By Wajahat Ali for The Atlantic
An interview with the author of the book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a novel that explores the quirks of modern South Asia
Fiction fans should be grateful Mohsin Hamid left his New York corporate cubicle to pursue his grand ambitions of becoming a novelist.
During his undergraduate Princeton days, the Pakistan-born writer honed his skills with creativewriting courses taught by Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. In 1993, at the age of 21, Hamid began his first work, Moth Smoke, the fatalistic story of Daru, an intelligent, frustrated, middle-class banker seeking entrance to the naval-gazing, materialistic power-web of the Lahori elite. Eventually published to acclaim in 2000, Moth Smoke heralded Hamid a rising star with a keen ear and mature understanding of modern, post-nuclear Pakistan.
His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007, caught the world’s attention and was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The brisk, intense, post 9-11 novel is a dramatic monologue told by Changez, an American-educated Pakistani Muslim, to a silent, unnamed American sitting in a Lahore café.
However, it seems Hamid’s latest, highly anticipated novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, has assured “his place as one of his generation’s most inventive and gifted writers,” according to theNew York Times‘ recent rave review. Although structured as a “self-help book” written entirely in the second person, the satirical journey of the protagonist, simply known as “You,” gradually evolves into a moving and hopeful meditation on mortality and a layered, empathetic dissection of an increasingly complex, modern South Asia.
I spoke to Hamid last month about his latest novel and life in Pakistan.
The book is written in the style of a self-help book with a great title, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which could almost pass off as a real book title in Delhi or Karachi. For your third novel, why’d you tackle this particular subject?
The story behind the title of the book comes from when I was with a friend, an editor of a literary magazine, in New York and we were talking about books. We’re talking about fiction and how it basically deals with “self-help” because we (as a society) think you should read a novel if it’s “good for you.” So we were laughing about that idea and I said, “Maybe I should be explicit about it and write a literary novel that is a self-help book.”
When I returned back to Pakistan, I couldn’t shake this idea that there is something vaguely “self-helpy” about literary fiction.
In writing literary fiction, you are trying to help yourself. And readers are going to literary fiction not just to be entertained, but because they feel something else will happen; that the experience will take them beyond themselves and show them something they haven’t seen before.
What started as an ironic joke became a serious proposition. Maybe this could work. As soon as I started writing it as a self-help book, I found it opened up lots of different ways to relate to the reader, to be honest with the reader about my motivations, and to examine reading and writing in a way that I hadn’t been able to do in my previous books.
And in regards to the title How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, it’s exactly what you said – those sorts of books are the ones people are reading in Karachi, Delhi, and Lahore. There are more self-help nonfiction books being read than literary fiction.
So, I’m willing to play with this idea. In a sense the book is about how to get filthy rich in rising Asia, but it also isn’t.
In South Asia, I’ve noticed that language is a differentiation between classes. English is worn like a Prada bag. The characters in the first two novels belong to the privileged class. How are these class divisions manifested in your novels and modern South Asia? It’s a theme that reoccurs in all your work.
I think there’s really strong social stratification in South Asia. I lived in California for part of my childhood, from 1974 to 1980, when my father was doing his PhD at Stanford. I spent formative years in America. I remember America at that time being much less stratified than compared to today. Now it feels there’s a wider and wider gap between those who are rich and poor. But even today America doesn’t come close to the level of stratification we see in South Asia. It is really overpowering here. People can move up, it’s not that they’re permanently stranded, but it’s enormously difficult.
When I first moved back to Pakistan in 1980, I came back at age 9, and I remember coming to my grandparents’ house. The first day back I went to my mom and asked are these people (the workers) slaves? She said no, they are servants.
The fact that I – by my American context – would have thought of them as slaves is revealing. To my 9 year old eyes I saw “slaves!” For me, it was shocking. And I’ve never lost that sense of shock when I look around at the society around me.
This shows up in all my fiction. The earlier books are really about middle class, upper middle guys, economically middle class guys who want to break into the rich, elite class.
This time, I wanted to take a bigger canvas in a way that sliced society into almost 12 different socio-economic levels: from “dirt poor” to ” village boy” to “quite poor city dweller” to “relatively poor” to “middle class entrepreneur” to ” middle class guy with his own business” to “well off guy”, etc., etc. I also wanted to chart a life to old age. I thought if I could chart Pakistani society up in terms of a life and socio economic categories, I could try to capture a bigger canvas of what a society looks like.
Novels that try to do this are usually huge, sprawling stories of hundreds and hundreds of pages. I didn’t want to write a huge book in part because it’s not my inclination and also smaller books are easier to get non-readers to read, and most people I know in Pakistan are non-readers of literary fiction.
