Shambolic reality of rising Asia
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
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