­ous sen­tence in this novella-length book — ev­ery word adds to the cre­ation of a rich and orig­i­nal por­trait of an ever-chang­ing but ul­ti­mately dystopian so­ci­ety.

Our first glimpse of our pro­tag­o­nist is as a jaun­diced child ly­ing un­der his mother’s cot in a vil­lage. Iron­i­cally it is this fevered con­di­tion that gives him his first break in life. His fa­ther works as a cook in the city and only vis­its his fam­ily three or four times a year. But see­ing the pre­car­i­ous state of his third-born son, he de­cides to take the fam­ily with him.

This is the first of many lucky breaks as mov­ing to the city, the self-help side to the story re­minds us, is the first step to get­ting filthy rich.

From work­ing as a de­liv­ery boy for a ped­dler of il­le­gally down­loaded DVDs, our pro­tag­o­nist rises to be­come a pur­veyor of re­branded ex­pired goods. He then moves into the drink­ing wa­ter busi­ness, boil­ing what drib­bles out of the mu­nic­i­pal tap and pass­ing it off as min­eral wa­ter.

Around him ris­ing Asia is rapidly trans­form­ing. What were once fields are now vast un­planned de­vel­op­ments: ‘‘ con­ve­nience stores, auto garages, scrap-me­tal deal­ers, un­reg­is­tered ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, fly-by- night den­tal clin­ics and mo­bile phone top-up and re­pair points, all fronting war­rens of hous­ing per­ilously un­re­sis­tant to earth­quakes, or even, for that mat­ter, tor­ren­tial rain’’.

He sees the ‘‘ hy­per­tro­phy­ing mid­dle class’’ bulging from the ‘‘ oth­er­wise scrawny body of the pop­u­la­tion like a teenager’s overde­vel­oped bi­cep’’.

Our pro­tag­o­nist, mean­while, has pro­gressed from rid­ing a bi­cy­cle to a hulk­ing and ‘‘ only slightly sec­ond­hand lux­ury SUV’’. His clients are now mem­bers of the mil­i­taryin­dus­trial com­plex mak­ing money out of erect­ing walled hous­ing es­tates for the elite.

For all its sup­pos­edly bound­less po­ten­tial, ris­ing Asia is a place be­set by fierce com­pe­ti­tion for dwin­dling nat­u­ral re­sources, crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture, mas­sive gaps be­tween the haves and have-nots and bru­tal au­thor­i­tar­ian power struc­tures.

As our pro­tag­o­nist dis­cov­ers, get­ting richer does not mean be­com­ing more im­mune from this dark side of the Asian dream. Money brings power and in­flu­ence but pro­tec­tion from your ri­vals comes at price. The bribes you

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