I asked how I could take on such a big scope with a small scale, and that’s how I came up with the idea to follow this character through different slices, which would allow a small book to capture a bigger picture.
The book is also about getting older and me getting more experienced and feeling that I don’t just have to write from my own personal experiences. Realizing I’m getting more comfortable at writing about experiences I’ve seen but haven’t yet lived.
In the book you write “Getting an education is a running leap to becoming filthy rich in rising Asia.” The characters in your earlier novels nonetheless become victims of their environment despite having upper-middle class status or privilege. In this book, we chart the rise of a character from dirt poor beginnings to relative success. Unlike those novels, however, this one ends on a more hopeful note. What evoked the shift in tone?
It’s partly due to where I am in my own life. I was starting to feel that simply offering up a critique couldn’t be the entire project. You know I’m oversimplifying; my previous books weren’t just saying that things (in Pakistan) are screwed up. But early in the process of learning the writing craft, in a way, it’s easier to write something you think is of artistic value if it doesn’t have a happy ending. Because happiness is associated with cliché and superficiality.
But now I’m 41 years old
Also, there’s too much negativity and cynicism when talking about Pakistan. I didn’t want to ignore the very real problems in Pakistani society, and this novel talks about that, but I wanted to combine it with some element of hope, redemption
, and it’s important for me to inject that into the world, into my own life and into my own art.
That’s something I didn’t feel so much when I was younger. One other component of it is when I moved back to Pakistan I was able to see up close the real politicization of religion.
My grandparents used to pray five times a day, but they were quiet about their own thing. Completely liberal day by day; my grandmother was a social worker and my grandfather was an engineer, but they never talked about religion. My entire life I couldn’t remember one conversation I had with them about religion. But they prayed, they fasted and it was a deeply personal thing for them.
Now I feel this heavy politicization of religion happening in Pakistan, but in other countries as well, meaning that religion is no longer providing the basic, spiritual, comfort it used to give people. In a non-religious way I wanted to touch on those things.
Your last statement reminded me of an observation I had about your novels, in that they have always touched upon the role of religion in Pakistan. In Moth Smoke, the narrator’s encounter with religion is in the form of “the fundos.” In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator turns to religion as a form of empowerment and protest. In this novel, the narrator, although not practicing, accepts the presence and importance of spirituality and religion in influencing his surroundings. What’s your view on religion and specifically what should be Pakistan’s relationship with religion?
I feel I split religion into two components that are not entirely separate. One aspect of religion is a bigger, political, organizing group. Christians against Muslims; Muslims against Hindus; Hindus against Buddhists; Shias versus Sunnis; Catholics versus Protestants and so forth. I don’t have much interest, personally, in that aspect of religion. By nature, I’m not that inclined or sympathetic towards that type of group identification – whether it’s religion, racial, nationalistic or about what passport you hold.
Then there’s another side of religion, which deals with the fact that we are all going to die and people we love are going to die. That realization causes an enormous crisis for most of us. Since we have evolved, human beings have always tried to address this crisis. Either we say, “don’t worry something better is waiting for you (after death),” or there’s a saying of “don’t get too attached to this life – it’s transient.”
There are many different strands to these spiritual traditions, but I think those traditions arevaluable, not as dogma that “my religion is right and yours is wrong,” but as many different attempts to help people understand, explore, experience, transcend this crisis of being mortal, of being a human being.
I think organized religion is not the only way to address these things. People address this through art, by how they live their daily lives, through music, by taking care of their children or their parents; by falling in love. That collective project is interesting to me and I think it’s vital.
When you think about Pakistan and religion, my concern is this attempt by the state or various private actors to push the first type of religion – the differentiating “us versus them” program of “I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re my group and he’s not!” – which has many negative aspects that are often talked about, such as terrorism, violence, and extremism.
It has another negative aspect in that it pushes religion down a path that damages the second side of religion – the spiritual side. I do feel that is happening in Pakistan. This headlong rush in Pakistan has negative effects in that spirituality and decency have leached out of the culture due to the distortion of religion.
I want to avoid saying that religion just has a political component. And for Pakistan, that it should be founded as a nation with a separate religion from India, religion plays a deep, deep role.
But now it’s possible to imagine a Pakistan, 60 years after independence, that is not so hung up on the political dimension of religion. A Pakistan that allows religion to be at the mercy of its own people, and I don’t know if it’s happening, but I would like that to happen. There are some signs.
There seems to be a stark contrast in the depiction and perceptions between India and Pakistan. India, despite its own challenges, has bhangra, Bollywood, biryani, outsourcing and tech support. Pakistan is colored by bleak and depressing descriptions and cannot seem to escape a conversation without words like failed state, chaos, explosive or Taliban. You and a handful of writers have crossed the mainstream. Have you felt the burden of representation and do you feel you have a role and responsibility to present a more nuanced side of Pakistan and 180 million Pakistanis?
It’s something I try not to feel but probably do feel. I don’t think anyone as a person can be representative of (a people.) I’m not a representative of Pakistan; I’m just an example that Pakistanis are different from each other. I believe it in my fiction and I believe it personally. As you said, there are so many misconceptions about Pakistan that it’s easy to slip into the feeling that “I want to correct some of these misunderstandings,” but also not be a propagandist that says that “Pakistan is fantastic and it’s great!” There are very real troubling crises in Pakistan. But there’s also a vibrant and functioning society that is evolving and developing and changing in many ways.
So the challenge for me is to keep wearing down these overly simplified notions of what Pakistan is without being trying to be a Pakistan apologist or Pakistan propagandist. And I try to do that in my nonfiction as well, but very often people who come up to me in Pakistan or Pakistanis abroad say, “You only write negative things about Pakistan.”
Look, it may seem that way, but first of all I don’t think it’s true. You have to understand when you write about things like drinking, parties, people who have premarital sex – things some people see negatively if they want a canvas of Pakistan that is only a pure, wonderful place. But no one outside of Pakistan thinks this is a pure, wonderful place and I don’t think anyone in Pakistan thinks that either.
So, these so-called negative storylines supposedly reflect badly on Pakistan, but I think they actually reflect well on Pakistan because it shows Pakistan is a varied society producing artists, writers, musicians, actors, doctors, journalists who are representing many different aspects of Pakistan.
That’s a sign of a healthy society and not a sick one. It’s a fine line to walk.
What should be the role of the Pakistani artist in today’s sensitive climate? In Pakistan itself, does the artist have a function in addition to creating entertaining content?
As far as I’m concerned there’s way too much “should” in Pakistan already. You shouldn’t drink alcohol; you shouldn’t have pre-marital sex; you shouldn’t wear these types of clothes; you shouldn’t speak in this way, or follow that God or whatever.
In a country which has such a powerful set of often oppressive “shoulds” shoved down the throat 180 million people, a part of what artists do is reject the idea of “should” and create the art they want to create.
I think the gesture of human independence, of whimsy, and of idiosyncratic views of the world is what matters. This whole concept that an artist “should” do this, or “should” critique — I think artists should just be artists.
Some of them want to be political; some want to challenge orthodoxy and some won’t, but the overall project of art that is that of self-expression. In a place (like Pakistan) where many are fond of limiting self-expression, just the attempt at self-expression is invaluable.
The people in the arts are keeping these embers alive in this climate and trying to improve the overall atmosphere. For example, take the classical singing tradition – my wife is a classical singer and her teacher is one of the last old masters of this particular South Asian singing tradition. Now, it’s not like someday this tradition is going to sweep the country like wildfire. But, if he doesn’t teach, and he didn’t have students learning from him, then it’ll be gone when he, the ustad, dies.
The transmission of knowledge and artistic participation and people performing and creating art is a hugely important function in society. And there are daily attempts in Pakistan to stamp it out.
So the only “should” I have for Pakistani artists is that they “should” make art and that’s an important enough project. What they do politically and socially is up to them.
Often South Asian writers are asked this question: “What is it about the eastern culture that inspires you and will your work appeal to western audiences? As if there are these two monolithic cultural blocs in the world: the west and the east. How do you respond to this?
I don’t feel I have an Eastern group that people in the West don’t get.
I feel as a human being I can perceive humanly about things without being overly constrained about the notion of there being a “West” and an “East.”
When I wrote Moth Smoke part of I wanted to do was to write about Pakistan, a country where I grew up, through eyes that were partly American because I spent a lot of time there (in my youth.) I wanted to write about stuff I had seen growing up in Lahore, guys living in cities, doing drugs – you know, a contemporary novel.
Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are mirror images of each other in some ways. The former was a semi-Americanized gaze at a Pakistan and the latter was a semi-Pakistanized gaze at an America. It revealed both places weren’t as pure or different as one quite imagined them to be.
And this new novel was my attempt to transcend that entirely by not using any specific names. There’s no Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism. There’s no Layla or Majnoon or Romeo or Juliet. There are just human beings and cities and places and stuff that is going on.
That idea of trying to find universal human themes inside a specific context is more of what I find comfortable than looking for notions of what an “Eastern” thing or “Western” thing might be.
Today, you can find people in Pakistan who speak English, have tattoos and sideburns and walking in some funky way they’ve seen someone walk in an American movie. People in Britain are eating food that came from Pakistan. And people in America are listening to jazz with Turkish musicians who grew up in Istanbul – and people aren’t even thinking there’s anything strange going on.